By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
No One Can Pronounce My Name
By Rakesh Satyal
Following the death of his sister Swati, Harit’s mother can no longer function. So to help the two of them cope, he has taken to dressing up in a sari to pass himself off as his sister.
Not too far away, in the same suburb outside of Cleveland, Ranjana’s only child has left for college and now she is worried her husband has started an affair. To seek solace, she writes paranormal romance in secret.
When Harit’s and Ranjana’s paths cross, it’s the start of a friendship that will help them both realize their true selves.
“My Name” follows members of an Indian American community who work to reconcile the restrictions of their culture and traditions with what they want and need in life. The story explores the themes of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual identity as characters figure out who they really are and how to stay true to that while still fitting in with the rest of their community. Nearly all of the characters have something to hide—they struggle to come to terms with it and accept it as part of their identity.
Told from various characters’ points of view, Satyal does a great job portraying the complicated relationships in life—between spouses and parent and child, to platonic friendships and professional relationships. Whether a character is working to keep a secret or trying to reveal their secret, we get a realistic look at how difficult that process can be.
And while the story may seem heavy at times, there are many lighter moments throughout to balance it out. I particularly enjoyed how Satyal sprinkled examples of how to pronounce characters’ names and compared them to how a character’s friends, coworkers, and acquaintances would pronounce the names incorrectly. This was a great way to showcase the characters’ struggles with being true to themselves and their traditions and cultures while living in a Western world.
Not Your Villain
By C.B. Lee
Interlude Press, 2017
When Bells Broussard’s superpowers manifest at an early age, he is thrilled. As a shapeshifter, he can change everything from his hair and face, to his clothes and body. So if putting on a binder for the day gets to be too much, he can take care of that with a quick shift. In short, life is pretty sweet.
But then he becomes the country’s most wanted villain and after discovering a huge cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, he and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby make it their mission to find the Resistance.
Meanwhile, Captain Orion, formerly America’s sweetheart and superheroine, is now on the loose with a serum that can take away meta-humans’ powers. And then there’s the rise of an army of militarized robots that are set on apprehending Bells and his friends.
“Villain” is the sequel to Lee’s “Not Your Sidekick” and picks up right where its predecessor ended. It’s a story filled with action and adventure as the squad works together to save the day, despite the fact that they’re only teenagers (an ongoing refrain from their parents who think they’re too young to do so).
Lee balances out the action with the fact that Bells and his friends are still teenagers and still have to deal with school and figuring out new and/or potential relationships. And it’s fun to see that juxtaposition, reminding readers that age and experience shouldn’t matter when it comes to trying to do the right thing.
Lee also does a great job addressing the fact that Bells is transgender. There’s no “coming out” moment as he has been out and accepted by his family and friends seemingly from the beginning. And it is fitting that his superpower is shapeshifting. The story is filled with LGBTQ characters—from Bells, to Emma’s two mothers, to Jess and Abby and their newly minted romance, but Lee does not make a big deal of this—it’s just a part of who the characters are. This normalizes them to readers, which is refreshing for a middle-reader-level book.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir
By T Kira Madden
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019
Growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., T Kira Madden’s life was filled with contradictions.
On the outside, she appeared to live a privileged life filled with equestrian competitions and designer shoes. But as the only child of parents who were constantly battling drug and alcohol addiction, her life was wildly unstable. With parents who were largely absent during her formative years, Madden more or less faced the world alone, finding solidarity and friendship with fellow fatherless girls. And that world included assault, objectification, family drama, and more.
In a collection of essays, Madden shares stories from her life on what it was like for a queer, biracial teenager (her father was white, her mother Chinese Hawaiian) in a culture filled with racial disparities and white-collar crime. Her stories span from 1960s Hawaii, to present day as she mourns the death of her father. She does not sugarcoat or hold back on what she experienced as a young girl—from a particularly harrowing incident in which her father became particularly violent, to how she would trade sexual favors for something as simple as a ride. I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback by this, but I also appreciated her honesty and the fact that it must not have been an easy thing to share. It also struck me as Madden is only a few years younger than me and her pop culture references are very much my references from growing up.
And while having mostly absentee parents may lead readers to assume Madden has a negative view about her parents, she doesn’t. Despite their flaws, it is clear she still loved her parents and that she felt loved. Madden merely reminds readers that family and love are complicated.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.