Hello and welcome to the second part of my stop for the Miss Meteor blog tour hosted by Karina @ Afire Pages. I’ve curated a short playlist inspired by the book. As with my previous playlists, I’ll add some commentary and lyrics translations where appropriate. I also have a few book recommendations based on Miss Meteor. If you missed my review with all the details about the book, you can read it here.
This song is a remake of a song by the same name originally sung by Joanna Pacitti and was apparently featured in Legally Blonde, but I was exposed to this remake sung by this popular Taiwanese girl group first. The lyrics of the Chinese version are much more poetic and include a lot of starry imagery. I’ve translated some of the lyrics below (please do not repost):
Your heart that flashes light and dark still wavers I can only feel a faint electricity If you want a bright, hot love, then you cannot hesitate Sincerity demands that you have confidence in yourself
Even if there’s a great distance from me to you Love is a star that can be plucked
No matter how many light-years separate my love As long as you concentrate, you will see it There’s such an intense hint in my eyes
No matter how many light-years remain in forever As long as we start, it can be realized If you want to know how dazzling love is Watch me shine
Miss Meteor is a story about underdogs joining a competition and growing into themselves. Here are three other YA novels featuring queer girls of color who challenge the preconceived notion of stardom and prove their detractors wrong. I read all of these back in June and they were all amazing.
I’ll Be the One follows the story of bisexual Korean American Skye Shin, who goes against her mother by entering a kpop competition. She passes her audition and becomes part of an internationally broadcast elimination contest. Unfortunately, the industry is not welcoming of fat girls, so she must find a way to win without compromising herself. Along the way, she also falls for her rival Henry Cho.
Winnie was expecting to pass her summer uneventfully working at her Granny’s diner and hanging out with her ungirlfriend (kind of like a queerplatonic partner), but the universe has other plans. When she is crowned Misty Haven Summer Queen, she’s thrust into the spotlight and a newfound friendship-with-attraction with her Misty Haven Summer King. Brimming with humor and heart, If It Makes You Happy is a story about learning to assert your desires and draw your boundaries with the people you care about.
In order to attend her dream college, Liz Lighty makes the decision to campaign for prom queen with its promise of a scholarship. Winning a popularity contest as a poor Black girl in a very rich white town isn’t the easiest thing to do, though. She finds a bit of solace in the new girl Mack, who knows what it’s like to be a misfit, but falling for her rival could spell disaster for Liz’s goals.
Happy Latinx Heritage Month! I’m super excited to present my review for Miss Meteor as a part of the blog tour hosted by Karina @ Afire Pages. In a separate post I’ll be doing a playlist and book recommendations inspired by the book, so stay tuned after the review.
Title: Miss Meteor Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia & Anna-Marie McLemore Publisher: HarperTeen Publishing Date: Sept. 22nd 2020 Pages: 320 Age Category & Genre: Young Adult Magical Realism
There hasn’t been a winner of the Miss Meteor beauty pageant who looks like Lita Perez or Chicky Quintanilla in all its history. But that’s not the only reason Lita wants to enter the contest, or why her ex-best friend Chicky wants to help her. The road to becoming Miss Meteor isn’t about being perfect; it’s about sharing who you are with the world—and loving the parts of yourself no one else understands. So to pull off the unlikeliest underdog story in pageant history, Lita and Chicky are going to have to forget the past and imagine a future where girls like them are more than enough—they are everything.
Witty and heartfelt with characters that leap off the page, Miss Meteor is acclaimed authors Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia’s first book together.
I’ve read and loved every book by Anna-Marie McLemore and Tehlor Kay Mejia (minus Paola Santiago which is on my TBR), so I was prepared to love this book, which is their first collaboration together, and I did.
I’m not from a small town, but the narrow-mindedness of Meteor reminded me of my own childhood spent in majority white cities at a majority white schools. Lita and Chicky’s status as misfits definitely resonated with my experiences from when I was a teen. While I was not subjected to the slurs that they were, I was made to feel lesser, like an alien for my race and my gender nonconformity. People can be cruel.
One of the things I love the most about this book is the themes woven into it. Both Lita and Chicky struggle to defend themselves and feel confident in their skin at the beginning, and as the story progresses, they grow so much. In particular, I thought it was cool that they were each able to reclaim something that had formerly been weaponized against them, taking ownership of the pain and transforming it into something affirming. The ending felt so triumphant, and I’m so proud of these two girls.
The other supporting characters, especially Junior and Cole (who is a trans boy) were also well developed and had their own journeys that were intertwined with those of Lita and Chicky. The four of them had an interesting dynamic, and I loved how friendship was at the center of the book, not only between Lita and Chicky but also between Lita and Cole and between Chicky and Junior. The intimacy between them was poignant and served as a solid basis for their respective romantic arcs, which were less about falling in love than realizing and/or articulating that they were in love.
Chicky’s sisters were so much fun and provided a lot of comedic relief in the story with their bickering and wit. As former participants and runners-up in the pageant, they served as Lita’s Fab Five (or rather Fab Three?), providing equal parts fashion consultation and moral support. You couldn’t find a better crew.
