Silence Yields Violence: Forms of Expression in American Son
Depictions of Asian Americans in mainstream culture tend to reinforce a stereotype of the silent, model minority. Said silence typically results from either a language barrier or the perception that silence equates to respectfulness and abhorrence of conflict. Media representations often give audiences an outside view of Asian American characters but fail to offer characters’ internal point of view. Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son counters these representations by centering his story around two Filipino American brothers living in Los Angeles and specifically narrating the novel from one of the brothers’, Gabe’s, point of view.
A reoccurring theme in the novel is Gabe’s excruciating silence during moments of conflict. Since the story is told through Gabe’s perspective, we gain access to his thoughts during these moments, in contrast to typical representations of Asian Americans. Roley forces readers to sit and endure these long, awkward moments, providing opportunity to observe the internal effects of navigating daily micro- and macro-aggressions. Roley’s novel warns that if minority groups, specifically Filipino Americans, cannot translate silence into a productive voice in moments of conflict, then violence serves as an alternative form of expression. Progressing through the story, we see how these moments of silence in the face of conflict accumulate and build tension that eventually erupts in the form of violence. This violence is presented as empowering in the short term, but ultimately leads the reader to see it as a dead-end solution. Roley stops short of presenting a fully fleshed out functional alternative response to silence, but leaves some passages that hint at some envisioned solutions.
Before delving into the novel’s main warning device, it is beneficial to consider why Roley has chosen to write about biracial Filipino American boys. There is the obvious reason that Roley himself is a multiracial Filipino who grew up in the Los Angeles area and thus this work likely has autobiographical underpinnings. But in addition, biracial Filipinos provide an ideal group to deal with issues of racial identity and manhood, as they generally lack a specific stereotype as often is assigned to other minority groups. This means that for Filipino Americans, there is still a cultural voice to be found, making the question of which outlet to direct the tension of silence into quite relevant.
The main event Roley uses to warn us about the outcomes of unresolved silence is the ordeal between Gabe’s family and the Feinsteins. Gabe’s mom, Ika, dents Ms. Feinstein’s Land Rover in the car line at Gabe’s school, which catalyzes a series of events that eventually climaxes in Gabe and Tomas going to the Feinsteins’ house and attacking Ben, the son. Roley highlights the moments where Gabe chooses to be silent and shows how these moments aggregate within Gabe, leading to the violent intimidation of Ben Feinstein. Gabe’s inability to turn his silence into a meaningful voice illustrates how individuals resort to violence as a way to express themselves when other means fail.
There are several specific instances in this context in which Gabe chooses silence over voicing his thoughts. These thoughts are laced with violence and Roley uses them as an example of how frustrations left pent up can snap into actual manifestations. The first instance is during the car incident, when he watches the yoga mom, Ms. Feinstein, verbally intimidate his mother. During the entire scene, Gabe never addresses his mother or the yoga mom. He does acknowledge that Ika is his mom to Jordan, another student – “That’s my mom I say…I just wanted to make sure you knew” (176); but he never once speaks up for his mother while she gets berated by the yoga mom. Instead he stands there as a silent observer, “And there is nothing I can do but stand there, close to the yoga mom. Her son, Ben, glances up at me, shifts on his feet, and though he seems embarrassed, fingering his stupid red vest, I’d like to put my ice pick through his cheek. My fingers jitter. I do not know what to do with them” (177). There are two main things to pick from this quote. First, we are in Gabe’s mind and as such we view events with his bias. To himself he thinks “And there is nothing I can do,” which implies that he thinks he has no choice in the matter. As readers, we understand that there are in fact other avenues besides standing in silence, such as speaking up on behalf of Ika and calling out the yoga mom’s aggressive remarks, like “I mean, really, some people” or especially “The idiots they let send their kids to school here…people who can’t afford insurance should ride the bus” (177-178). But Gabe only hears these remarks and feels like he has no choice but to stand there, which shows us that he is not even in a place to see that he can act on his own accord. The second thing we can take from this quote is the violent thought about stabbing Ben in the cheek with his ice pick. Note that Gabe’s anger is not directed at the yoga mom – he doesn’t say he’d like to put his ice pick through her cheek – even though she is the one verbally abusing Ika. Instead he directs his violent thought at Ben, which seems puzzling. Also, Gabe’s fingers jitter and he doesn’t know what to do with them, which is a physical manifestation of the tension his silence is building up within him.
