The Acknowledgment in the Celebration
For me, honoring Asian American Pacific Islander culture this month starts with considering some hard truths
Back on my old blog, I had a regular feature called “5 Things in No Particular Order,” which I often employed when I had lots of different thoughts bouncing around in my head and no interest or energy to pull them into a singularly coherent post. That is often also my state of mind when national tragedies strike—when pain, fear, and mourning make a mess of our thoughts and emotions and it feels important to say something . . . but what? That was my state of mind as I read about the shooting at an Atlanta spa that killed eight people, six of them women of Asian descent.1
A few days after that devastation, I shared the following five thoughts on Facebook—things I’m still thinking about and that I am sharing again here because May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Heritage month observances are meant to be uplifting and celebratory, and they should be, but we can’t properly uplift a culture without acknowledging its struggles and the ways in which we as a society have fallen short in terms of our empathy and understanding. So here are five things that went through my head in the wake of the Atlanta spa shooting, in no particular order.
Jenny Han, the writer of To All the Boys I've Loved Before and its sequels (and other books), was asked repeatedly by Hollywood producers that she allow them to cast a white actress in the starring role of the movie adaptation despite the fact that the series’ main character is Korean American. Han likely left money on the table in terms of her option to ensure that her character's identity was not erased.
The books that Dr. Seuss' estate voluntarily decided to stop publishing, thus sending Fox News and a whole lot of other people into a collective conniption, all featured anti-Asian caricatures.2
Growing up in Georgia, the slur I heard uttered in jokes and casual conversation most often didn't refer to African-Americans (although I heard that one too). It referred to Asians. Specifically, I remember in 8th grade watching Kristi Yamaguchi skate beautifully in the Olympics and then be referred to in a derogatory way by boys in my class, a derogatory way that was specific to her Asian identity.
We Latinos have our own set of slurs and jokes and anti-Asian biases that we have to confront if we're going to be true allies.
My heart goes out to all my friends who must deal not just with the news from Atlanta or the anti-Asian hate that this pandemic has brought to the surface, but also with the never-ending burden of "model minority" stereotypes that are harmful in big and small ways.
May Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb - Read in 2011 - Such a painfully long read that by the end the slog hardly seemed worth it and felt like a poor imitation of a John Irving novel. Lamb is a good writer, but he crammed about four books' worth of stuff in here. A little too much for me.
Currently on my night stand
Cloud and Walfish by Anne Nesbet - The odd name jumped out at me when I walked by it, perusing the young reader fiction section at the library with the 9-year-old. The description pulled me in: a boy travels behind the Iron Curtain with his parents under circumstances he doesn’t quite understand. I don’t know whether historical fiction that evokes a sense of place as grim as East Berlin in 1989 is common for the fourth to sixth grade set, but I certainly don’t remember reading anything like this at that age. I haven’t gotten far enough into it to really gauge whether the story will deliver on the promise of the first few chapters, but I’m feeling positive. A spy novel for kids based on real experiences, not fantasy? A treat, if it holds up.
What the kids are reading these days
Diary of a Pug by Kyla May - The 9-year-old ordered this from her school library on the recommendation of a classmate. I’m not exactly sure whether the friend actually said, “I think you will like this book!” or my kid just happened to notice that her friend was reading it. Either way, pugs are fun, and this one seems to be no exception.
Yasmin the Superhero Yasmin the Superhero by Saadia Faruqi (author) and Hatem Aly (illustrator) - This is part of a series featuring a Pakistani-American second-grader, the first of which is Meet Yasmin. The 6-year-old first saw the cover of this book on the homepage of the library website once when we were perusing it together, and immediately asked that we request it. This is the third time we have checked it out. Like me, this kid likes grabbing things that our trusted local librarians have chosen to highlight.
Recently Purchased/Borrowed from the Library
The Science of Rick and Morty by Matt Brady - I bought this for my husband’s birthday, but I’m interested in reading it myself. If you are not familiar with Rick and Morty . . . I don’t know whether to recommend it or not? A cartoon for adults about a sociopathic genius (Rick) and the grandson he loves to bully (Morty), it’s not for everyone and that’s putting it mildly. Still, it’s hilarious and science-y.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner - The writer spins an excellent celebrity profile, a lost art if ever there was one. This is her first book and an impulse pick from the staff recommendations shelf at the library.