I also liked the way the setting was developed, with the tourist attractions and space theme. It gave the town a unique character while also providing context for the magical realism elements of the story. The way Lita’s starry origins and impending return to the sky/cosmos reinforced the themes about belonging and identity was poetic, to say the least. In other words, Anna-Marie McLemore’s signature style shines through in Lita’s narrative.
Last but not least, I really liked Cole’s character. He’s out and has been out for a while prior to the start of the book, so his arc isn’t about coming out or seeking validation for his gender. While he does face some trans-antagonism, his story is more about the relationship he has with his sister who is toxic and verbally abusive toward people like Lita and Chicky. He is a person with problems not unlike the problems of cis people. He’s athletic and articulate and astute. I’m sure everyone will love him.
In short, Miss Meteor is a heartfelt, triumphant coming of age story dedicated to all the people who felt like they don’t/didn’t belong.
Tehlor Kay Mejia is a YA author and poet at home in the wild woods and alpine meadows of Southern Oregon. When she’s not writing, you can find her plucking at her guitar, stealing rosemary sprigs from overgrown gardens, or trying to make the perfect vegan tamale. She is active in the Latinx lit community, and passionate about representation for marginalized teens in media. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by their family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. They are the author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature; WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus Best Book of 2017; BLANCA & ROJA, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; and DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a reimagining of The Red Shoes based on true medieval events. THE MIRROR SEASON, a story about two teen sexual assault survivors, is forthcoming in spring 2021.
Hello and welcome to the second half of my stop on the blog tour for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance hosted by Colored Pages. You can read my review of the book here if you haven’t already. Since I love middle grade books and want to spread the love, I thought I would feature and recommend some middle grade novels by Asian and Latinx authors with similar themes or vibes as Lupe Wong Won’t Dance.
I reviewed this book several years ago and knew that I would read everything by Erin Entrada Kelly after I finished it. Blackbird Fly features a Filipino American girl who wants to be a famous rock star but is struggling to fit in at her predominantly white school, where she ends up on a horrible list called the Dog Log ranking the girls considered the ugliest in their grade. This book gets very real about racism and bullying but emphasizes the beauty of true friendship.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears features a Cuban American protagonist and captures the essence of middle school perfectly: the troubles of fitting in among peers, the frustration of butting heads with your parents, puberty and the confusing aspects of people around you developing crushes and acting weird. It also tackles classism and the experience of being poor in an environment where everyone else is rich and the alienation that comes with it.
My Year in the Middle is set in 1970 in Alabama and features an Argentinian American girl who loves to run track and is figuring out her place in a school where classrooms seating is segregated into Black and white. Lu is a passionate, sensitive protagonist whose personality jumps off the page. This story provides a nuanced view of racism in history and sets a great example in showing young readers how to stand up for what is right in spite of doubts and peer pressure.
Pippa Park Raises Her Game is a modern reimagining of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Pippa is a Korean American girl from a lower class background who attends a private school on a basketball scholarship and has major impostor syndrome from having to hide her family’s laundromat from her classmates. Unfortunately, an anonymous troll on social media threatens to expose her secret.
Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom is the first in a hilarious middle grade series featuring Abbie Wu, who is an anxious Asian American tween trying to keep her head above the water as she enters the dreaded institution known as middle school. The story is told in a combination of simple but expressive doodles and prose that’s super dynamic and fun to read. If you’re prone to catastrophizing and overthinking, you’ll probably find this book super relatable.
Hello again! I hope everyone is faring okay. I just started school last week and am trying my best to juggle school and blogging. This week I’m pleased to be a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a middle grade debut novel featuring a biracial Mexican/Chinese American protagonist.
Title: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance Author: Donna Barba Higuera Publisher: Levine Querido Publication Date: September 8th, 2020 Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.
Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.
Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…
There’s nothing like middle grade fiction to remind me of my bygone days as an awkward tween/teen. In some ways, reading Lupe Wong Won’t Dance felt like peering into my own middle school memories. This book really evokes the way school is basically your entire life, your peers and teachers have the power to make your existence a living hell, and having friends you can lean on means everything.
The story is told in first-person narration from Lupe’s point of view and is imbued with the humor and emotional honesty expected from a kid who’s trying to assert her will in a world where she only has so much control over her life. I honestly related so much to Lupe’s stubborn opposition to the concept of square dancing. If I had been forced to dance as part of my P.E. class I would have hated it with every fiber of my being as well. Unlike me, however, Lupe actually acts on her will and begins a campaign to cancel the whole affair, with mixed, surprising, and even hilarious results.
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is a wonderful representation of different friendship dynamics and the ups and downs of those friendships. The struggles of causing and mending a big falling out with your best friend, watching your close friends make other friends who either hate you or don’t vibe with you the same way–all of these experiences are explored in the story, along with the exhilaration of having friends who will stand up for you and make you feel less alone.
