Want

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by this city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgement, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is or destroying his own heart?

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Like any kind of fantasy, I’ve always had something of a rocky relationship with dystopia. I read The Hunger Games back when I was 17 and I liked it, but not as much as everybody else did. I got through the first couple books of the Divergent series, but never bothered finishing the trilogy, realising in the gap between the second and third books that the only reason I had read the first two was because of a romance I didn’t really care about any more.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with YA dystopia:

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I felt like most of what I read was a melodramatic vehicle to deliver a lacklustre love triangle in which neither of the men the girl was torn over (and they always were men) were interesting. So when I read Aila @ One Way or an Author’s review of Want by Cindy Pon and, contrary to my experience of YA dystopia so far, it sounded super relevant and interesting, I was intrigued.

Want did not disappoint. One of my favourite bloggers, CW @ Read Think Ponder once wrote a fantastic blog post about the role of dystopic fiction – which I totally recommend that you read – and the part that most stuck in my mind was her definition of what the genre actually is. She wrote. “…dystopia should contain some social or political commentary, such as discourse on government, social institutions, or have societal implications.”  Back when I first read that, the reason behind my general antipathy toward dystopia – that I had never really bothered analysing before – hit me: the reason I didn’t like most dystopia is that it’s an important genre that had become watered down into something completely irrelevant. Divergent just doesn’t stand up well against A Handmaid’s Tale, I guess.

This is why Want is a breath of fresh air wrapped in a story that is depressingly familiar and anxiety-inducing in its prescience. Set in a futuristic Taipei, it tells of a society in which the majority (known as meis, meaning ‘have nots’) die at young ages due to air poisoned by pollution, while the richest 1% (known as yous, meaning those who have) are safely encased in breathing apparatus that costs millions to obtain – so is completely out of reach of the normal person. After a successful kidnapping and ransom venture, Jason Zhou and his fellow 99%-er rebel gang infiltrate the world of the yous in order to take them down.

Pon looks at current issues with climate change and takes them to the farthest reaches of disaster. In her Taipei – much like in current times – cleaning the air is a difficult, but by no means impossible task. It’s made impossible by those with the ability to help – the yous – refusing to do so because 1) the situation doesn’t affect them and 2) they financially benefit from it. The rich are protected from the noxious air by the suits made by the Jin Corporation,  so they continue to buy from other rich companies that are in turn run by people with their own Jin Corporation suits… and on and on and on with one result: nothing changes and meis continue to die.

Watching people die isn’t enough of a motivation for the yous to make changes – in part because they don’t often actually see it. The yous and the meis live lives so utterly separate it’s as if the yous have lost the ability to recognise the humanity of the meis and their suffering at all, let alone to see it as their problem. It is, ultimately, ignorable. It would be nice to think we non-fictional people would never be capable of this kind of passive cruelty, but the fact is we’re doing it all the time. Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine cobalt which is then used to make our smart phone batteries, while countless rivers in Asia are completely destroyed by the textile industry, just one aspect of the destruction caused by demand for fast fashion. So much of our day to day, from clothes to technology to food, comes at the expense of people in countries far away from our own, people living below the poverty line who don’t have a platform or the resources to make themselves heard, and therefore are not seen. Just like with the yous and the meis in Pon’s world.

Pon however, takes it a step further and complicates the story by demonstrating that this lack of empathy indeed goes both ways. When Zhou joins the you community and meets Daiyu, an heiress, he is thrown off when he finds she is a nice person, albeit one complicit with the status quo through being born into a privileged you family. What had previously seemed like an easy task, bring down Jin Corp and the yous with it was harder when, rather than a nameless, faceless hoard he could easily hate, the yous turned out to include people like Daiyu, a decent and smart human being. Through Zhou’s relationship with Daiyu, Pon explores the polarities we live in and how when communities actually mix with one another, so many of them prove to be false.

In Want, Pon weaves a rich world that is compelling and painfully relevant, but cautiously optimistic in its approach to some of society’s greatest problems.

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The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

She annihilates standardized tests and the bad guys. Genie Lo is among droves of ivy-hopeful overachievers in her sleepy Bay Area suburb. You know, the type who wins. When she’s not crushing it at volleyball or hitting the books, Genie is typically working on how to crack the elusive Harvard entry code.

