Tag Archives: Thien Pham

Sumo by Thien Pham

SumoLast seen on bookshelves sharing cover credit with National Book Award-finalist Gene Luen Yang on Yang’s latest, Level Up, Thien Pham makes his solo debut with this slim heartbreaking-to-heart-recovering tale across continents and cultures.

“What am I doing here,” Scott wonders as he wakes to another day of strenuous training with mostly-naked behemoth men following the absolute orders of a tiny-in-comparison UCLA-sweatshirt-wearing master. Welcome to the world of sumo somewhere in Japan. After being dumped by his longtime girlfriend when his NFL career didn’t happen, Scott made a radical decision to move to the other side of the world and reinvent himself.

Now in his new life, he’s passing out regularly and tired of doing the dishes. He can cook a mean pot of nabe, the food of choice for his fellow wrestlers, although he only seems to get the leftovers. His one new friend is the master’s daughter, whose UCLA education explains both her English and her father’s sweatshirts: “Where I come from UCLA sweatshirts are like FUBU for Asians,” Scott explains to a speechless Asami. [I had to look up that acronym, and I can’t give you the translation here because I’m not allowed to use that sort of language in print, tsk tsk (but hee hee ho ho!).]

With his recently dyed-to-black hair (and his new Japanese name, Hakugei), Asami notices Scott is looking more like a rikishi, a professional sumo. But he’s got to prove himself and get to the next level. The most important tournament of his career is on … “You better decide now if you want this,” his master warns, “because … if you don’t … you should leave now.”

Pham creates a simple, resonating, colorful palette for Scott’s life – a rich earthy brown for sumo, a distant shadowy periwinkle for his past, a welcoming slightly minty green for the present – which all ultimately comes together on the final pages, a collage of potential and promise.

Oh, and that final page handprint with the two kanji characters? That’s Hakugei, Scott’s new moniker … literally ‘white whale.’ Hmmm … I’m just translating here …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Japanese, Vietnamese American

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham

National Book Award-finalist Gene Luen Yang‘s latest title is a collaboration with a fellow high school teacher Thien Pham: their obviously convivial partnership is evident even before their comic begins. “Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons,” their shared bubble announces at the top of the copyright page. How can we not chuckle along with that signature Asian self-awareness?

By implication, ‘bad Asian sons’ Yang and Pham spin a touching tale of Dennis Ouyang, a young man who must ultimately “level up” to gain control of his own life. At age 6, Dennis first glimpses video games. Yet in spite of his instant fascination, he watches but never plays out of respect for his struggling immigrant father who has had to “eat much bitterness” to provide for his family. Not until his father dies two weeks before Dennis’ high school graduation does he actually pick up a game controller … and then he can’t seem to stop. What he might lack in self-control, Dennis makes up for in pure, limitless gaming talent.

By junior year of college, Dennis’ academic probation becomes expulsion. But divine intervention (in the form of four helpful halo-ed cuties) materializes just in time to save his disastrous academic career: he’s not only reinstated, but he’s soon on his way (of course!) to med school.

Yet being the good son doesn’t necessarily make Dennis happy. Will he remain the filial son whom his bitter-eating father so longed for? Or will he frivolously become the ultimate gamer?

Level by level, Yang and Pham delve deeper into Dennis’ story – his troubling relationship with his late father, his interactions with his disappointed mother, his new friends with even more opinions on how he should live his life …

In addition to all the fun and games (literally!), Dennis’s story is also a potent examination of the intricacies of the uniquely Asian American parent/child relationship. Move over, Tiger Mother … prepare to meet true Destiny!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Vietnamese American