I enjoyed the family dynamics portrayed in the book. Lupe’s brother is annoying yet somewhat endearing, and her mom is the epitome of “I love you but please stop embarrassing me.” Her grandparents on both sides are doting, and her grandmothers have a funny competitive streak against each other. The book touches on grief a bit as Lupe’s father passed away prior to the start of the story. Her obsession with meeting the baseball player Fu Li Hernandez is motivated in part by the resemblance he bears to her dad in her mind.
Aside from grief, the story also addresses issues like bullying and racism. Lupe’s mixed race background isn’t the primary source of conflict or the main focus of the story, but some of the microaggressions surrounding that are present. More salient to the plot is the hidden history of square dancing and quintessentially “American” traditions that are steeped in racism and how schools can work to make educational environments safe and inclusive for students of color.
One last thing I liked about this book was the representation of one of Lupe’s best friends, Niles, who’s autistic. I was pleasantly surprised by the way Niles’ sensory issues and boundaries around touch and other neurodivergent traits were brought up in the story organically and without too much fuss. He receives accommodations for certain things, such as navigating crowded hallways, something that I think is important to depict and normalize in children’s literature. Disabled people exist and we deserve equal access to education just like everyone else.
If you’re looking for a diverse middle grade story that will make you laugh and maybe even cover your face in secondhand embarrassment, read Lupe Wong Won’t Dance!
Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.
Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations. From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna, characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives.
Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books!
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs.
Tour the World in 30 Books is a blog tour focused on introducing readers to our favorite diverse books. It’s in conjunction with a Diverse Book Drive hosted by the CCPL—a small, rural library in an area with a high poverty rate and a very homogeneous population, where people rarely have the means to travel or experience new perspectives. However, the library doesn’t believe that should stop people from learning more about the world around them, so they’re running a Diverse Book Drive through the month of September in an attempt to bring the rest of the world to the county instead. With a focus on MG and YA books, the CCPL aims to expose especially its young patrons to new and diverse perspectives and cultures.
WANT TO DONATE?
The CCPL is accepting monetary donations sent via PayPal to email@example.com.
For donations of new or gently used books, send them to:
Sammie Betler Casey County Public Library 238 Middleburg St. Liberty, KY 42539
I’ve also put together a wish list of all the books that will be featured on this blog tour. Hardbacks are preferred but not required.
(If you order something from the Book Shop wishlist, please DM @srbetler on Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org, because I don’t believe that site automatically removes books from the wish list.)
Need more ideas? The library has a general Amazon wish list with suggestions, too.
Donations are used at the discretion of the library.
If you can’t donate, that’s fine. You can still join me for a little virtual visit to Taipei, Taiwan via one of my favorite books, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. This book is the first young adult contemporary book I ever read that is set in Taiwan, so it was very special to me. I interviewed Emily about the book back in 2017 as part of my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series but never reviewed the book after, so I’ve decided to make up for that with this post, which isn’t actually a review but rather a post discussing the Taiwanese elements to the story and its setting, complete with pictures. For some, it will be an introduction to a few aspects of Taiwanese culture, and if you are Taiwanese/have been to Taiwan, hopefully it hits the nostalgia buttons.
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
Note: All photos are taken by me unless otherwise specified. Please do not repost without permission or credit.
Vertical signs hang on both sides of the streets–lit-up stripes in yellows and blues and pinks and greens, bearing logos and Chinese characters.
Taiwan is a small country that’s densely populated, so buildings tend to be small in width and length while extending up many floors. Stores usually occupy the first floor of buildings while the remaining floors are residential compounds. Chinese is traditionally read from top to bottom, and many stores have a vertical sign extending perpendicularly out above their storefront that reads from top to bottom so you can see the signs from a distance before you actually reach the store.
“There’s a Seven-Eleven on every corner–people just call them Seven.”
Although 7-Eleven originated in the United States, they are more ubiquitous in Taiwan, where they constitute the largest convenience store chain and have the second highest per capita store count (second after Japan). The “convenience” in convenience store goes beyond what you would find in the U.S., as you can pay your credit card bill, receive packages, print and scan documents, and more at a 7-Eleven in Taiwan. I associate 7-Eleven with grabbing a quick bite to eat or a drink to quench your thirst.
Here’s a video from a Filipino YouTuber showing what’s inside of a nicer, bigger 7-Eleven in Taipei:
“Their garbage trucks play music; it’s so random.”
Taiwan has a reputation for being relatively eco-friendly. Trash collection and recycling is taken very seriously, and you can be fined for not sorting your trash properly between recyclable and non-recyclable items. On set days of the week, at the same time each of those days, garbage and recycling trucks stop at designated places on the streets where the people living nearby can come out to dispose of their trash bags. The most interesting aspect of the trash collection ritual is that the trucks play adaptations of classical music as an alert that they have arrived. Some play Beethoven’s Fur Elise while others play Badarzewska-Baranowska’s The Maiden’s Prayer.