But when her hometown comes under siege from hellspawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are dramatically rearranged. Enter Quentin Sun, a mysterious new kid in class who becomes Genie’s self-appointed guide to battling demons. While Genie knows Quentin only as an attractive transfer student with an oddly formal command of the English language, in another reality he is Sun Wukong, the mythological Monkey King incarnate – right down to the furry tail and penchant for peaches.

Suddenly, acing the SATs is the least of Genie’s worries. The fates of her friends, family and the entire Bay Area all depend on her summoning an inner power that Quentin assures her is strong enough to level the gates of Heaven. But every second Genie spends tapping into the secret of her true nature is a second in which the lives of her loved ones hang in the balance.

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The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee is a DELIGHTFUL book. It’s an action packed, romantic, relatable and funny read – giggling to myself on the bus level funny – driven by Chinese folklore.

‘“Go ahead,” I said, groping behind me for any heavy, hard object I could find to clock him with. “Tell me your real name and we’ll see if that makes it all better.”

Quentin took a deep breath.

“My true name,” he said, “…is SUN WUKONG.”

A cold wind passed through the open window, rustling my loose papers like tumbleweed.

“I have no idea who that is,” I said.’

I have for a long time been a huge fan of epic stories of saving the world told within the boundaries of a domestic setting. In a genre overflowing with tragically dispatched parents and groups of feral teenagers, a character who has to save the world from the rabid demon horde and get home before curfew? That’s an interesting story.

And Genie Lo is a fantastic main character. She is a joy to read, with Yee deftly avoiding all of the stereotypical and trope-ish behaviours so often displayed in characters with Genie’s snowflake status. She is, as Quentin puts it, unquestionably, undeniably human, just with a whole bunch of other stuff going on as well. The ‘stuff’ sometimes being finding out that she is the reincarnated physical form of a stick Quentin used to fight demons with, and other times, figuring out how to have a relationship with both of her parents after their bitter divorce.

She also defies many gender and racial stereotypes. Genie is a hot tempered lady, and, for better or worse, not above punching an asshole in the face every once and a while. In Western culture, which is flooded with negative representations of Asian women as passive sex objects, Genie’s self-directed narrative is a refreshing and necessary one.

I found Yee’s focus on Genie’s body to be super interesting also. It is emphasised throughout that Genie is a big girl – she describes herself as ‘monstrously tall’. This puts Genie’s appearance at odds with the ideal of the tiny, stick thin Chinese woman her body shaming mother makes it clear she thinks that Genie should be.

Additionally, Yee makes a point of Genie being much taller than her love interest, Quentin. That this was something of a revolutionary move is a testament to how fucked up our body image is as a society, but whatever. It was. And guess what, all of those girls out there who have staunchly declared they would never date a guy shorter than them (me included)? It affected nothing. I was shipping as hard as ever. Obviously.

Yee makes it more and more apparent as the story develops that Genie’s big body is for the benefit of her badass, demon slaying self. There is a point, fairly early on in the novel when Genie discovers that she can in fact grow herself to whatever size is needed for the purposes of demon slaying. Initially, she is totally ashamed and embarrassed by this development. Getting bigger is literally the opposite of what she wants for herself. But, as the narrative progresses, Genie embraces and starts to appreciate her body, something that is shown in the final battle of the novel where she deliberately grows her physical self to gigantic proportions in order to defeat her adversary. In a culture where women are taught to take up as little space as possible, with Asian women suffering from this in particular, it was such an empowering and, as the title would suggest, EPIC, moment.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is a wonderful example of a YA novel. Genie and her supporting cast leap off the page, and their adventures swept me along so fast I finished this book in only a couple of sittings. It 100% lives up to the hype.

The Upside of Unrequited

Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love. No matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly is always careful. Better to be careful than hurt.

But when Cassie gets a new girlfriend who comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick, everything changes. Will is funny, flirtatious and basically the perfect first boyfriend.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s co-worker, Reid, the awkward Tolkien superfan she could never fall for… right?  

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The Upside of Unrequited is an adorable, bitter-sweet story of first love, change and marriage equality. Fans of Simon VS The Homo Sapiens Agenda won’t be disappointed by Becky Albertalli’s follow up. Like its predecessor, it aims straight for the heart.

