By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
By Vichet Chum
Quill Tree Books, 2023
After a video of herself performing slam poetry goes viral, Soma Kear’s life becomes a lot (even more than it already was). Her dad’s been deported back to Cambodia and her mother has traveled there to help him with the adjustment. Meanwhile, Soma’s sister Dahvy’s wedding is quickly approaching and both sisters are stressed out amid the preparations—not to mention being worried whether their parents will make it back to Lowell, Massachusetts in time for the big day.
And now that she’s become somewhat of an internet sensation, Soma is considering entering her school’s spoken word contest. Her rhymes are how she makes sense of the world and Soma doesn’t know if she’s ready to share this with the rest of the world.
“Kween” is a story I would have wanted growing up. It follows a Cambodian American teenager trying to figure out her life. She goes through things most teens experience: first crushes, nagging teachers, bickering with your sibling. But some of her issues are also specifically Cambodian: the details of her sister’s wedding, her father’s deportation (a very real thing that is happening in our community).
This is also one of the rare stories out there that isn’t directly about the Khmer Rouge, a rarity among the already small number of Cambodian diasporic books on the shelf. And while there is trauma—Soma’s family has been separated after all—Chum does a great job of balancing that with humor and lightheartedness.
I related to Soma in so many ways—not just as a Cambodian American, but also very specifically as a former teenage girl, writing poetry as a teen (mine definitely wasn’t as good as hers). And while I didn’t share everything in common with Soma (I’m not queer, nor did I grow up in a majority-Cambodian community), I really appreciated seeing someone so similar to me, who I could easily be related to or had grown up with, on the page. Chum’s many Cambodian-specific details made me so happy. I love that this book exists, not just for my younger self, but for the Khmer kids out there looking for representation between the pages.
A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, A History, A Memorial
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, 2023
In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, a 4-year-old Viet Thanh Nguyen and his family are forced to flee their home in Vietnam for the United States. They settle in suburban San Jose, California, where his parents open a grocery store called SàiGòn Mới. And while it might look like they’re starting to build a new life for themselves, the Nguyens are not exactly living the American Dream.
At age 9, Nguyen and his older brother receive the news that their parents have been shot while working at their grocery store on Christmas Eve. And throughout the years, Nguyen’s mother takes three trips to a psychiatric hospital—the last of which is for the last 13 years of her life. And as he grows up, Nguyen experiences an existential crisis of being both Vietnamese and American. How can he be both the killer as well as the person being killed?
“Man of Two Faces” is a memoir, but Nguyen expands his and his family’s story to contextualize their lives within the larger fabric of American history. By doing so, he points out how refugees such as his family ended up in the United States as a result of American interference in their home countries in the first place. So their ending up in this country is part of a bigger picture of politics, colonization, and more.
I’ll admit when I first started reading this book, I was a bit confused as to why Nguyen included so much history about American-Vietnamese relations in his memoir. But as the story continued, I started to understand what he was doing and it really made me think about the bigger picture of how people end up in the United States—especially as my parents were also refugees (from Cambodia) during that period of history.
Another thing I appreciated about this book was how Nguyen plays with the text and typography—from the font size to the left or right justification. While it might seem strange, this technique also leads the reader to pay more attention to these sections and think about them more.
Well, That Was Unexpected
Jesse Q. Sutanto
Delacorte Press, 2022
After her mom catches her in a compromising position, Sharlot Citra finds herself whisked away from her home of Los Angeles to her mother’s homeland of Indonesia. Supposedly it’ll be exactly what they both need. Sharlot, who gave up asking her mom about Indonesia years ago after being repeatedly shut down, isn’t so sure.
When George Clooney Tanuwijaya’s father fears he can no longer get through to his son, he decides to take things into his own hands.
To make sure their children find the right type of partner, Sharlot’s mother and Georges’s father strike up an online conversation with each other, disguised as their children. Eventually, the two teens (reluctantly) meet in person for a “date,” while under the impression that they’re meeting the person represented by the other’s parent. Needless to say, hilarity ensues over these misunderstandings. And things get even more complicated when Sharlot finds out George is in fact the only male heir to one of the richest Chinese-Indonesian families in the country.
While “Unexpected” is a teen rom-com filled with many tropes of the genre—mistaken identity, fake dating, overly involved relatives—Sutanto includes them in her signature style that will have readers chuckling. Just like in her previous books, Sharlot’s and George’s parents’ meddling ways are just shy of competent, so the results are always hilarious (and because our lovebirds are teens, it’s slightly cringey, but in the best way).
In addition to the humor, this is also a sweet love story between two young people trying to figure out themselves, as well as each other. It’s great to see Sharlot and George slowly become more open to each other and get to know the real person behind the (fake) online persona.
I also enjoyed seeing their relationships with their respective families evolve over the course of the book as more secrets are revealed—especially between Sharlot and her mother as their relationship is particularly fraught at the beginning. Sutanto reminds us that our parents are human, with identities beyond how they relate to us and lives long before we ever came along.