In 1852, 400 Chinese laborers in transit to the Americas mutinied against the white ship captain profiting from their transportation. Terrorized by British forces and accused of piracy by British and American courts, the rebels briefly won freedom, but never saw justice. Pairing a short graphic novel with academic essays, The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom surfaces a buried history of Chinese and South Asian labor exploitation that took place throughout the nineteenth-century colonial world.
Written by academics Jason Chang, Benjamin Barson, and Alexis Dudden and illustrated by Kim Inthavong, The Cargo Rebellion opens with a short comic narrating the historical development of the so-called “coolie trade” that saw Chinese and South Asian indentured laborers transported to the Americas under exploitative conditions that the authors characterize as human trafficking. The Robert Bowne mutiny is briefly recounted, as well as the subsequent international legal battle that pitted American and European systems of imperialism against Chinese efforts to combat trafficking.
The comic provides a clear overview of the political and economic context under which Asian unfree labor proliferated in the nineteenth century. Its text skews academic but is still accessible, elevated by Kim Inthavong’s emotive full-color art. The last pages connect the history of Asian American labor with the contemporary practices of transnational slavery and trafficking. The authors issue a call to action for readers to stand against a system of “racial capitalism” and work toward “a global ethics of de-objectification.”
Following the comic are three academic essays by Dudden, Chang, and Barson: a detailed discussion of the mutiny and its legal aftermath, best practices for teaching Asian indenture in the classroom, and a study of Afro-Asian culture in the United States through the lens of music history. The essays contain valuable information and ideas, but there seems to be a missed opportunity to use the comic format to bring some of this material to life—in particular, details of the mutiny and legal dispute might have added depth to the rebels’ narrative, and historiographical details would help explain why stories like the Robert Bowne mutiny are so hard to reconstruct.
A related pitfall of the essays is that they give the book a scholarly bent that makes it much less accessible to younger readers. High school students are unlikely to persist when they come to the denser academic text. Again, it feels like the graphic novel format is underused, specifically, its potential to draw in a larger audience.
Nevertheless, The Cargo Rebellion stands out as virtually the only publication by a non-academic press about nineteenth-century Asian labor trafficking. Its important subject matter makes this title a good fit for university libraries, as well as general adult nonfiction collections that emphasize Asian and Asian American history and social justice topics.
The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom By Jason Chang, Benjamin Barson, Alexis Dudden Art by Kim Inthavong PM Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781629639642
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: East Asian Character Representation: American, Chinese
Born in Japan and raised in the United States, high school graduate Nao has moved to Tokyo for a year to reconnect with her Japanese heritage. At Himawari House, a shared house for students, she befriends two fellow Japanese-language students: Hyejung from Korea and Tina from Singapore. Himawari House follows a year in the lives of the three young women, delivering a spirited, heartfelt slice-of-life story about friendships and identities that bridge cultures.
Stories about study abroad experiences often have a travelogue quality, but Himawari House emphasizes everyday life and relationships, never exoticizing its Japanese setting. This graphic novel centers on Nao, Hyejung, and Tina’s friendship, their bond a source of strength and humor as they navigate school, work, family, and romance. The three women have each come to Japan for different reasons—introspective Nao wants to rekindle her Japanese identity after a childhood of blending in with her white American peers, sensitive Hyejung desires independence after losing her sense of self to family obligations and a manipulative boyfriend, and fun-loving Tina craves direction and validation while working a demeaning waitressing job.
Himawari House celebrates connections forged across personal and cultural differences, whether that’s navigating a multicultural identity, communicating honestly with family members who hold different values, or pursuing romance across a language gap. The graphic novel interweaves profound questions of love, purpose, and identity with the mundane episodes of a year living away from home for the first time. We follow the characters as they work low-pay jobs, learn to cook, nurse crushes on celebrities, and find catharsis through a night of karaoke with friends. The threads of their stories capture the emotional intensity and sheer adventure of a being a newly independent young adult.