And oh my god does it meet its target. It took me right back to being seventeen, and the last boyfriendless nerd girl standing. I wanted to call up Albertalli and ask why she couldn’t have written this seven years ago (yes, I am old) because seventeen-year-old me would really have appreciated it.

The Upside of Unrequited is the quintessential contemporary young adult novel. Molly is obsessed with the worlds of love and sex she has not yet experienced for herself, but through the constant presence of both in movies, books and her home – her moms are super in love and get engaged toward the beginning of the story – she feels like she knows it.

But actually putting it into practise? Molly can’t think of anything more terrifying. It doesn’t help that in all those movies the girls are skinny, which Molly certainly isn’t.

Can we just take a moment and appreciate a fat bodied girl in a YA novel, please? I can’t be the only one fed up of YA girls who mysteriously almost all describe themselves as ‘too skinny’ (I know some people feel this way, and I’m not shaming them for it, just acknowledging that those people perhaps aren’t a majority, as many books would have us believe…). Molly’s insecurities about her body are present throughout the story in a way that felt very authentic. She’s always pulling on a cardigan to hide the parts of herself she feels self-conscious about. In one of the most anger-inducing scenes in the novel, a boy at a party tells Molly that she’s “pretty for a fat girl”. Conversely, in one of the best scenes, after pulling on her wedding outfit she realises she’s hot AF in a dress that makes her look “fat on purpose”, which in a world where we’re forever being told to buy clothes that are ‘slimming’, felt very empowering.

This scene where Molly feels fat and beautiful is emblematic of much of the writing in the novel. It’s a cute contemporary giving some serious side eye to outdated ideas of what love is, what family is and what people should look like. It has a diverse cast of characters – Molly has two moms in a mixed race relationship and was born via a sperm donor – and felt, like Radio Silence, so refreshing to read.

The Upside of Unrequited, though undeniably sweet and charming, also packs an emotional punch. It’s about change, growing up, and, inevitably, away from the people you’ve been closest to all your life. Molly spends much of the book trying to resolve the idea that the relationship she has always had with her sister will change as they head into hopefully parallel, but also different futures. She tries to cling onto the past in a way that only pushes the people she wants closest, namely her twin sister, Cassie, away. Albertalli beautifully illustrates the unique pain we experience when our priorities change at different rates than those closest to us.

In this sense, though it’s somewhat on the younger end of the YA spectrum, The Upside of Unrequited totally appealed to me as an older reader. The sweeping changes that start at the end of your teens go on (at least, in my experience) to become your new normal as you progress into your twenties. As such, there was something in the irrepressible optimism that is the heart of this novel that I found deeply comforting.

I highly recommend it.

The Good Immigrant

How does it feel to be constantly regarded as a potential threat, strip-searched at every airport? Or to be told that, as an actress, the part you’re most fitted to play is ‘wife of a terrorist’? How does it feel to have words from your native language misused, misappropriated and used aggressively towards you? How does it feel to hear a child of colour say in a classroom that stories can only be about white people? How does it feel to go ‘home’ to India when your home is really London? What is it like to feel you always have to be the ambassador for your race? How does it feel to always tick ‘Other’?

Bringing together 21 exciting black, Asian and minority ethnic voices emerging in Britain today, The Good Immigrant explores why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms.

Inspired by discussion around why society appears to deem people of colour as bad immigrants – job stealers, benefit scroungers, undeserving refugees – until, by winning Olympic races, or baking good cakes, or being conscientious doctors, they cross over and become good immigrants, editor Nikesh Shukla has compiled a collection of essays that are poignant, challenging, angry, humorous, heartbreaking, polemic, weary and – most importantly – real.

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Despite stop and search statistics, our attitude toward refugees – our ex-prime minister David Cameron having once referred to people running for their lives as a ‘swarm’ –  and the general acceptance in our country that a person with a white-sounding name will get the job over a ‘foreign’ one, there’s this weird sense here in the UK that racism is an ‘American problem’. That those gun-toting police, murdering black men and women is the sort of thing that could never happen ‘over here’, though of course it does. Guns or no guns, racism is as ingrained a part of our society here in the UK as it is abroad, and comforting ourselves with the notion that we’re not as bad as the US is really not helping.

