The Confessions of a Number One Son: The Great Chinese American Novel
By Frank Chin, edited by Calvin McMillin (Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, 2015, 280 pp., $24, paperback, $45 cloth)
Calvin McMillin is to be commended for breathing life into a long-lost novel by Frank Chin, a writer who has been instrumental in shaping Asian American literature.
“The Confessions of a Number One Son,” although written more than four decades ago, is proof positive that Chin is a master wordsmith, whose prose brim with word plays, stream of consciousness and a cast of characters that only Chin could conjure up.
“Confessions” is a sequel to “The Chickencoop Chinaman,” and follows the adventures or rather, the misadventures of Golford Tam Lum.
The novel opens with Lum in Maui, after fleeing a failed marriage, a father he abhors and painful memories of his mother’s death in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Lum hitches up with a former nun and develops a strange friendship with her father, a has-been Hollywood white actor who portrayed the last Charlie Chan on the big screen.
Through the interactions of Lum, the last Charlie Chan and the ex-nun Lily, Chin challenges readers to re-evaluate conceptions of race, race relations and stereotypes. But perhaps Chin’s in-your-face style is the very reason he is not as celebrated by the mainstream literary world, as say, Maxine Hong Kingston or David Henry Hwang, two literary artists with whom Chin has been having a running feud with.
But readers shouldn’t expect “Confessions” to be the rantings of an angry writer, a public persona that Chin has nurtured over the years, mostly for publicity sakes. In “Confessions,” Chin takes the reader on a twisted trip, packed both with raunchy comedy and poignant tenderness.
Putting together the manuscript for “Confessions” was no small feat. Chin’s original manuscripts were in different stages of completion and stored in archives on opposite ends of the country.
When McMillin finally merged the different fragments of manuscripts together, it totaled 662 pages, which he, then, edited down with Chin’s blessings.
But as anyone who has worked with Chin knows, editing a Frank Chin piece is, in itself, a monumental task since Chin has a unique style and rhythm, but McMillin did an excellent job of keeping Chin’s writing intact while cutting out repetitions or segments that went nowhere.
McMillin should also be applauded for compiling one of the best biographical sketches of Chin, to date.
The publication of “Confessions” affirms Chin’s rightful place as a literary giant, not only within the confines of Asian American literature, but in the global literary world and will, hopefully, renew interest in Chin’s body of work, as a whole.