Review for Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen

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Background: I feel obligated to review this book first since it holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because it’s the first book about a Taiwanese American character that I’d ever read, and as a Taiwanese American who was raised to be conscious and proud of my heritage, having that representation meant so much to me. My parents bought a copy for me at the North American¬†Taiwanese Women’s Association convention in 2006 and had it signed and personalized by Justina Chen, and it’s one of my first collectible books.

My summary: Half-white, half-Taiwanese Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her own skin. She has her hands full dealing with her ultra-strict Taiwanese mother at home and fending off racists at school. When her mother decides to ship her off to math camp at Stanford, she’s convinced that her experience will be boring and miserable. However, the camp turns out to be a lesson in self-acceptance and embracing her biracial identity.

Review: I am terrible at quantifying my feelings for books most of the time, so I’ll stick to qualitative commentary instead.

First of all, this book was a great read in terms of character voice. The story is narrated in first-person from Patty’s perspective, and her personality jumps straight off the page. She doesn’t hold back on the honesty and the sass, and she uses unconventional styles for storytelling and emphasis. She puts a uniquely Asian American spin on every situation, and the results are equal parts painfully relatable and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The central theme of the novel is self-acceptance as it relates to racial identity, and while this may feel like an overused trope of Asian American fiction, this particular narrative is important because it addresses the perspective of biracial Asian Americans, who are often left out of the picture when discussing and representing Asian American identity. Thus, while the story may be familiar to those who have read a lot of Asian American fiction, it’s also fresh and groundbreaking in other ways.

It’s hard not to talk about Asian American representation without delving into the issue of stereotypes, so I’ll talk briefly about that. I think there are two different ways of understanding the stereotypical elements presented in the book: on the one hand, the book attempts to overturn a lot of the stereotypes and combat the racist microaggressions that Patty deals with; on the other hand, there are times when the “stereotype” in question is really just an authentic representation of Patty’s personal reality. Yes, the tiger mom is definitely a stereotype, but for Patty and many other real Asian Americans, it’s their lived reality. Moreover, it’s reductive to simply call out any element that falls into the realm of stereotypes without addressing the exact execution. In the case of Patty’s mother, while she is ultra-strict, she is also allowed depth of character and complexity. I can’t go into detail about the examples since it would contain a spoiler, but a later revelation about Patty’s mother serves to round out her character and give her background and texture.

That all said, I still have some reservations about the book’s approach to race when considering it from a critical race studies and ethnic studies perspective. One of my major critiques of the book is that it treats race and racism in a very individualized way that obscures the social context in which race and racism are embedded. Patty’s issues surrounding race seem to center on individual attitudes and actions without any thought for the historical and structural forces that shape those attitudes. The boy who bullies her is portrayed as an individual acting on his individual bigotry; the potential origins of his racist notions of Asians and Asian Americans go unremarked upon.

The other critique I have is that while the book attempts to champion mixed race Asian Americans, it veers into the realm of fetishization in certain passages. There are instances where the fetishization of Asian American women is called out, but at the same time Patty seems to find empowerment in the idea that all “hapa” (originating from the Hawaiian term “hapa haole” or half-foreigner; the use of “hapa” to refer to all half-Asian people is considered appropriative by many Native Hawaiian community members and activists, so I would avoid applying it outside of the original intended context of mixed Native Hawaiian and white/foreigner; I use it here because that was the term used in the original text) people are attractive. It’s important to note the positionality that is involved in this situation. Coming from mixed race people themselves, who are often held to white supremacist or otherwise ethnocentric beauty standards, saying that mixed race people are attractive can be a form of empowerment. However, coming from people who are not mixed race, the statement can be a form of homogenization and fetishization. In particular, the notion that mixed race people are attractive usually manifests itself in the form of a hierarchy wherein those who are mixed with white, light-skinned, and look closest to white beauty standards are seen as the most attractive. Mixed race people whose racial background is solely comprised of POC backgrounds without any white are often sidelined or erased completely. This phenomenon is referred to as “colorism” or “shadeism.”

Overall Impression and Recommendation: I say read it. It’s a fast read and an engaging narrative that will probably elicit strong emotions if you can relate to the Asian American experience, particularly the Taiwanese American experience, as it addresses certain issues that are specific to Taiwanese Americans.

P.S. If you really want an extremely detailed analysis of the book, you can definitely ask me for the 8-page academic paper I wrote on the book for my Mixed Race Identities class.

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