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are a few titles by AAPI authors that I have read the last few years and my reviews. I didn’t love all of these books, but consider them all great ways to expand and diversify your to-read list and all worth reading. Click the links to buy the books from Asian-owned independent bookstores.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn - Compelling characters and beautiful, poetic writing are undone by a narrative structure that shifts in perspective so often it kept taking me out of the story. This method of storytelling has become common lately and each new book I read that features it makes me like it less. I am interested in reading more from this writer but in this particular novel, the elements don’t quite come together for me.3
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang - I got a bit of whiplash going from a modern romance in which the main characters touch each other maybe once before falling in love and deciding to get married to this one, in which the main characters spend what feels like entire chapters having sex. This story, about a poor Vietnamese woman and a rich but emotionally distant man on the spectrum whose family engineers her entrance into his life, convinced that he needs a wife, manages to touch on immigration, female empowerment, autism and cognitive difference, sexual agency, and the various ways in which people can communicate the fact that they love each other. If I didn't love it, it's because things come together a bit too hastily at the end, but it's more thought provoking than the average romance novel, which is always a good thing to be.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko - This story about a young Chinese mother desperate to leave circumstances that she can't quite seem to get around and the son so emotionally overwhelmed by her sudden disappearance from his life that he feels cursed by indecision and self-sabotage will break your heart in all kinds of ways. The writing is marvelous and painfully detailed. One particular moment, in which the son looks for himself in the reflection of a used soup spoon, is a perfect example of how the author spins a tragedy out of everyday moments. It's a story of immigration and, thus, of survival. It stares the hardness of a poor immigrant's journey in the face without flinching, making the book at times a tough read, but worth it.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - This books wrings all the emotions out of you like you're a wet towel, but in an oddly comforting way. I hated all the characters at various points in the plot, but by the end, the author—gently, firmly—found a way to make me love them and make me deeply sorry that I wouldn't get to see more of their future. A very fast read, wonderfully written and satisfying in surprising ways.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - This sprawling narrative about a Korean family in Japan spanning the 20th century is a beautiful and illuminating work about a country and an isolated community within it that I knew little about. As such, it opened my eyes to cultures and experiences in the way only the best books can. My favorite section, the years covering WWII, reminded me a bit of All The Light We Cannot See in the similar pattern in which it illustrates how humans can find beauty within circumstances of desperate survival. Once the story moves beyond these years, it loses a bit of steam. The author also makes time jumps that sometimes cut characters’ journeys off. These are small nits to pick, though. An enjoyable novel and easy to recommend.
Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee - This account about the life of Lucia, a woman with a serious mental illness, is gut-wrenching in multiple ways in that the author offers multiple perspectives as the story moves along. First, Lucia’s older sister who has cared for one family member or another her whole life and can’t seem to find another way to be, then the men in her life (one her husband and one the father of her child) who waver between wanting to be there for her and needing to address their own weaknesses. And finally Lucia in all her tapped and untapped brilliance. Each of them are frustrating narrators, none more than Lucia herself, but Lee also switches back and forth between first- and third-person narration. It feels somewhat exhausting but also a nod to the very illness that causes them all to question who Lucia is and what this sickness in her brain has made of their lives. Not a joyful read by any stretch, but there is joy and beauty in it. I think I might have liked it more if I had not read so many books recently that featured multiple narrators. Even so, it’s an affecting, emotional, very good read.
And finally, I will end with the subject of the first of my five thoughts above . . .
To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han - This book is an utter delight. It feels like the usual YA story of a quiet girl, Lara Jean, with a crush on the hot, popular boy with a boy-next-door/best friend waiting in the wings, but it surprises in big ways and small. It’s also about sisters, which spoke to me as I am one, and about being different both because you feel different and because you are (the protagonist is half Korean). I was a bookish girl who guarded her feelings once, and this book re-awakened what that felt like in ways few YA books manage. There’s also the fact that Lara Jean says the best Harry Potter book is the Prisoner of Azkaban, a TRUE FACT. I loved Lara Jean and, boy, did I love this book.
I have these books, having inherited them from a relative who was a teacher. There is no mistaking the intent of the content in question. It has no place in kids’ hands, minds or hearts.
This was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books last year.