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I thought I’d figured it out

February 1, 2008

cover of Girl Overboard by Justina Chen HeadleyAfter reading Justina Chen Headley‘s Girl Overboard, I was finally able to articulate exactly what my problem with most YA books involving Asian-American protagonists is. Too often, it seems like the protagonist’s race/ethnicity/culture matters only when it’s a problem.

The majority of books about Asian-Americans that I’ve read (or tried to read) seemed to me primarily about the protagonist’s identity as an Asian-American instead of being about a person trying to figure out they really are, with their ethnicity as part of their identity. I mean, they were books about people who were discriminated against, ashamed of their ethnicity and culture, or dealing with immigrant parents. They were books about characters who were Asian-American first, not books about a rich girl or a smart girl or girl in love, a girl who’s not struggling with her ethnicity but more universal concerns. Which is probably why I seem to be in the minority of bloggers who didn’t love Headley’s debut novel, Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies). Headley’s second novel has just been published, and while I didn’t love Girl Overboard either, I did really like it. And I’m sure this is largely because Syrah Cheng’s problems don’t stem from the fact that she’s Chinese-American, but because her father is a billionaire.

This does not mean culture is ignored, because it definitely isn’t. The fact that Syrah’s family is Chinese is an important part of the story and Headley doesn’t skimp on cultural details. But I can easily imagine a book about a rich white girl dealing with the same problems—powerful and neglectful parents, hateful half-siblings, a male best friend she might have more than friendly feelings for but is in danger losing anyway despite not doing anything about those feelings, and a dream of making a name for herself as more than just Rich Guy’s daughter. And to me, the essence of Girl Overboard has nothing to do with Syrah’s ethnicity. While their Chinese heritage is an intrinsic part of Syrah and her family, it’s not a problem she has to overcome. Girl Overboard is a story about a girl finding herself and an inner strength she never knew was there, and discovering that she’s not as alone as she thought. The problems with her parents aren’t your stereotypical Asian parent problems, but your more stereotypical rich parent problems. It just so happens that those parents happen to be Chinese.

So there I was, pleased that I was finally able to put my finger on what bothered me so much about other books when I read a book with a hapa protagonist about whom you could argue race was the cause of her problems. Or at least the cause of tension. And I ended up enjoying that book, too.

cover of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. SmithIn Sherri L. Smith‘s Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, Ana Shen’s grandparents don’t get along too well. Her Chinese-American father’s parents and African-American mother’s parents will eat together. Just don’t ask them to cook together. But when Ana’s best friend spontaneously invites Ana’s crush, (the Japanese-American!) Jamie Tabata, to dinner at Ana’s house, disaster looms. Both her grandmothers are accomplished cooks, so of course both must prepare dishes for dinner. After all, it’s not every day that you celebrate your graduation from eighth grade. Ana loves both her grandmothers, but the competition between them, especially on her Nai Nai’s (Chinese grandmother) side, makes things difficult for the entire family.

Besides the gentle humor, and the fact that food is a major part of the book, I think what made Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet work for me is that the tension is not so much within Ana, but 1) between her grandmothers, and 2) between Jamie Tabata’s father and, well, basically Ana’s entire family. There was a moment where Smith had me worried about the direction of the story, but it quickly passed and I was very relieved that my fears weren’t realized.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet takes place over the course of one afternoon, so the scope of the story is not as large as that of Girl Overboard. I think this is the main reason I liked Girl Overboard more than Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, but as different as the two books are, I still enjoyed and would recommend them both.

I suppose what I said at the beginning, that Asian-American protagonists’ race/ethnicity/culture seeming to matter only when it’s a problem, is still true, at least among books I’ve tried to read in the past. But I’m glad that I found a book where this is not the case, as well as a book I enjoyed, arguably despite this. I’ve got three more books I’m looking forward to reading with Asian-American protagonists (all about girls. Where are the books with Asian-American guys as protagonists?), so I really hope this trend of me being able to actually finish and enjoy these books continues.

If you’re looking for an actual review of Girl Overboard, head on over to Jen Robinson’s Book Page, Dear Author, or Bookshelves of Doom. Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet has been reviewed by Little Willow.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2008 1:17 am

    As always I love your thoughtful take on your novels. I’ve just finished the Smith novel and we have the author onsite in a couple of weeks, so I’m glad people are reading and talking about the biracial issues. BOY, was that novel tense. I, too, wondered where the heck we were going at some points, but she pulled it off.

  2. February 3, 2008 2:15 pm

    Christopher Golden’s next novel for teens, POISON INK, has five very different main girls – different personalities, different appearances, different races.

    Have you read his Body of Evidence mystery series? All ages and many races represented without it feeling forced or phony. In fact, racial prejudice is a big factor in the BoE book SKIN DEEP, and the main character defends her relationship with a boy of another race.

