She placed the sketchbook on the table before him, but held her hand on the cover. "I want to explain a few things before you look," she said eagerly. "What we're doing in Taiwan is trying to bring the Word of God to as many people as we can, young or old, men or women, whomever. But I really think, Vincent, that our best chance is with the teenagers. I mean, we should try for everyone, but the odds are better with adolescents because they already like things from America -- you know, movies and music, pop culture things, right?"
"Right," Vincent echoed.
"Well, one of the things they really enjoy are these things like comic books, except they're not just comic books, they're longer and more involved. They're called graphic novels and the idea came from Japan. The kids read them all the time and the bookstores in Taipei are just full of them. My idea is to create a Christian graphic novel for the youth of Taiwan."
She raised the cover to reveal a collage of neatly framed boxes. The illustrations within these boxes were as precise as her calligraphy. One displayed the outline of Taiwan drifting forlornly in the East China Sea. In the corner, a motherly faced angel gazed down on the island with gracious good intent. Every box contained a kindred symbol of Christianity, a glowing Bible or cross that radiated light into darker corners of the panel. Gloria flipped ahead to a vast and intricately designed illustration that occupied an entire page. "This is the big one," she said. "This is the one I've worked hardest on. When it's published, it'll take up two pages in the book."
Vincent's eyes descended first to the center of the drawing, a Chinese boy and girl standing beside each other with calm, purposeful expressions. One held a Bible, the other a cross. Standing behind them and resting one hand on each of their shoulders was a Caucasian woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gloria. It was a finely detailed likeness with one exception: instead of Gloria's true-life wooden demeanor, her cartoon twin had been granted a face of extraordinary articulation, the eyes wide and deeply etched, brimming with emotion, a smile both confident and supremely generous.
What remained of the drawing fell away into two halves. The right side featured a temple celebration that had escalated into a grimly frantic revelry of worship. Firepot flames were enhanced so that they twisted upward, casting discordant light onto garish sculptures of temple gods. The ceremony participants either paraded, Druidlike, between temple columns or stood on the periphery of the fire, their eyebrows canting downward in fierce concentration. The left half formed a mosaic of Taiwan's social ills: three prostitutes loitering outside a massage parlor, a drunken businessman slumped beside a cigarette vendor's cart, a gambler waving an angry fist at his pachinko machine. They all appeared as residents of a particularly corrupt neighborhood populated by street thugs and derelicts. On the corner of one cartoon avenue, Vincent spotted a white-robed Buddhist monk, his shoulders slumped in defeat, his forearms extended outward in tremulous self-doubt.
"Wow," Vincent whispered. His eyes drifted back to Gloria's radiant self-portrait. "This is really something, Gloria. This is, well...this is very strong stuff."
"You don't like it?" she asked stiffly. She shifted her weight away from him and reached out to close the sketchbook.
"It's not that," he said. "You're a really fine artist, but I've been to temples. I've seen celebrations with firepots, and it's not quite like this. I guess what I'm saying is the message is really strong."
"Well, don't you think the message needs to be strong?"
"I suppose you're right," Vincent conceded. He now had a taste of her contentiousness, a preview of what might easily become a strained, impersonal life with Gloria in the ministry house.
Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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