Objects and Symbolism
Jade Cicada Necklace
“She makes a beeline toward the nightstand and picks up my mother’s necklace, holding the cicada pendant up to a sliver of sun peeking out from behind the curtain. The light catches on the jade.”
An important object that Leigh holds onto is her mother’s jade cicada necklace. Jade is a semiprecious stone that has a lot of significance in Taiwanese culture. Jade jewelry is very common, and I own a few jade accessories myself, including several jade roosters (my zodiac animal). Taiwanese American figure skater Karen Chen wears a jade necklace shaped like a rabbit (her zodiac animal) for good luck. My name in Chinese contains a character with the radical for jade.
Feng’s apartment is in a residential alley, tucked deep inside a tangle of narrow roads. I march us right up to the wide concrete step and double dooors of shiny steel, and buzz number 1314.
Chinese has a lot of number homophones, so there are a ton of puns and coded messages that can be made using numbers. 1314 sounds like the Chinese phrase that means “for a lifetime.” As a result, this number is a romantic symbol.
The eighty-ninth floor of the Taipei 101 tower is the observatory deck, where you can look out at the entire city through walls of glass. Buildings in miniature. Mountains layered in the distance like gentle strokes of watercolor, the farthest ones fogged and fading into the clouds. It’s a strange juxtaposition: the city so tightly packed, everything build so closely together–and beyond that, the sprawling greens and blues of lush forests.
Feng won’t shut up. She’s going on and on with all sorts of tourist facts. “So it’s the only wind damper in the entire world that’s on exhibit for people to see.”
Taipei 101 was, at the time of its completion in 2004, the tallest building in the world. As its name suggests, it’s 101 stories tall. Elements of traditional Chinese architecture and symbolism are incorporated into the design, which evokes a pagoda. The indoor observation deck is on the 88th and 89th floors (88 is an auspicious number representing prosperity).
The wind damper inside Taipei 101 is the largest and heaviest mass damper in the world. It’s become such an iconic tourist attraction that there is an official mass damper mascot called Damper Baby.
Light rain pricks its way down into the narrow alley between the little shops and stands. It’s impossible to take two steps without running into someone, but the crown thins as the rain picks up. Red lanterns swing overhead in long lines. The sound of rhythmic drumming winds its way down to the street. Outside a shop selling carved stamps, a little dog with floppy ears and caramel fur sleeps snugly curled, oblivious to the bustling around him.
In the teahouse, we sit all the way up on the third floor against the windows, peering out over the town and the water.
Leigh visits Jiufen with her grandmother and takes shelter at a tea house that is probably A-Mei Tea House. Jiufen is a seaside town located in the mountains in New Taipei City. It’s a very scenic place and has become a popular tourist attraction over the years, fueled in part by the acclaimed historical film A City of Sadness by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as its resemblance to the setting of Studio Ghibli’s feature film Spirited Away.
The next morning, we hire a car that drives the four of us to Danshui, to the sea.
Leigh goes with her family to scatter ashes in Danshui, officially romanized as Tamsui. It’s a port district that was historically a key holding for various colonial powers controlling parts of Taiwan, including the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Qing Dynasty. Today it’s a popular tourist destination due to its rich cultural heritage and scenic seaside view.
Waigong is already seated, his wooden cane leaning against the table by his elbow. He picks up one of the sesame-dotted flatbreads, digs his finger into the side, and opens the two layers like butterfly wings. He stuffs it with a section of cruller, and dunks the whole thing in his soy milk–just the way Mom would have eaten it.
Breakfast shops that serve fresh, hot food in Taiwan are usually a short walk away from home. Some of the most common and iconic items on the menu that are mentioned in The Astonishing Color of After include shaobing, youtiao, doujiang, luobogao, danbing, and fantuan. My personal favorite is danbing, which is an omelette of sorts made of a scrambled egg rolled up inside a savory crepe-like wrapper made of dough with scallions mixed in.
Waipo bought us bubble tea, and we sat on a park bench people-watching as we sucked the tapioca up through fat straws.
Although bubble tea has only been around for a few decades (it’s a Millennial!), it’s become extremely popular across Asia and beyond. While milk tea has existed for a while, the tapioca pearls were first added to the drink in Taiwan in Taichung during the 1980s. There are competing claims to which tea shop invented bubble tea from Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea House, and in 2019, the Taiwanese courts ruled that neither side won the claim. I visited a Chun Shui Tang location in Taichung back in 2016.
Bubble tea shops are everywhere in Taiwan and a large cup usually goes for 40 to 60 NTD, which is between a little more than $1 and not quite $2 (USD). The big chains have expanded outside of Taiwan and can be found in some cities in the United States.
All around us are shelves bearing trays of baked goods. Which of these would my mother have picked out for herself? The cheery yellow tarts? The fat buns? Or the strangely shaped rolls, embedded with corn and scallions?
East Asia is known for its bakeries that have remixed European baked goods with an Asian twist. The word for bread in Taiwanese Hokkien is “pháng,” which comes from the Japanese “pan” (パン), which in turn came from the Portuguese “pão.” Taiwan boasts a baker named Wu Pao-chun who won the international baking competition Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2010. He has his own bakery chain and a movie based on his life story starring Taiwanese actor Lego Lee called 27°C – Loaf Rock (available on YouTube but not with English subtitles, unfortunately).