Creator Harmony Becker makes smart storytelling choices to reflect the diversity of the Asian and Asian diaspora cultures she portrays. Expressive monochromatic artwork blends Japanese manga conventions with a North American aesthetic, mirroring Nao’s bicultural heritage. The text itself is multilingual; speech bubbles with dual translation and missing or blurred-out words, paired with Japanese sound effects, represent the jarring experience of being immersed in an unfamiliar linguistic environment. Becker also uses phonetically-written language to represent the different dialects of English spoken in Himawari House, peppering conversations with Japanese, Korean, and Singlish vocabulary and sentence structures. In an afterword, the author explains that she chose to write dialogue phonetically as a celebration of Asian and Asian diaspora language, pushing back against the white tradition of reproducing Asian accents for pejorative comic effect. The effect is a story that feels authentically multilingual.
Just as Himawari House explores gaps and connections between cultures, the graphic novel itself bridges a divide between American comics about Japan, which have often centered a white audience, and Japanese manga aimed at a domestic Japanese audience. The result is a funny, sensitive, culturally rich coming of age story that will appeal both to young adult and adult readers.
Himawari House By Harmony Becker First Second, 2021 ISBN: 9781250235565 Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: East Asian Character Representation: Japanese-American, Korean, Singaporean
Stone Fruit, the debut graphic novel by comics artist Lee Lai, is a heartfelt story about two young women navigating the end of a relationship and the tension points between biological and chosen family. Lai does a marvelous job adapting the structure of young adult coming-of-age stories to the tumultuous years of our twenties, when many of us are still working out what kind of adults we hope to become.
This book centers on Ray, a young woman who’s part-time caretaker to her rambunctious young niece Nessie, and Bron, Ray’s fiercely imaginative, mentally ill girlfriend. Ray and Bron have decided to forge a life together, but their fresh start is complicated by existing family ties. For Ray, family means a strained relationship with her sister, Nessie’s mom, who is wary of Bron’s mental illness and perhaps her trans identity. Bron has her own complicated family of origin: religious conservative parents who have never fully accepted her as a trans woman, but also a younger sister who feels like Bron left her behind. When Bron decides to leave Ray and return home to her parents, both women find themselves reevaluating their familial relationships, unearthing trauma but also testing for the possibility of connection.
Stone Fruit feels like a novel that has the potential to be someone’s favorite book, appearing at the right moment for a reader facing any of the challenges that animate Ray and Bron’s lives: mental illness, a strained relationship with a sibling, an unexpected breakup, a first taste of aunthood. Though Stone Fruit is a breakup story, its melancholy is tempered by moments of joy and insight. Lai has a particular talent for capturing the mundane: life-altering conversations in nondescript restaurants; awkward breakups that end with running out into the street in your underwear; bad babysitting sessions powered by episodes of Peppa Pig. The understated storytelling meant that it took me a while to feel immersed in the story, but once I found my footing, I was deeply moved by this sharply observed snapshot of the human experience.
Lai’s art is terrific and will please fans of traditional media, with fluid brushwork and dreamy blue gouache. Simple four-panel pages put the emphasis on characters and text; the artwork is accomplished but never gets in the way of the narrative. Lai’s one bold artistic choice is her depiction of Ray, Bron, and Nessie during their babysitting romps—the three become monsters with reptilian skin and wicked teeth, a witchy image of female power that serves as a symbol for the kind of female-centered family that Ray and Bron want to create.
Stone Fruit is a strong choice for adult comics collections. I’d particularly recommend it to new adult readers looking for a narrative that speaks to their experiences; however, older adult readers will find just as much to enjoy here. Those purchasing for a young adult audience should be aware of the inclusion of nudity and a brief sex scene.
This title also delivers welcome representation of queer, trans, and Chinese diaspora experiences, adding breadth and inclusivity to graphic novel collections that have historically tended to exclude marginalized voices. Lai is a new voice to look out for, and her debut is well worth picking up.
Stone Fruit By Lee Lai Fantagraphics, 2021 ISBN: 9781683964261
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Australian, Canadian, East Asian, Trans Character Representation: Chinese, Queer, Trans, Ambiguous Mental Illness