Tag Archives: Cambodian American

Mini Reviews: 5 Southeast Asian Reads

So, I was looking through my drafts trying to delete things I didn’t need anymore when I came upon this ancient post. It was complete except for a missing cover image, and I’m not sure why I never posted it. It’s from 2017, I think? But anyway, here you go.

The Land of Forgotten Girls

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly – MG, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

The Land of Forgotten Girls is a poignant book that shows the power of words and stories. Sol (Soledad) and Ming (Dominga) are poor and trapped in Louisiana with their abusive stepmother Vea. In order to cope with this suffocating environment, Sol tells stories to Ming, stories passed down from their late mother as well as stories of her own making about their magical “aunt” who travels the world. These stories offer an escape for Sol but also blur the line between fantasy and reality for Ming, who is younger and impressionable. As a result, Sol is forced to grapple with whether her stories harm more than they help, whether fiction is the same as a lie.

In the absence of any loving parents, Sol finds comfort and companionship in her best friend Manny, who’s Mexican; a quiet neighbor in her apartment building, Mrs. Yeung, who’s Chinese; as well as an albino girl named Caroline who she once tormented but apologized to. With Manny and Caroline, Sol braves the neighborhood junkyard, the domain of a terrifying man she calls Blackbeard, and finds treasure and hope in the most unlikely of places. If you like stories about sisterhood, friendship, and adventure, this may be the book for you.

For a review from a Filipino reviewer, I recommend reading Glaiza’s review.

Content/Trigger warnings: bullying, abuse, racism, colorism

Something in Between

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz – YA, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

Something in Between doesn’t pull its punches and takes you on a rollercoaster ride of feelings. Jasmine de los Santos has it all: she’s set to be valedictorian, she’s captain of the cheer team, and she’s going to attend a top college. However, all of that unravels when she finds out her family’s visas expired years ago and they’re in the U.S. illegally. This news shocks Jasmine but doesn’t get her down completely. America is the home she identifies with, and she’s not getting deported without a fight.

Life goes on, and with the threat of deportation looming, Jasmine tries to take advantage of the time she has left before her family is forced to leave the country. During this time, she dates the handsome and rich Royce Blakely, son of a Congressman, who may be the key to obtaining legal status for her family. Their relationship is passionate but also turbulent because Royce’s dad’s stance on immigration politics place him on the opposite side of the battle Jasmine is waging on behalf of her undocumented family. The juxtaposition of their backgrounds brings into stark relief the intersections of race and class.

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the romance subplot, I loved the de los Santos family dynamic and the complicated friendship Jasmine had with Kayla. Overall, this book provides a humanizing narrative of immigration, citizenship, and belonging in the U.S.

For a perspective from a Filipino reader, I recommend reading Sue’s review.

girl-on-the-verge

Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn – YA, Contemporary, Thriller, Thai American MC, Own Voices

Girl on the Verge is one of the most intense and mind-blowing contemporary YA novels I read in 2017. This was my Goodreads review immediately after finishing:

I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down

Now to elaborate. The main character, Kanchana a.k.a Kan, is Thai American and lives in a predominantly white town in Kansas. At school, she stands out because she’s Asian, and at home, her grandmother laments that she’s too Westernized, and her way of finding a middle ground between the two cultures she’s immersed in is to design clothes.

Kan’s struggle to fit in takes on a new dynamic when her mother takes in a white girl named Shelly to live in their home. At first, things seem to work out since Shelly is eager to please and integrate into Kan’s family. However, Shelly’s presence becomes uncomfortable and even threatening when it becomes apparent that she’s morphing herself into Kan 2.0 and even trying to steal Kan’s boyfriend, Ethan. As Kan investigates Shelly’s past, she discovers shocking secrets about her own family.

Although Girl on the Verge starts out on a similar note to other contemporary stories exploring second generation Asian American identity, the thriller plotline highlights the theme of identity and belonging in a unique and gut-wrenching way. The parallels between Kan’s experiences as the girl who stands out too much and Shelly’s as the girl who nobody notices and the contrast in how they respond to feeling alienated, is fascinating and terrifying.

Trigger warnings: physical assault, sexual harassment, kidnapping, murder

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings by Many Ly – YA, Historical Fiction*, Cambodian American MC, Own Voices

*It’s not historical as in older than 2000, but it’s not quite contemporary anymore since it was published in 2008 and probably takes place in the early 2000s based on technology cues.

The writing style for this book wasn’t out-of-this-world amazing, but the characters and themes made the story engaging and sentimental. For me, this is a book that really captures gracefully the complexity of family and community and intergenerational loss and love.