“Baozi,” says Waipo, pushing the basket toward the center where we can both reach. A little white napkin unsticks itself from undereneath the bamboo structure.
Baozi are fluffy steamed buns usually stuffed with pork and/or vegetables. It is one of many foods that are steamed in bamboo or metal baskets. Taiwan is known for its gourmet dumpling restaurant chain Din Tai Fung that specializes in xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. There is one located inside Taipei 101 and several locations have opened in the United States (but not near me, sadly).
The night market feels like a special sort of festival, except Feng tells me it comes alive every night. People walk by holding sweets like shaved ice and red bean ice cream. I see some things I’ve never tried but Dad’s told me about, like stinky tofu, and yellow wheel cakes filled with custard. One stand sells skewers of tiny brown eggs, and other kebabs that look dark and marinated. On the other wise of the crowd, there are stalls lined up in no particular order, some of them peddling trinkets and clothing accessories, others smoky with freshly cooking foods–
“The snacks here are called xiaochi,” says Feng. “That translates to little eats, literally.”
In most towns or cities in Taiwan, on designated nights (or sometimes every night) of the week, certain streets will close to vehicle traffic (minus motorcycles) and street vendors will set up stalls and carts to sell food, electronics, clothing, accessories and more. You can buy a lot of random things for very cheap at the night market. I usually don’t do anything besides eat the xiaochi, which is sometimes likened to tapas. Scallion pancakes are a must for me, and I also eat jidangao (small cakes usually shaped like cartoon characters), and popcorn chicken (which is nothing like American popcorn chicken and a thousand times better).
Waipo hands me a scrap of paper that was in the box–a pink piece of Hello Kitty stationery.
Hello Kitty hails from Japan, but she enjoys immense popularity in Taiwan as well. You can find Hello Kitty themed merchandise and decor in many places. Famously, Taiwanese airline Eva Air has a special flight where the entire plane, interior and exterior, is decorated with Hello Kitty. My dad rode one of those flights by chance, but I sadly have not the chance to do so yet. Every time I visit Taiwan, McDonald’s seems to have Hello Kitty toys with their Happy Meal.
The name of the singer is Teresa Teng,” says Feng. “Deng Lijun. Have you heard of her?”
“Ni mama zui xihuan,” Waipo says. Your mother’s favorite. She brings over the CD case. The album cover shows a rosy-cheeked woman, her black hair curled and fluffed, the expression on her face soft and demure.
Teresa Teng is a Taiwanese singer who was immensely popular in Asia in the 70s, 80s, and up until her death in 1995. She sang in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, and English. Her most famous song is “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). Google honored her with a Google Doodle celebrating what would have been her 65th birthday on January 29th, 2018.
Back at the apartment, Waigong’s lounging on the couch, hogging all the cushions under his back and elbows. He stares into the television, watching a music video with the volume all the way down. A dozen Asian men are dancing in a hexagonal tunnel filled with flashing lights.
I strongly suspect this is an nod to the popular Korean-Chinese boy band EXO, which formerly had twelve members and whose logo is shaped like a hexagon. Boy bands have a few decades of history in East Asia, and kpop/cpop bands like EXO are popular in Taiwan. Their music videos can be seen on the MTV channel. One of the most famous Taiwanese boy bands is F4, which was formed by the four male stars in Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese drama adaptation of the bestselling Japanese manga Boys Over Flowers. Asian boy band members can often be seen endorsing various lifestyle product brands.
Religion and Spiritual Practices
Waipo points to the magnificent temple. Sweeping red roofs curve up at their square corners. Stone dragons guard the highest points with open mouths and hooked claws. Fire-bright lanterns hang down from the eaves, strung together like lines of planets, their tassels angling in the wind.
The majority of Taiwanese people of Han descent practice a blend of Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Temples are found everywhere, with over 20,000 across the island. Most temples follow traditional Chinese architecture and are elaborate structures.
The book takes place during Ghost Month. According to folk beliefs, the ghosts of the dead are able to cross into the human realm during Ghost Month, which is the seventh month of the lunar calendar used in various parts of Asia, including Taiwan (between August and September of the Gregorian in 2020). Food offerings are left out for the ghosts to satiate their hunger, and incense and joss paper are burned for the dead.
While digging into her family history, Leigh finds out that one of her relatives had a ghost wedding.
The custom of ghost weddings originates in China but is practiced by people in diaspora in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia. Such marriages can occur between a living person and a dead person or between two dead people. It’s generally more common for these unions to be between a living man and a deceased woman due to patriarchal and heteronormative practices surrounding ancestor worship. Traditionally, daughters are not worshiped by their birth families after they pass away; instead, their spirit tablets are kept with their husband’s family.
In keeping with this tradition, my late mother’s spirit tablet is in the ancestral shrine of my paternal grandfather’s house. Last year, I learned that my paternal grandfather took a ghost bride, who appeared to him in a dream asking him to marry her. He asked around the village and found her family and agreed to the wedding.
Typically, a match is found for a deceased woman by placing a red envelope on the street for an unsuspecting stranger to pick up, as is the case with Fred in The Astonishing Color of After. This practice is also depicted in the Taiwanese drama The Teenage Psychic. I also recommend the Netflix show The Ghost Bride, which takes place in 1890s Malaysia and is based on the novel of the same name by Yangsze Choo.
Burning Items for the Dead
“Your grandparents put this package together, planning to send it. But they changed their minds. Instead, they burned it. The photos and the letters. The necklace, which I mailed to them. They burned all of it.”
Leigh is given a box that contained items relating to her mother by the mysterious bird. After people die, it’s customary to burn items for the dead to use in the afterlife. Paper money is the most common, but small paper houses with furniture and even cars are also burned at funerals, and in the past decade smart phones have joined the list of amenities for the afterlife.
The 49 Days Between Death and Rebirth
“They’re chanting sutras for the ones who have passed. Especially those still within the forty-nine days. After a person’s death, they have forty-nine days to process their karma and let go of the things that make them feel tied to this life–things like people and promises and memories. Then they make their transition. So the temple will keep each yellow tablet for forty-nine days. After that, they’re burned.”
I’m honored to present my review for another amazing book release from this week, We Are Not Free, as a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages. I’ve been a huge fan of Traci Chee’s work since her debut with The Reader, which I reviewed back in 2016, so I was excited to see what she would do with this new genre.
Title: We Are Not Free Author: Traci Chee Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publication Date: September 1, 2020 Genres: Historical YA Fiction
All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us.
We are not free.
But we are not alone.”
From New York Times best-selling and acclaimed author Traci Chee comes We Are Not Free, the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.
Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco.
Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted.
Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps.
In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I went into this book since this is Traci Chee’s first work of historical fiction and her previous work was epic fantasy. Mostly I was just expecting it to be stellar, and indeed it was.
One of the things I praised The Reader for was innovative storytelling techniques, and that strength of Chee’s carries over into We Are Not Free. Juggling fourteen different points of view is no small task, and Chee executes this with grace and creativity. The story spans about three years total and chronologically follows a different character for each chapter/section of the book as various events and developments occur, from the initial order to leave San Francisco to the homecoming. While most chapters utilize first person narration, there is one chapter that deviates and uses second person, as well as another chapter that is not from one perspective but rather the combined perspectives of all of the characters.
Although all but one of the points of view are written in first person, they don’t blend together or get repetitive. Each viewpoint is constructed in a way that highlights the distinctive qualities of every character. Each chapter builds on the previous ones and adds a layer to the painting, deepening the portrayals of all of the characters, not just the one who’s speaking. Every character has a different reaction to the experience of incarceration and their thoughts and feelings and the personalities that inform them are built into the narration. Some are written like journal entries, others styled as letters to another character, and one even takes the form of poetry/verse. These stylistic shifts serve to disorient and reorient the readers like a turning kaleidoscope.
What makes this story so great is the expansive and diverse emotional landscapes painted in these fourteen points of view, individually and taken together. They are complex and dynamic, ranging from optimism, to resolve, to resentment, to fury, to numbness, and beyond. The writing deftly conveys the rawness of the injustice and trauma these young people are facing.
Dark as the circumstances may be, this story does not succumb to nihilism. The characters work to establish a new normal and support network in the face of immense upheaval. Their deep love for one another and their families comprises the core of this book. As Yum-Yum says, “We are not free. But we are not alone.” Against the odds, they carve out a space for resistance, hope, and even joy–together, as a community.
Interspersed throughout the chapters are photos, illustrations, correspondences, news articles, and so on–some drawing from real archival sources, others fabricated for the purpose of the book–documenting Japanese American incarceration through a visual medium that helps further immerse readers in the time period. I personally love when books are crafted to enrich the reader experience beyond the prose; the added texture brings another dimension to the story.
If I had to pick favorites among the viewpoint characters, it would be Frankie and Minnow. Frankie spends most of his chapter blazing in incandescent rage at his situation, with no outlet for catharsis. This resonated with my memories of my own teen years. Of course, I was not subjected to the violence of incarceration, but I did feel the weight of racism and mistreatment from society, and I definitely lashed out in anger because I didn’t know how to process my emotions constructively. These similarities between us made Frankie’s character all the more real and compelling for me.
Then there’s Minnow, who has the special status of narrating two chapters, the first and the last, whose perspective bookends the story. He is one of the youngest of the group, forced to grow up too much, too soon, and his sensitivity and artist’s eye imbue the story with a delicate, aching sentimentality that lingers even after you’ve turned the last page.
The TL;DR version: We Are Not Free is a gorgeously written masterpiece of fiction that makes a painful but still relevant history accessible to young people.
Traci Chee is the New York Times best-selling author of The Reader trilogy. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. She is Japanese American and was inspired to write We Are Not Free by her family’s experience during World War II. Some of the events she includes in the book are loosely inspired by their stories. She loves books, poetry and paper crafts, as well as bonsai gardening and games. She lives in California.
This is the second part of my tour stop for the We Are Not Free tour hosted by Colored Pages. As I noted in my review, at the end of We Are Not Free, the author provides a bibliography of further readings, and I’d like to add a few recommendations of my own for novels by Japanese American authors that address Japanese/Japanese American experiences during World War II.
The Last Cherry Blossom is a middle grade historical fiction book that chronicles the tale of a young girl who experiences and survives the bombing of Hiroshima. This book takes you through a lot of emotions as you witness the tragedy through the eyes of Yuriko, who lives in the shadow of a terrible war whose purpose she does not understand but whose effects she feels deeply nonetheless. It’s a moving story of family secrets, love and loss, survival and hope. It is based on the author’s mother’s real life story. For more on the background of this book, you can read my interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw from 2017.
This Time Will Be Different is a contemporary young adult novel that centers on CJ, a Japanese American teen who is still trying to figure out her life and spends her time helping her aunt Hannah at the flower shop her family has run for multiple generations. When her family is pressured to sell the shop to the very people that swindled them back during the era of Japanese American incarceration, CJ finds a sense of purpose and ignites a campaign for reparations that polarizes her family and her community. This is an engaging story that depicts a teen dipping her toes into social justice activism and being realistically messy that also has a complex portrayal of mother-daughter relationships.
This Light Between Us is young adult historical fiction novel with an emotionally gripping and harrowing portrayal of World War II and Japanese American incarceration. It depicts the war through the eyes of a Japanese American boy named Alex and his pen pal, a Jewish girl named Charlie living in France. This book totally blew me away when I read it earlier this year. I felt completely immersed in Alex’s world, as if I were experiencing the events alongside him as he moved from home to internment camp to the battle front in Europe. The letters and bond between him and Charlie were sweet and a ray of light in the looming darkness, a testament to deep friendship. The parallels between Alex and Charlie’s lives as minorities facing persecution were striking and skillfully emphasized. The complexity of Japanese Americans’ feelings about their citizenship/identity and serving in the military were also explored in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.
Displacement by Kiku Hughes is a young adult graphic novel that weaves fact and fiction, jumping between present and past. In this book, a fictionalized version of the author/artist Kiku is suddenly transported to the time of World War II and experiences incarceration alongside her late grandmother, who was a teenager at the time. Displacement is a timely, poignant, and introspective examination of history, family, and intergenerational trauma, as well as the need to make sure history does not repeat itself in the present. The dominant color palettes of brown and orange and blue-green-gray convey the muted atmosphere of the camps very well. I also really loved the use of lines, shadows, and silhouettes to convey movement and contrast. Displacement makes a perfect complement to We Are Not Free because it includes some of the same locations: San Francisco, Tanforan Assembly Center (San Bruno, California), and Topaz City, Utah. You can see the details and events brought to life in a different medium.
When the Emperor was Divine is an adult historical fiction novel. It was my introduction to Japanese American incarceration in fiction. I read it in one of my Asian American studies courses, Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature. Like We Are Not Free, When the Emperor was Divine narrates the events through multiple points of view, following the four members of a single family forced into the camps. While the viewpoint characters in We Are Not Free are all teens or young adults, the ones in When the Emperor was Divine are either adults or younger children (ages 11 and 8). The characters are also nameless. This authorial choice creates a sense of narrative distance that contrasts with We Are Not Free, but it is still evocative in its own way, like watching a black and white film.
Don’t miss out on the other stops in the blog tour!
Q: Writing #OwnVoices stories can be fraught for marginalized writers because it often feels like baring our soul to the world. What was it like to write a character who was like you?
A: It was actually incredibly stressful! The “baring my soul” part was actually a lot less scary than the intense fear I had of saying/writing the wrong thing and hurting a reader who shares marginalizations with me/Yadriel. For me, being an #OwnVoices author meant I was hyper of the sense of responsibility that came with it. Even though me and Yads share a lot of the same marginalizations, I know that everybody has their own internalized stuff to work through, which is why I got Authenticity Readers who could catch anything that accidentally made it onto the page.
It also meant being under a lot of pressure to get the representation right! Being one of very few books containing a trans main character (not to mention queer and Latinx) meant “Cemetery Boys” could be one of the first books someone has ever read with that representation. I didn’t want to mess it up! But at the same time, a lot of pride went into it, too. I’m very aware that I’m in a special position to even be able to tell this story, and I really take that as a serious responsibility. I’m so thankful for the support I’ve gotten from the community. Every time a reader reaches out to tell me they related to Yadriel, or that this is the first time they really saw themselves in media, it really makes my heart so full!
Q: Although marginalized communities are often treated as monoliths, the reality is that we are diverse, and mainstream media is only just scratching the surface of representing our experiences. With that in mind, what kinds of trans Latinx YA stories do you want to see in the future?
