Friday, May 04, 2007

Seeing Emily

Back on Feb. 21, I posted an announcement about the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award: The LBH award committee recognizes a new, up-and-coming poet. The Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Reading Association Promising New Poet Award was given to Joyce Lee Wong for Seeing Emily (Abrams, 2005).

Since then, I ordered the book, got it, and read it, and found it a very worthy award selection. In this novel-in-verse, a budding teen artist, Emily Wu, is struggling with the usual adolescent issues of separating from parents, fitting in at school, finding one’s own gifts, and experiencing first love. However, in Emily’s case there is an added layer of cultural confusion that colors these experiences. Her (Chinese) parents are loving, if over-protective with high expectations, she’s expected to bond instantly with the new Chinese student at school, and her new boyfriend has an odd tourist view about having an “exotic” Asian girlfriend. Writing about her best friends (and perhaps, unconsciously, about her own conflicted relationship with her mother), she observes:

Perhaps the more familiar
someone is
to you,
the harder it is
to separate her from
the person she is
to you,
and the harder it is
to see her
as a person
in her own right.
p. 204

She also struggles with the role looks and language play in how people perceive her:

Mama and Baba say
I used to speak beautiful Chinese,
my accent clear
and the tones perfect.
But then I started kindergarten,
I remember how the other kids laughed
at the way I couldn’t understand
any English at all.
Mama says it wasn’t long
before I spoke English
exactly like my classmates.
But she said I refused
to speak Chinese anymore
Even at home
with just Baba and Mama
and no one else to hear,
they spoke Chinese to me
and I answered them
in English.
p. 220

She spends a summer in China staying with an aunt and trying to improve her command of Chinese.

Though Chinese was
my mother tongue,
English was
my native
and I didn’t quite feel
I fit in,
either her in Taipei
or even in Virginia,
where I’d lived
all my life
until now.
p. 245

This bridging of Asian and American identities is also a powerful theme in the work of Laurence Yep as in The Star Fisher (Puffin, 1992) and for younger readers, Grace Lin as in The Year of the Dog (Little, Brown, 2006). Poet Janet Wong writes about her blended cultural identity in “Face It” beginning “My nose belongs/ to Guangdong, China/… My eyes belong/ to Alsace, France” from A Suitcase of Seaweed (Simon & Schuster, 1996). And for a completely different cultural perspective, look for “Legal Alien” by Pat Mora in which she observes she is “able to sit in a paneled office/ drafting memos in smooth English,/ able to order in fluent Spanish/ at a Mexican restaurant/ American but hyphenated” from Chants (Arte Publico Press, 1985). Joyce Lee Wong’s Seeing Emily is a powerful addition to this potlatch of stories and poetry that capture the struggle for a bi-cultural identity, as well as an engaging example of a novel-in-verse that will appeal to teens who want a good girl-boy-friends story.

And for more about verse novels, look for my April 19 post on “Support Teen Literature Day.”

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