Tag Archives: Japanese American

Review for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish

Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.

My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism

I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.

In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.

Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.

If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.

To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.

Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.

These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.

My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.

Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.

Author Interview: Sarah Kuhn

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Sarah Kuhn! Last year, her debut novel, Heroine Complex, released and was one of my top reads of 2016. Come July 4th, the sequel, Heroine Worship, will be out. I’ve invited her to talk a little about the series and Heroine Worship.

Heroine Worship

Honestly, this cover is everything. It’s so dynamic and kickass. Thanks to Jason Chan for saving Asian SFF with his amazing cover illustrations. (In addition to the covers for this series, he also illustrated Cindy Pon’s Want.)

To keep things mostly spoiler-free for book 1, I’ll just link to the synopsis on Goodreads.

As always, my comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.” Here we go!

SW: Well, I am super excited that Heroine Worship is about to be released. Can you offer us any teasers beyond the synopsis?

Sarah: Thank you—I’m excited too! Heroine Worship is really about Annie Chang/Aveda Jupiter figuring out who she is now that everything she’s ever known has changed. We see a lot of her internal landscape, learn a lot about what she’s been feeling. There are so many superhero feelings in this book, y’all. There are also tons of supernatural wedding shenanigans, gorgeous vintage outfits, and at least one scene with sexy cake-eating. And it gives folks something that was only teased in Heroine Complex: Evie and Aveda fighting side by side as legit co-heroines.

SW: Annie’s character is interesting to me because she’s such a drama queen but also tough at the same time. Did she spring from your head, fully-formed, like Athena, or did it take some work to bring her to life? What has your character design process been like for this series?

Sarah: She’s actually the character that’s changed the most since I came up with the idea for Book 1! Evie and Aveda weren’t originally childhood friends and she was much more of a cartoonish diva boss character I plugged in to service this bigger idea of the superhero’s personal assistant story. Once I made them longtime friends, I had to think about her in a lot more depth, think about what drives her and what makes her and Evie’s bond so deep and complicated. I kept coming back to this intense drive she has to be The Absolute Best at whatever she’s doing and how that sometimes blocks out everything else—that’s certainly something I can relate to. She’s one of my favorite characters to write because she’s so bold and loud and has a tendency to charge into situations without thinking about the consequences. I love how she 100 percent refuses to be ignored.

As far as developing characters in general for this series, one of the things I enjoy the most is putting them all in a scene together and seeing how they interact, how they bounce off of each other. For instance, Nate (Evie’s scientist boyfriend) mentoring Bea (Evie’s science-intrigued little sister) came out of that.

SW: Complex characters are more compelling! In the Heroine Complex series, we have three Asian American girl protagonists, Evie, Annie, and Bea. Which of the three are you most like, if any? What traits do you share in common with each of them?

Sarah: I think of myself as being the most like whichever character I’m writing at the time because I’m so intensely in their headspace. I connect a lot with Evie’s snarkiness and using humor as a defense mechanism and her initial insistence on seeing herself only as a sidekick—that’s how I saw myself for a long time. And I relate to Aveda’s need to be the best and fear of failure and vulnerability—as well as her extreme love of fashion. I suppose like Aveda, I now also refuse to see myself as anything less than the protagonist. Bea, I’m still getting to know—stay tuned.

SW: I can’t wait to get into Aveda/Annie’s head because I’ve been wondering what goes on there since Book 1. And I also can’t wait to see more of Bea’s perspective since she’s younger than both Aveda and Evie and therefore will have a different perspective.

If you could cast any actors for the major characters in Heroine Worship, who would you choose, and why?

Sarah: That’s impossible to answer because there are so many awesome Asian American actresses doing great work right now! My mind overloads with the possibilities. I always love seeing people post their fancasts, though!

SW: I feel like I need to go looking for good fancasts now. *makes notes to search later*

I know for your journalism, you talk a lot about Asian Americans in media. What kinds of stories are at the top of your wish list?

Sarah: I’ve said this a ton, but I always love and want to see more stories about Asian Girls Having Fun. Those stories could take so many different forms—Asian Girls Falling in Love, Asian Girls Kicking Demon Butt, Asian Girls Going Shopping and Seeing Star Wars and Gossiping Afterwards While Looking at Pictures of Cute Dogs. Just as much Asian Girls Getting to Do Cool-Ass Shit as possible.

SW: I’m on board with that. It’s great to see that more of these stories are starting to appear in YA and beyond.

Looking at what’s already out there, what are your favorite Asian American creative works (e.g. movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc.)?

Sarah: We’ll be here all day unless I restrict myself somehow—there are so many awesome Asian American creative people doing awesome shit in all mediums right now! So I’ll keep it to recommending a few books either in my genre or adjacent to it:

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is a fantastic, funny, wonderfully earnest urban fantasy about bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol magic. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a clever, trope-deconstructing YA superhero book in a fun near future setting featuring cute robots and even cuter romance. And Trade Me by Courtney Milan is a swoony, sexy, witty contemporary romance about two seemingly opposite people who decide to switch lives for a month—this books makes me feel so many things and I adore the main couple so much. And all three of these books have awesome Asian American girl protagonists.

SW: Okay, I am seconding the hell out of Last Call and Not Your Sidekick, which were also among my top reads of 2016. (I’ve linked my reviews above for everyone who’s interested.) Trade Me I’ve heard of but haven’t read, but I’ll add it to my TBR. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and I wish you a wonderful launch for Heroine Worship!


Sarah Kuhn Credit CapozKnows PhotographySarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for Best Urban Fantasy, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out summer 2017. She also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the geek girl rom-com novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from USA Today and io9 and is in development as a feature film. Current writing projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.comStarTrek.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. (Photo Credit: CapozKnows Photography)

You can find Sarah on the Web: