Trigger Warnings: Suicide, depression
Last year, I was lucky enough to have discovered the novel The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. I was hesitant to start it at first, because of the bizarre plot and mention of magical realism throughout the story, however, I’m really glad I did. The book follows 15-year old Leigh, who is half-Asian and half-white, as she travels to Taiwan to reconnect with her maternal grandparents following the suicide of her mother. Leigh is still reeling from the loss of her mom, Dory, when she hears her name being called by a bird, who Leigh believes is the reincarnation of her mother. With the hopes of piecing togethers parts of Dory’s old life and who she was before immigrating to America, Leigh decides to learn more about her roots and culture.
The book is told in chapters alternating between Leigh’s experience in Taiwan as well as flashbacks to Leigh living with her mentally ill mother. Reading about Leigh and Dory’s story took me on a rollercoaster of emotions, and the author did an amazing job discussing how it feels to lose a loved one. Pan didn’t sugarcoat any emotions and also didn’t follow the typical mantra seen in books of how things will get better. Instead, Leigh discovered that every day won’t get easier, but she’ll learn to handle the pain. Leigh deals with a series of questions following her mother’s suicide: “Could she have prevented it?” “Why hadn’t she noticed?” And, the most pressing one of them all, “whose fault was it?” Her story was realistic and authentic, which helped me connect more with her journey.
Another refreshing aspect of this book was the insight it gave into mental illnesses, particularly the stigma surrounding it in Asian cultures. According to an article on the American Psychological Association, a study found that only 8.6% of Asian Americans sought any type of mental health service compared to about 18% of the general population nationwide. Pan depicts Dory’s mental health in a raw, realistic way, vividly showing that mental illness is not a cut and dry topic. Leigh comes to the understanding that neither she nor anyone else is the reason for her mom’s death. While she may never truly understand what went through her mom’s head, she knows that her mom’s suicide is not an indication of the love she had for her daughter.
Through her time with her grandparents in Taiwan, Leigh also discovers parts of herself. Growing up half-white and half-Asian made Leigh feel as if she never truly belonged with either side of her heritage. She recounts getting stares from Taiwanese people when she was there, but also receiving offhand comments about her race from classmates in America. Leigh not only comes to discover herself through this book, but she also accepts herself, which really brought the story full circle.
Overall, this is a beautiful book about pain, grief, and identity. The writing was prose-like and lyrical, and the author did such a good job of writing an authentic story. I would highly recommend The Astonishing Color of After!
By Aarushi Vyas