The Legend of Auntie Po
Pride Month is a wonderful time to take a closer look at some of the narratives by LGBTQIA+ authors and illustrators that share both a heavy focus on the experience of people with these identities and those that incorporate them more seamlessly into a story. As Pride coincides with Immigrant Heritage Month, it's the perfect time to read Shing Yin Khor's National Book Award finalist The Legend of Auntie Po. The graphic novel is a melding of historical fiction and a hand at myth-making. Khor's watercolor panels convey a story for young readers about thirteen-year-old Mei, who works in a logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas during the 1880s, the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Mei is Chinese American and has in many ways absorbed the culture in which she grew up, with Austen's Pride and Prejudice as her most beloved book. As the daughter of the camp's cook, Mei is witness to the racial injustices endured by the Chinese workers at the camp, who are treated very poorly compared to the White workers and are not even allowed to sit down to meals at the same time as these other men.
Mei and her father are in many ways lucky; they are friends with the family that runs the camp, and Mei has grown up alongside the daughter Bee, toward whom she is quietly developing an attraction. Nevertheless, she feels stifled by the reduced opportunities for her future that result from her Chinese American identity, facing the fact that unlike her beloved Bee, she may never be able to go to university and move beyond the kind of labor she does in the camp (though she does take pride in baking her delicious pies for the workers). Mei is also developing a heightened awareness of the struggles other minorities face as she witnesses the way they are treated in the logging camp and closest towns. Here, she shows a growing maturity, using her natural instincts for storytelling to offer respite and comfort.
Enter Auntie Po. Mei uses Paul Bunyan-style stories about a larger-than-life Chinese matriarch, Auntie Po, and her water buffalo Pei Pei, to connect to the past, offer comfort and entertainment to the children (and adults) in the camp, and carry her through her own most challenging moments. The young narrator's identity as the logging community's storyteller gives her a central role. At the same, though, Mei finds herself rebelling against Auntie Po for not being able to solve everything, for allowing so much pain and hardship to be endured by those around her. The Legend of Auntie Po is largely a story about story—how to craft one's future narrative, as well as how to use story as an enveloping shelter through the hardest times and a lifeline that connects community.
Part of the brilliance of the graphic novel is its subtle interweaving of Mei's relationship with Bee. There's no question about Mei's growing feelings for her best friend, yet it's far from the sole plotline of the book. Many narratives that handle sexual identity do so with a very heavy focus, but the reality is that coming to terms with one's sexuality is only part of who any one person is. If young readers in similar situations want to see their experiences reflected, sometime it's helpful to do so through a story wherein those kinds of experiences are more seamlessly tied in to a wider arc of growing up and coming to terms with the various challenges (and wonders) therein.
The Legend of Auntie Po conveys an experience of immigration that may also be relatable for many readers, while at the same time serving as a way to help children learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act. Khor shares resources for further learning and acknowledges the limitations of the book with a particular focus on the absence of the lack of indigenous peoples in the story, despite their presence in logging camps. They share that they felt the experience of these people was complex and not, ultimately, their story to tell, circling back once again to the central theme of the graphic novel—the very idea of story itself and who can and should tell or own certain stories. As a Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, Khor clearly feels more able or compelled to maintain a focus on this population in the novel. They share in their Author's Note, "Ultimately, where I took liberties with history, I chose to do so because when our histories have been repressed and our people were not deemed worthy enough to document, I feel that we have the obligation to return ourselves to the narrative. If history failed us, fiction will have to restore us." The Legend of Auntie Po, then, is in its truest sense an act of restoration.