CW: racism, micro aggressions, usage of slurs, homophobia, xenophobia
I don't usually gravitate towards historical fiction; even when I do, it's been largely limited to romances or WWII European settings. But when I realized this book was about a queer Asian American girl in the 50s, I knew I had to pick it up immediately. And this was just wow.
I have always heard a lot about the author Malinda Lo, how she is a pioneer in both bringing Asian American authors as well as sapphic fiction to YA mainstream, but I never got around to reading any of her works before. However, I now realize why she is considered to be such an inspiration. The writing in this book is beautiful and stunning - I felt transported to 50s Chinatown in San Francisco because that's how powerful and vivid the author's descriptions are. It's both an exciting coming of age story of a young lesbian girl as well as a daily chronicle of life of Chinese American high school girls of the time - and I really loved how the author did justice to both aspects of the story. The story might feel mundane at times, but it's still high stakes and there were so many moments where I was scared, happy, devastated and hopeful - it takes us through a gamut of emotions and it's a true testament to the author's skill.
Lily is a typical Asian American child in many ways. She is a dutiful daughter like her parents expect, concentrating on her studies and socializing with kids whose families are acquaintances. But she is also an American who wants to be free and is ambitious enough to want to go to space and just wants to create her own destiny. In the midst of this turmoil of trying to fit in with both worlds, especially when she is not completely welcome in one, she also grapple with the realization of her sexuality - which is both thrilling and scary. But the author does such a brilliant job of bringing all these aspects of Lily's personality to life and I loved her so much. Her complicated friendship with her childhood friend, a budding forbidden relationship with another young girl and just wanting to know more about this new community that she could possibly belong to - it's all very vividly captured and made it very easy to empathize with Lily. The way the author explores various relationships, especially the ones between lesbian women whom Lily meets, who are trying to live their life and find places where they can be themselves, left a very deep impression on me.
Having recently read a couple of books about Asian American history, it was very intriguing to read more about McCarthyism and the red scare of the 50s, and the author shows us how terrifying it must have been for the Chinese Americans of the time, who had dedicated their lives to be good citizens but still had to prove that they weren't communist sympathizers, sometimes while realizing that anything they did would never be proof enough. What really surprised me was that there was also a fear during the time that homosexual was related to communism, and the author deftly explores how this would cause even more chaos in the life a young queer Asian girl, who is now doubly scared of being deported (or of her family being subjected to it) both for her sexuality as well as her ethnicity. The author's note at the end goes into much detail about what inspired her to write this story and how difficult it is to find more information about the lives of girls like Lily.
In the end, this is a coming of age tale of a girl whose stories are usually missing from the historical fiction genre - queer Asian Americans. As we all know that it's even more difficult to be openly queer in Asian families, it's really important that we get to read more of these stories - so that young Asian kids know that they aren't alone. If you like YA or coming of age stories or just historical fiction, I highly recommend this book.