  3. February 4, 2008 11:33 am

    [snip] The majority of books about Asian-Americans that I’ve read (or tried to read) seemed to me primarily about the protagonist’s identity as an Asian-American instead of being about a person trying to figure out they really are, with their ethnicity as part of their identity… [/snip]

    Hi Trisha, just trying to follow. Did you mean that you don’t like Asian Pacific American teens being used as such an obvious device to tell a story? Or that writers only write about the bad parts of being APA instead of highlighting the good assets too?

    Anyhow, I haven’t read the two you mentioned above yet (but will), but a good teen story with an APA antagonist is As Good As Lily / Derek Kirk Kim (I love this guy) and Jesse Hamm.

  4. February 4, 2008 12:57 pm

    Mona – I meant that I’d like to see more variety in the depictions of Asian-Americans. I can understand why it’s important to have *some* books in which the protagonist needs to come to terms with his/her identity as an Asian-American or must overcome racism, but why does it seem like it’s the plot of most books about Asian-American teens? I think it’s also important to have books about teens who don’t see their heritage as an issue or problem. I’m not asking for books to portray “good” assets, though that would be nice, but I basically want to see books in which being Asian-American and/or dealing with immigrant parents (two separate issues, I know, but the latter seems to appear a lot in books about Asian-Americans) is not a problem. Not sure this clarifies things… I guess, yeah, if you consider racism or coming to terms with your heritage a plot device, then I don’t care for it.

    TadMack – Thanks! We’ll also have Sherri L. Smith here with a guest post. And I have to say, when it comes to biracial issues and grandparents, I liked Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet a lot better than Namioka’s Mismatch.

    Little Willow – Yeah, I did read the Body of Evidence series. I always wanted Jenna to get together with Detective Danny, though. Will keep an eye out for Poison Ink.

  5. February 5, 2008 12:51 pm

    Mona – I was reading GalleyCat this morning and Ron Hogan says it better than me: “my second grade classmates and I were by no means unaware of our ethnic differences, but we were also so thoroughly immersed in each other’s cultures on a daily basis…that those differences never really concerned us much.”

    This is what I want to read about. It was my experience as well, and I’m sure it’s why I have such problems with books in which racial/ethnic/cultural identity is the main issue. I don’t need good assets, just race/ethnicity/culture as an accepted part of the protagonist’s identity. I think Headley did this really well in Girl Overboard and I would love to see more books like it. (I also think it’s noteworthy that most reviews I’ve seen of it barely mention the fact that Syrah is Chinese at all, which I hope lends credence to my opinion that the book is not about race but a Chinese-American teen, and that the book description itself only implies that she’s Chinese through her father’s surname. )

  6. mona permalink
    February 5, 2008 3:36 pm

    i think i’m understand better. i can’t think of any right now, but i recall a lot of APA stories being set in an environment where the antagonist is a minority and (usually) she is trying to accept her heritage yet fit in with her peers. personally i don’t relate to this kind of story, because for whatever reason i never rejected my “korean-ness,” hid it, or fought with my parents over it. and back then i had friends that spoke mandarin, tagalog, and korean at home. i didn’t feel special that i had immigrant parents, but i think i chose kids like me (1.5 or 2nd gen) for friends because it was easier to relate.

    i would like to see more ya books written about some of the other issues asian teens have growing up in the u.s.

  7. February 11, 2008 4:26 pm

    Trisha, thanks for the kind read. I have to chime in here, as the author of Hot Sour Salty Sweet. I understand what you mean about Asian characters being featured in “problem” stories rather than just stories. Its a problem all minority characters have faced at some point. I wrote HSSS intially because my in-laws said our kids would have problems because they were mixed (I’m black, my hubs is Chinese) and I begged to differ.

    That said, I do try to be inclusive in my characters. My first novel’s heroine is part Alaskan Native American, part Caucasian, which is not the focus of the story. However, I did receive some criticism because the character was abandoned by her Native American parent– which was seen as derogatory, instead of a specific character flaw. Furthermore, I was told I should have “known better” as I am a person of color myself. It makes one hesitate to write outside of their own experience, which is a shame.

    Two books with an Asian protagonist that I enjoyed were Little Sister and The Heavenward Path by Kara Dalkey. Those are historical books set in Japan, and one might argue that race is less of an issue if the setting is homogeneous. Interestingly, I once suggested developing the story to a Japanese studio. I was told they would not like it in Japan because it wasn’t written by a Japanese person. “Normalizing race” is an uncomfortable phrase, but it’s clearly work that still needs to be done on both sides of the page.

  8. February 12, 2008 2:22 pm

    Sherri – I liked the Dalkey books, too! Except the hardcover version of Little Sister had some horrendous typos , but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I am so glad that we’re starting to see more non-problem novels for non-white characters, and as for the person who criticized you… Actually, I’ll finish this thought over at your blog tour at Finding Wonderland.

  9. June 17, 2008 5:12 pm

    Trisha: I found this comment/thread a few months late. ;-) I love BoE so, so much. Danny’s a great character. So excited for Poison Ink.

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