The next moment of silencing his thoughts is during the repeated phone calls from the yoga mom demanding payment. Gabe notes, “I could have given our mother some advice or told the woman a few things but I sit in the corner very still with my arms crossed” (198-199). It is not clear why Gabe fails to speak up to help his mother and instead chooses to stay silent. However, this line hints at what was missing in Gabe during the previous moment, that Gabe is choosing to be silent. Here Roley is taking aim at some of the reasons why Asian Americans are silent and frames this passage in a way that critiques Gabe for his choice of inaction. Perhaps Roley is asking the inward-pointing question to the Asian American community, are there times when we choose silence that go on to cause further problems for us? There is also a time at school when Gabe runs into Ben in the hallway at school. “Once in the crowded hallway between periods he even says hello and I decide he cannot know anything but I feel like hurting him anyway, and have to take long walks to calm down” (200). Here again we see these violent thoughts rise to the top of his mind, but he does not discharge them in a productive expression of his anger. Instead we can sense them boiling inside him. In detailing all of these moments of tension, Roley highlights the many opportunities Gabe has to vent his frustrations by speaking up on behalf of his mom or having a conversation with Ben. But when Gabe does not voice his thoughts, we get to glimpse at what is motivating his silence or, in other words, what are the barriers to speaking up? There is the time where he chooses not to speak, but in others there seems to be an unnamed barrier. For instance, he thinks to himself, “I really want to say something to this woman, but for some reason I do not” (200). As readers, we are likely frustrated with Gabe for not breaking his silence. Roley plays on this frustration, asking us to figure out why we don’t speak up in situations of conflict, especially when we are given examples of what can happen when those emotions are bottle up.
Roley lays out this sequence of events to show how emotional tension, when unresolved, can build towards and motivate violent actions. Chances are when Gabe lets thoughts of violence stew, they are more likely to be carried out. Within the last few pages of the novel we see the actuation of violence. In the moments proceeding the brothers’ trip to the Feinstein house, Roley gives us a haunting line, foreshadowing what is to come. Gabe, speaking about Tomas, says “His face is silhouetted by the blue sky. Behind him a skywriter has left a trail of white clouds, the ghostlike etchings of blurred words I can no longer understand” (202-203). What more visible expression of words is there than literal writing in the sky? But Gabe cannot understand the words, for they are blurred like ghosts. The blurred words may represent Gabe’s attempts at communication, which have failed because they were not maintained and thus blown away in the wind. This also symbolizes Gabe’s later decision to give up on using words to voice his thoughts and instead resorting to violence.
We see the exact moment when his violent thoughts bubble over and switch to action. Tomas catalyzes this by prodding Gabe, “That’s the truck that bitch humiliated Mom in front of school about, right? The sun throbs hot against my temples. That pissed you off, didn’t it? I nod…Are you game? he says. Yeah” (210). Here there is no inner dialogue within Gabe’s mind about action versus inaction; it’s almost an automatic snap. The moments of silence that led to humiliation (even though the silence was usually self-inflicted) have pushed and pushed inside Gabe until the opportunity to act out presented itself, at which point he easily performed violence he likely could not have done before. To reinforce the role suppressed voices have in motivating violence, Roley inserts one last moment during the assault – “A couple of times in the past I have been with a small group of people when someone said a few smart-aleck things about me and Ben laughed even though I was older. But now he is respectful, his head bowed” (214). Roley also uses this line to show how violence can be empowering for Gabe. Once the subject of teasing, now he commands respect or rather fear. The next line also give us a sense of how violence empowers Gabe – “And though my stomach wrenches, I feel a rush not of anxiety but of confidence. In a scary way I realize I like it. Strangely, that only makes my stomach worse” (215). Though the violence makes him feel confident, Gabe knows he should be disturbed by his actions. This prompts us as readers to question the validity of violence as empowerment. The novel ends shortly thereafter, so Roley does not give us the consequences of the assault. The boys have gotten to take out their anger on Ben, but will that really prevent the yoga mom from demanding the eight-hundred dollars and Ika having to work another job? Have they not just opened another opportunity for their family to get hurt again, such as if the police get involved and the boys have to serve time? Roley declines to write what happens after, but it doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination for readers to see that in the end beating up and threatening Ben Feinstein does very little to change their overall future and even has the potential to make things worse for their family. Roley wants us to draw the conclusion that violence is empowering in the moment, but fails to yield meaningful change in the long run.
The next question to ask is if not violence, then what else? The majority of American Son does not spend its time exploring alternative, functional forms of responding to silence, but Roley does leave a few examples for us in the text. In one instance, we see Gabe finally speaking up for his mother at the make-up counter. Unfortunately, this scene still ends in misunderstanding and humiliation, partially because while Gabe speaks up, Ika does not. Here Roley could be implying that finding a functional voice is not only a personal endeavor, but also a communal one.
Another example is actually given through Tomas. Though Tomas is portrayed through the novel as the violent son who embarrasses his family, he also is able to take action in positive manners. In a situation similar to Gabe and the make-up counter, Tomas takes his mother’s ticket to the counter and gets her service when she had originally been passed over. He is also the one to speak up for Ika on the telephone with the yoga mom and who will likely help pay the debt. Though his dog training services are somewhat shady, it’s his job that helps pay the mortgage. Roley leaves these hints for readers to point at alternate solution to violence – that decisive, non-violent action is the place to start and that minority voices are stronger when spoken in unity. He then uses the fates of the Filipino brothers to warn readers of the consequences of pent up silence and to force us to question the barrier to speaking that we and others impose on ourselves.