Saturday, July 28, 2018

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

I think I went into this book with elevated expectations because so many people were singing its praises. I get that I might not be the "ideal" person to review this, but I also think that I have some valid criticisms as a somewhat experienced reviewer who has read a great deal of books (both good and bad), and also has some firsthand experience with social anxiety. There were some really good things in this book, and there were also some things that I really did not like. I'm going to talk about both, in detail, and I'm not going to couch my words in platitudes. If that offends you (I'm not being facetious - the words "sacrilege" and "appalling" were both used the other day for one of my other YA reviews), I'm not sure why you're still following me at this point unless you're a glutton for punishment, but if you find yourself unable to resist commenting on here with something rude, don't.

Things I liked:

The way cultural and ethnic identity were approached. We're getting an influx of  #OwnVoices reads lately, especially in YA, which is great. However, a lot of them are being approached from the same angle, in which cultural and ethnic identity are synonymous and the characters in question are fully immersed in their culture. Here, Bowman explores the "gap" that can occur between the two, particularly in an interracial relationship, with the main character, Kiko, being utterly isolated from her Japanese heritage in large part due to her mother's distaste for it. She doesn't look like white people, but she doesn't feel Asian, so she often feels adrift and isolated, and watching her rediscover herself and learn to appreciate Asian food, Asian culture, and Asian language was really nice. I think a lot of people probably feel like they aren't "enough" when the portrayal of people of color always shows them being very connected to their cultural roots, so it was refreshing to see a character who wasn't born connected to her cultural and experiencing it for the first time; it made me feel really happy because I feel like there's probably a lot of kids who feel similarly and need this rep.

The way sexual abuse was approached. We know from the beginning that Kiko was abused, but we don't know what happened. When we find out what did, it's a bit shocking because it seems "like no big deal" as Kiko describes it, dismissively, at one point, in order to hide about how much it bothered her. I actually liked that the author didn't choose something "extreme" because you know what, all forms of abuse are bad, and it shouldn't have to be something really graphic and disgusting in order to make people sit up and shout, "This is wrong!" It says a lot about our culture, in my opinion, that we treat abuse like it's heat on a spectrum, acting like some are more comfortable than others. No. So, after meditating on the author's reasons for doing what she did, I found that I really appreciated this.

Problematic microaggressions. There are a number in here, some of them done in innocence, some of them deliberately harmful. At one point, someone tells Kiko that they aren't "into Asian girls." Her friend, trying to cheer her up, tells her that people love exotic looks. On the one instance her mom tries to be nice and give her makeup tips, all of the tips are for white people with fair complexions and blue eyes. There was another one, actually committed by the love interest, which I'm not even sure was intentional by the author: he expresses surprise that she'd never been to Chinatown, which I know a lot of my friends would probably be offended by if asked, especially if they were Japanese, as Kiko was (because, as that stupid stereotype goes, all Asian cultures are interchangeable).

Things I didn't like:

Kiko's mother. I know I wasn't supposed to like her, but her character was just so over-the-top and the emotional abuse was just a constant barrage. I think it's going to be really triggering for people who have ever experienced emotional abuse, because the way her mother twisted words and always made everything about herself was pretty well done, even if her character was not. The author was effective in making her a despicable character, but she comes across as grotesque stereotype, a blonde "Mommie Dearest" who is about a phrase away from screaming "No more wire hangers!" I saw another reviewer who said that it felt like her characterization was done the way it was for shock value, and I agree. After a while, I just felt resigned whenever she appeared and steeled myself for more self-absorbed rants about how unappreciated/beautiful/special she was. Whatever.

The way Kiko's mother expressed her racist thoughts. This was ridiculous. I couldn't understand how she married a Japanese man if she hated Asian culture so much. Wouldn't this have come up while they were dating? (People are really bad at hiding their racist thoughts after more than a few dates, or whenever they start feeling "comfortable") What made Kiko's father go out with this woman for so many times without wising up to her attitude? She was such a racist, it was almost cartoonish. But then I reminded myself that we have enough racists in this country that Donald Trump "won" the presidency, so maybe her attitude wasn't that far off, I don't know. I feel like there's a lot that I, as a white person, will never understand about racism, because I don't experience it the same way that many people of color in my country - and others - do on a daily basis, so I feel funny criticizing something like this in a book, especially where it seems like it might be valid. I would have liked more insight into the relationship between Kiko's parents. It was utterly bizarre.

The social anxiety rep. When I was younger, someone said to me something like, "People who are depressed are such deep, caring people, and part of the reason they're so upset all the time is because they feel everything so deeply." This person was trying to help but actually made me feel worse, because at the time I felt very selfish spending so much time inside my own head, so I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Okay, so not only am I really sad, I'm the wrong kind of sad. Great." Her words actually made me feel like literal garbage for a week. I've noticed this mythos in a lot of YA books about mental illness and neurodivergence where they are portrayed as sensitive, wronged people who aren't appreciated by the people around them, and that really bothers me, because I feel like it creates this mindset where you don't need to change, you just need to find people who can fix you by thinking about you the way you want to be thought about. Kiko lives in this weird fantasy world where she thinks everything will be better if she can get into Prism and she uses her friends as crutches (she literally calls them her "crutch friends" or something like that). This is the absolutely wrong mindset to have, because as tempting as it is to think, "My life will be perfect if only I could have X," that isn't the case. You have to decide to change, as scary and awful as that can be. I didn't want to change when I was anxious, because change was scary and uncomfortable. I had to learn to want it, and I learned to want it by starting small and feeling that rush of learning that I had more agency and power than I dreamed. Kiko sort of goes through this eventually, but the opportunity is handed to her in the form of a beautiful (and white) love interest who looks like a European model (or so she describes him) and a shiny art mentor and scholarship, both handed to her on a silver platter. It isn't this easy for most people, and I think perpetuating this mentality of "learned helplessness" by telling teens to rely on external things to solve their problems (which only works for as long as those external things are around) is harmful and dangerous. When Kiko finds out she didn't get her scholarship at first, she literally falls apart. She has no idea what to do, because she put all her hopes and dreams and expectations in that one basket.

I actually wondered about the title because at one point, it's revealed that Kiko's mentor, a Japanese artist, calls selfish people "starfishes" because they have multiple legs that all point inward. Kiko thinks of her mother as a starfish, because I mean, obviously. But I also kind of wondered if the title of the book was supposed to refer to Kiko as well, since she spends so much time thinking of herself and what other people are thinking of her, and even though she doesn't appear to have narcissistic personality disorder (which her mother appears to have), her anxiety does make her selfish in a way because she's constantly thinking about what others are thinking of her, and how much people disappoint her by forcing her into the wrong choices, and this whole litany of other stuff. At the end of the book, she finally learns to be independent and get out of her own head, so part of me wondered if the title STARFISH was actually a decoy, referring secretly to Kiko learning to get out of her own head and learn other, healthier ways of thinking about herself and her life.

There are other things in this book that are triggering, like suicide and adultery, but I'm not going to talk about those things because they involve spoilers and because I feel like this review has become enough of a downer-fest. I do think that people with triggers should take care while reading this book, although I imagine that some will find it really useful and relatable. I didn't like it that much, for the reasons I mentioned before, but it wasn't a terrible book and even though I really did not like Kiko's character, I didn't want to throw this book into a furnace like I did with ~other~ mental health books. It was actually thought-provoking and interesting, and I liked the relationship between art and feelings; it reminded me a lot about SPEAK, which was the first time I'd ever read a book about someone with anxiety/depression, and was exactly what I needed when I was fourteen. I hope that this book ends up being that same useful tool for someone else, even if it wasn't for me.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

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