What is helping, I think, is work like The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has gathered a diverse group of writers from all different ethnicities, backgrounds and career paths to analyse experiences of racism in the UK.  Shukla’s own essay, which kicks off the book, tackles cultural appropriation, in particular the use of ‘namaste’ , a word that actually means hello, but has become ‘a bastardised metaphor for spiritualism’ adopted by white people (of whom I have to admit I am one. To me it meant only ‘yay yoga’. Education is a lifelong endeavour). What follows is a collection without a weak link. Each writers’ voice is strong, full of feeling – whether that’s anger, amusement, sadness, frustration, etc. – and unique. The collection weaves personal stories together with statistics and studies to create an experience that is as empathetic as it is informative.

It would be impossible to do justice to every essay in the this collection without writing a blog several thousand words long, so I’m going to focus on just three essays in this outstanding collection.

Trust me, and buy it.

“You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.” – Darren Chetty

Chetty has been teaching primary school children for 20 years in multicultural, multiracial and multifaith communities. In that time he came to notice that despite encouragement, the majority of children of colour in his classes would only ever write stories with white protagonists. In this essay he incorporates his own teaching experience with studies and essays written by others to explore this phenomenon. By analysing children’s literature and pop culture, Chetty weaves a fascinating piece that demonstrates the nonsensical way in which the viewer of so much mainstream British pop culture is assumed to be white, and the effect that has on children in minorities.

One of the most depressing of Chetty’s experiences while doing this work was the often aggressive response of other teachers. As I mentioned, here in the UK we like to pretend that we live in a society that is somehow ‘post-racial’, and this is no more obvious, Chetty writes, than in the way we insist on seeing children as ‘colour-blind.’ He says:

“If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colour-blind. However, even the strongest advocates of racial colour-blindness do not argue that all people are white… and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour writing exclusively about white characters?”

Next time someone tries to tell me stories aren’t important, I will wave this essay in their face by way of response.

Flags – Coco Khan

Flags is sbout the time Khan, an Asian woman, woke up after a one night stand to find herself in a room draped in Union Jacks. Her immediate assumption was that the cute blonde white guy she’d met was, in the cold light of day, a secret, hair-having skinhead.

This is an essay about sexual liberation and race, and where the two things intersect. After growing up being taught that sex was shameful, and something that men could have without concern but women would always be punished for, Khan was determined, in her young adulthood, to form a new narrative.

But she kept facing the same ignorance. Men assumed they knew her through ill-informed racial stereotypes, and she began to question whether they were attracted to her because she was attractive, or because was ‘a brown-shaped thing that will do’. Flags is a gutting look at the racial stereotyping women of colour face can from their sexual partners, and the assumptions that are forever made regarding their autonomy and sexual identity.

“On dates I would tolerate the vaguely insulting stereotypical questions, patiently answering, ‘No, I have never been promised to a man I’ve never met. Actually I can barely cook at all.’”

Khan’s essay is a unique take on the ways in which we so often other and dehumanise people of colour, and put individuals in a position where they are somehow expected to behave as ‘an ambassador for their race’.

Airports and Auditions – Riz Ahmed

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I didn’t pick this just because I have a crush on Riz Ahmed.

Honestly.

It’s (probably?) my favourite essay of the collection because, it seems to me – as a white girl who hasn’t never experienced any of what she’s talking about – to do a really great job of encapsulating what it must be to experience life as an Asian man in a country full of people who assume you’re a terrorist. Ahmed compares auditions with the interrogation room: “They’re places where the threat of rejection is real. They’re also places where you’re reduced to your marketability or threat –level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels.”

Turns out that ‘random searching’ isn’t so random. I imagine this comes as a surprise to nobody.

Ahmed talks in blunt terms about the way that this constant labelling by outside sources affects a person’s soul, and how, over time, he has figured out ways to ignore it, though he shouldn’t have to. He can, on a good day, view his perpetual racial profiling as the total farce that it is and maybe even laugh about it.

He ends the essay on an interaction he had with another young Muslim guy, an airport staff member who happened to be conducting the ‘random searches’ that day. This guy was particularly apologetic and a fan of Ahmed’s, so by way of comfort, he shared that he always gets searched when he flies, too. Ahmed writes:

“We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority’s shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you’re on the right side of it.”

The Good Immigrant is timely, important, frustrating, funny, sad and hopeful. It’s a fantastic read that asks you to look critically at the way we treat people of colour in the UK, and the damage done by racist stereotyping and a media that still largely caters to a white audience.