January 26, 2010

Two from Asian American Authors

Absolutely Maybe was my first foray into Lisa Yee's YA fiction, though I've been meaning to check out her work for literally years now. I guess this just falls into that capacious category known as "Everybody Else Has Read This Book or Seen This Movie and I Have Evidently Read and Seen Practically Nothing." Anyway, better late than never--and I was not sorry I'd picked this one up.

My reactions were twofold: 1. It made me want tacos. (A taco truck plays a very prominent role in the story) And, 2. While it was hilariously funny, the characters were still very real--a difficult balance to strike. I didn't always LIKE the characters but they were very true-to-life. Narrator Maybelline "Maybe" Chestnut is the daughter of an ex-beauty-pageant-participant, current-charm-school-diva mother--and Maybe knows she's not what her mother would have hoped for in a daughter. Their relationship is less than ideal, so she goes looking for her birth father, though all she knows about him is that he's a Hollywood hotshot out in California. Still, she's hoping she might learn something about herself--and boy howdy, does she.

I have to give Lisa Yee extra props and thanks because this novel was helpful in terms of one of the manuscripts I've written and set aside for further thought--also about a character who has a less-than-ideal relationship with her mother and sets out with the intention of finding her father. The resemblance ends there, but I learned a lot about how to approach these themes (and how I can improve my first draft upon later revision...).

This month I also read Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. During the difficult days and months after 9/11, I found myself frequently worrying about the safety and well-being of the Pakistani-American side of my family. The news kept reporting stories about innocent Sikhs or people of apparent Middle Eastern or South Asian descent being harassed and in some cases even harmed. Would something like that happen to my father, my uncle? My stepmother or stepsister? My aunt wears shalwaar kameez most of the time; would some ignorant person call her a terrorist?

In Shine, Coconut Moon, narrator Samar--aka Sam--has grown up steeped in mainstream American culture. Her mother, an atheist who was estranged from her traditional Sikh family, wanted Sam to fit in. But just days after 9/11, a strange turbaned man shows up at their door and reveals that he is Sam's Uncle Sandeep. As Sam gets to know him, she gradually becomes more curious about the family and culture she's never known, and why her mother would have kept her away from them when her uncle is obviously so kindly. But not everyone reacts positively toward Uncle Sandeep--and not everyone bothers to note that there's a difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, an Arab and an Indian...or a terrorist and a regular person.

The meaning and the role of culture and family lie at the core of this heartfelt novel--and the many complexities that underlie the individual sense of self. And kudos to the author for working in Sepia Mutiny, which has a rad new redesign since I last visited.


Charlotte said...

I have only read one Lisa Yee myself---Millicent Min, Girl Genius. I loved it, and am kind of saving the rest for a time when I might want something really fun and good to read...(which is strange, to not want to rush out and read an author's books--it's sort of like saving a bottle of champaign, I guess) but I am sure I am going to crack long before that happens.

Anonymous said...

Great reviews. A taco truck sounds absolutely heavenly! Lisa Yee sounds like my new discovery of Meg Cabot who I discovered last year that everyone was already reading. Lisa sounds pretty fun. I love the name Maybelline "Maybe" Chestnut!

I do not believe that I've stumbled upon any books after 9/11 Shine sounds really interesting. I hope your family does not ever have to go through harassment.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks, Charlotte and Millymarie!

I should have added that I don't think anyone in my family experienced harassment, but I'm not sure they'd tell me even if they did!