A: Honestly I want lots of stories across all genres! I want trans Latinx horror, thriller, high fantasy, contemporary romcoms — all of it! In order for us to push back against the idea of a “monolith,” we need diversity of representation across genres. We also need different types of trans characters — binary trans, nonbinary, agender, etc. — and different Latinx cultures as well. We, ourselves, are so diverse, I really want those differences and what makes us unique to be shared and celebrated!
Q: If Yadriel had a Twitter account, what would he use as his Twitter handle and what would his bio say?
A: I feel like Twitter would definitely be Yadriel’s social media of choice! He’d just be on Twitter to vent and talk into the void and get irritated when one of his tweets went viral. His bio would be short and sweet, probably just “Gay and Tired™.” For his handle, Yadriel would probably want to do something simple like just using his name, which Maritza would refuse to let him do, so she’d take over and make one for him that’d be like, “@pendejobrujo” and then he’d be stuck with it.
Q: If you could choose a song to represent Yadriel and Julian, what song would it be?
A: I make playlists on YouTube for all my books and characters so this is easy! When “Cemetery Boys” was still just a vague idea in my brain, I heard “Eastside” by Benny Blanco, featuring Halsey and Khalid while I was driving around one night. I fell madly in love with it and it ended up being the inspiration for like three whole chapters of the book!
Q: If Yadriel and Julian had animal alter egos, what animals would they be, respectively?
A: Yadriel would definitely be a black cat because he keeps to himself, is picky about who he gets close to and can be really stubborn. He’s also pretty quiet and just wants to curl up and be cozy with the people he cares about.
Meanwhile, Julian would be a husky because he’s so hyperactive, demands attention from the people he loves and never shuts up.
Q: Last but not least, please recommend a few books by queer authors of color that you love!
A: Oh gosh, there’s so many! But a few of my favorites are:
Aiden Thomas is a YA author with an MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Oakland, California, they now make their home in Portland, OR. As a queer, trans, latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden’s special talents include: quoting The Office, Harry Potter trivia, Jenga, finishing sentences with “is my FAVORITE”, and killing spiders. Aiden is notorious for not being able to guess the endings of books and movies, and organizes their bookshelves by color.
Hello again, September 1st is a day of so many incredible book releases, not least of which is Cemetery Boys, and I’m thrilled to be reviewing this book for the blog tour hosted by Hear Our Voices.
Title: Cemetery Boys Author: Aiden Thomas Publisher: Swoon Reads Release Date: September 1, 2020 Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
The moment I finished Cemetery Boys, I was ready to join the Yadriel Defense Squad. Yadriel is such a lovable character, and I was sucked into his story from the beginning. From his stubbornness to his insecurities, to his yearning for validation and desperation to prove himself, I saw a piece of myself in Yadriel’s character.
I also really loved the supporting cast. Yadriel’s cousin Maritza is a badass and a rebel who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She keeps it real with Yadriel and is his staunchest ally, and I couldn’t imagine a better friend to have by my side. Julian, the ghostly love interest, is also endearing in his own way. He reminds me of a puppy, eager and energetic and a little bit clumsy, loyal and without pretense. In particular, his penchant for getting idioms wrong had me laughing and shaking my head. His dynamic with Yadriel is engaging because of their drastically different personalities.
Yadriel’s big Latinx family, dead and alive, is a constant presence in and core aspect of his story. They span a range of personalities and add texture and nuance to the Latinx representation in the book. Their teasing and doting, their celebratory gatherings and more somber heart-to-hearts, all of these facets enrich the narrative. Notably, some are more accepting of Yadriel’s transness than others, and Yadriel has to navigate the complex tensions of familial love, which is idealized as unconditional but less straightforward in reality.
One of the things I appreciated about Cemetery Boys is the way Yadriel’s gender is inextricably tied to his culture. Going beyond the personal, his gender is linked with the role he plays as brujo. He is part of something greater than himself, a line of traditions that connect him to his ancestors and the gods, especially the Lady of Death, their patron goddess, who endows the brujx with their supernatural gifts.
Cemetery Boys is so many things at once: a cute romance, a heartening coming-of-age story, and a magical murder mystery. It balances the serious with the humorous, the dark with the hopeful. Every character has depth and their own personal journeys and conflicts, internal or external, some linked to salient contemporary issues affecting communities of color. Notably, there is a secondary character, Flaca, who is a trans Latina whose determination to be out and proud at school helps Yadriel in his own transition.
In short, I cannot recommend Cemetery Boys enough, and I hope you fall in love with Yadriel as much as I did. For more about this book and the author, check out my interview with Aiden Thomas.
Aiden Thomas is a YA author with an MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Oakland, California, they now make their home in Portland, OR. As a queer, trans, latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden’s special talents include: quoting The Office, Harry Potter trivia, Jenga, finishing sentences with “is my FAVORITE”, and killing spiders. Aiden is notorious for not being able to guess the endings of books and movies, and organizes their bookshelves by color.