By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
By Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Candlewick Press, 2020
Living life on the open seas, Flora becomes Florian, sailing under a false flag aboard the Dove. As an orphan-turned-pirate, she’s marauded, stolen, and worse. All in the name of survival. But then she meets Lady Evelyn Hasegawa, a highborn Imperial daughter aboard the Dove, on her way to an arranged marriage.
As the two become close and fall in love, Flora begins to really consider her past deeds—especially as the captain and crew are due to show their true colors and enslave their rich passengers. Soon the pair, who have lived by the rules and whims of others, take their fates into their own hands.
What follows is a swashbuckling adventure filled with action, magic, mermaids, and more.
This is a fun story. Tokuda-Hall’s world building is extensive in a way you know we’ll be visiting this universe again (and according to her website, we will be). While the magical elements are a little more low-key compared to other fantasy stories, we get a different take on mermaids and witchcraft—two genre staples that have been done countless times.
Growing up, I loved fantasy stories. Witches, dragons, castles, I was (and am) there. But it was always white kids who got to have these adventures. Tokuda-Hall’s story, featuring a diverse cast of characters with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, including two strong young women of color, is exactly the kind of story my younger self craved. Flora’s (who is Black) and Evelyn’s (whose Imperial background is a mix of Japanese, American, and British cultures) stories are not only about the traumas they’ve endured or the hardships they faced. The teens are complicated, imperfect, in control of their destiny, and get to save the people they care about.
“Mermaid” also includes characters with different sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions—and with the exception of a few judgmental people, everyone accepts them without blinking an eye. This is the kind of varied, nuanced, and complex representation readers of all ages want and need.
Zara Hossain is Here
By Sabina Khan
Scholastic Fiction, 2021
At 17, Zara Hossain is like most teenagers in Texas. She goes to class, has college applications on her mind, and tolerates her best friend’s teasing about possible romantic interests. The Pakistani immigrant also has to deal with Islamophobia from her classmates—but can’t make any waves because her family is still awaiting their green card approval.
But one day, Tyler Benson—star football player and Zara’s personal tormentor—takes things too far, leaving a threat on Zara’s locker. After his suspension, he vandalizes Zara’s house with racist graffiti in revenge, which leads to a violent crime that puts Zara, her future, and her family—who moved to the United States for her father’s work—at risk.
“Zara Hossain” is a powerful story about a young woman who’s learning how to fight for herself and her loved ones. As Zara navigates her family’s options to stay in the country, readers get a glimpse into how complicated our immigration system is. Even for people who do it the “right” way, not only is it a long and tedious process, their status in this country is so fragile that the slightest misstep could change things. Zara’s story can serve as an eye opener for anyone who has taken their citizenship in the United States for granted.
Another thing I appreciated about this story was Zara’s relationship with her parents and how close they are. Oftentimes in stories featuring children of immigrants, or young people who are immigrants themselves, their relationships with their parents are often combative and filled with misunderstandings (on both sides). But Zara’s parents are especially understanding and accepting—even at the expense of their place in the local Muslim community. This was especially apparent when it came to Zara’s bisexuality. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Zara’s parents come to her defense against a particularly gossipy aunty. Representation matters, not only in highlighting stories like Zara’s but also in showing that not all immigrant parents are the same.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Books, 2019
Even though his mother can’t read, Little Dog is writing her a letter. Written when he is in his late 20s, Little Dog unearths their family’s history from even before he was born—a history rooted in Vietnam. The letter also introduces parts of Little Dog’s life that his mother has never been privy to—including when he explores his sexuality and his relationship with a boy named Trevor when he was young.
In his letter, Little Dog recounts moments of his life growing up with a single mother in a country that is not her own. Their relationship is far from perfect as his mother was occasionally abusive, which could be triggering for some, so readers keep this in mind if you choose to pick up this book. But despite this, it’s clear that Little Dog loves his mother. This raises the question of how to reconcile our love for someone when they are also the source of our pain and trauma. As Vuong demonstrates, there’s no easy answer.
If you’re looking for a story with a plot, “On Earth” is very light on this. Admittedly, this made it a little difficult for me to get into the book at first. I kept waiting for something to happen. But what Little Dog’s letter is, is a recollection of moments of his and his family’s life—his upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut as the son of a Vietnamese immigrant.
Vuong gives us an intimate look into a family still dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, decades after the last shots were fired and reminds us that intergenerational trauma is very real.
Little Dog’s story shows readers how far reaching the trauma of war and violence is and how it can affect more than just the individual. It’s passed down and can impact an entire family for generations.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.