The narrative alternates between the present, which explores the aftermath of Grace’s grandmother passing away, and Grace’s past when her grandmother was still alive. At first, the focus is mostly on Grace’s difficulties with not knowing her own father and Cambodian heritage. Then, as she immerses herself in the Cambodian community in St. Petersburg, Florida, she learns more about her mother and grandmother and the reasons behind her alienation from her roots.

As we eventually see, the three generations of women in Grace’s family all struggle to balance self, family, and community as 1st, 1.5 and 2nd generation Cambodian American women, respectively. I empathized with Grace’s experience, and through her journey into her family’s history, also empathized with her mother and grandmother’s perspectives and decisions. This is definitely not your typical realistic fiction YA because of its strong focus on family and community over school/romantic/friendship drama (which were pretty much absent from the story), but it’s a powerful and important story regardless.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai – MG, Contemporary, Vietnamese American MC, Own Voices

Listen, Slowly features a 12-year-old second generation Vietnamese American girl visiting Vietnam with her family and connecting with her heritage while her grandmother searches for her long-lost grandfather who disappeared during the Vietnam War.

The title feels like an apt description of the dynamic between Mai and her heritage. Although she can’t speak Vietnamese very well, she can understand it better than she lets on to her extended family, thus much of her time is spent listening to them.

The listening she does is also figurative. Her initial reactions to spending multiple weeks in Vietnam is dismay that she will be separated from her best friend and her secret crush (referred to as “HIM” throughout the story) and the summer outings of her friends and classmates. She initially sees Vietnam as her parents’ heritage more so than her own. ¬†Bridging the psychological distance between herself and Vietnam takes time. Through a friendship with a boy who’s learning English with the hope of going to the U.S., she begins to appreciate the language and culture of her heritage.

Review for The Stone Goddess by Minfong Ho

the-stone-goddess

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Nakri is trained in classical Cambodian dance and idolizes her older sister who dances like a goddess. However, her family’s life in Phnom Penh is disrupted when the Khmer Rouge takes over. They evacuate their home in the capital, but they are soon separated, with Nakri, her sister, and her brother going to a labor camp. The family reunites to flee to a refugee camp on the border withThailand before finally emigrating to the U.S., where Nakri must learn to cope with the new environment and the trauma of her past.

Review:

I found this book at a used book store, which is a prime location for scouring the shelves in search of old/obscure books by Asian authors. The cover illustration captivated me and I was excited to find a book featuring a Cambodian character because they’re rare in fiction.

Based on the synopsis, I knew this story was going to be an emotional one. It is dark, as a book about genocide and refugees inevitably is. Nakri suffers many losses: the comfort of her home and all that’s familiar, her material possessions, her family, her sense of faith. She becomes physically malnourished and fatigued and emotionally numb during her time in the labor camp.

However, the darkness is balanced by bursts of light and hope. Her older sister continues to dance in secret, even though it is forbidden by the overseers. Her sister also tells stories and legends and shares memories with her so they won’t forget their past life. Her brother sneaks food to her, looking after her even though they are not supposed to have family, only comrades, under the Khmer Rouge’s law. The volunteers at the refugee camp show her kindness, as do her family’s American sponsors.

Nakri’s spirituality takes a blow as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover. In an effort to stamp out the old culture, the Khmer Rouge destroys a statue of the Buddha and bans the classical dance that was intimately tied to their religion and the gods. After the Khmer Rouge is defeated and she leaves behind that oppressive environment, Nakri is free to dance again. However, the dance and music carries with it a lot of emotional baggage, so she must find healing before she can find the inspiration to dance again.

The author has a knack for describing dance, both the physical and emotional aspects of it. When I read it, I felt connected to something greater than myself. In general, I was immersed in Nakri’s experiences, both the beautiful and the ugly, and I was surprised that the author wasn’t a Cambodian refugee herself. However, she does have a personal tie and experience with the real life events that inspired the book. She grew up next door to everything, in Thailand, and volunteered at a refugee camp in 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Her own family also experienced displacement due to political turmoil, so she writes from a place of deep empathy.

In January, I’m planning to read an #ownvoices book about the Cambodian genocide, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. I also have two middle grade #ownvoices books by a Cambodian American author, Many Ly, on my TBR List, so stay tuned for reviews of those.

Recommendation: It might be a bit hard to find this book since it’s a bit old (from 2003), but if you can, go read it. It’s a great book for middle grade readers; Nakri is 12 at the beginning of the book and is 16 or 17 by the end, but the content of the book is fine for younger readers.