Title: Donald Duk
Author: Frank Chin
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication Date: January 1991
Genre(s): Fiction, Middle-grade, Asian-American
Who would believe anyone named Donald Duk dances like Fred Astaire?
Donald Duk hates his name. Not only does he hate his name, but he hates his entire culture. The only thing Donald Duk cares about it dancing and becoming as great as Fred Astaire. He lives in Chinatown in San Francisco and goes to school with both white kids and Chinese kids — neither of which particularly like Donald Duk. His only friend is Arnold Azalea, a white boy who is fascinated by Donald’s culture. Donald is about to turn twelve, a very important age in Chinese culture, so this Chinese New Year is very important for him. But Donald is the only one in Chinatown who isn’t excited about the New Year and can’t understand what’s so good about being Chinese until he starts having dreams from the past…
So I’m being forced to take an Asian-American literature class this semester. Sadly, it is my only lit class. I’m not very familiar with this genre, so I’m excited to see if this class leaves a good impression on me. We started out with Donald Duk, so, obviously we’re not off to a great start. I was completely underwhelmed by this novel. Donald Duk is told in third-person and focuses on the Duk family. There wasn’t much of a plot. I mean, there was, but it was so poorly executed. Donald hates being Chinese — he totally hates his culture and thinks his family is nuts. Over the course of the novel, Donald has these dreams that slowly change his mind about the Chinese and he discovers himself and completes his character arc and all that jazz. But it’s so hard to follow. I didn’t know what was going on half the time. When his dreams first started, I had no idea why he was in one place and then randomly in another. The story just bounced back and forth really strangely and I kind of hated it. I really just thought the whole thing was boring. I understood the importance of the theme and the realness of Donald’s situation, but Chin did not do a good job of conveying his message. To be honest, I skimmed a good chunk of this novel and I’m not proud of that, but reading 2 pages seemed like reading 20. It was dull.
The Duk family is totally nuts. I mean, who names their character Donald Duk? And his dad is King Duk. His mom? Daisy Duk. So many puns… His sisters, Venus and Penelope, are twins and so obnoxiously similar it’s hard to differentiate. And let’s not forget Uncle Donald Duk, young Donald’s namesake. Basically the characters are really weird. Literally all the characters are weird. I don’t know. I didn’t really connect with anyone. And that’s typically an issue I have with novels about cultures other than mine. This is the same issue I faced with Native-American literature last semester when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I haven’t experienced these kinds of cultural issues, therefore I find it difficult to relate to the characters. Maybe that makes me a bad person for steering clear of that type of literature, but I enjoy reading something I can relate to. I like to be informed and read outside my comfort zone too, but I’m typically let down. Like with this. Or Sherman Alexie. To each his own.
I’d never heard of Frank Chin before reading this. According to his bio on Goodreads, “Chin is considered to be one of the pioneers in Asian American theatre,” which is really cool. I also find it interesting that he contributed to writing a book called The Big Aiiieeeee!. However, as of right now, I am not a fan. Sorry, Chin. I thought the writing was really disjointed and strange. It just seemed like the story jumped around a lot. I found a lot of grammatical errors as well… I don’t know if that’s just my copy or if Chin didn’t have a very good editor, but it was so distracting. Mainly, I’m just really glad to have finished this thing. I’m hoping that class discussion on Monday will change my mind and maybe I’ll see this novel in a better light, but as of right now, I never want to read it again. The only fun thing about reading this book is getting to tell people, “Yeah, I’m reading Donald Duk” and seeing their reactions.