The Silence That Binds Us is an incredibly touching tale about first-generation families, racism, grief and anger.
After her popular older brother’s death by suicide, racist accusations are hurled against 16-year-old May, her Chinese American parents, and other Asian families for putting too much “pressure” on their kids. May attempts to challenge the racism and ugly stereotypes through her writing, only to realize that she still has much to learn and that the consequences of speaking truth to power run much deeper than she could have foreseen.
We had the honour of chatting with Joanna Ho on Asian Americans expressing love, (re)defining our own identities and understanding shared histories.
Such a touching story! Thank you for telling this important story about Asian Americans and incorporating all the complex layers in The Silence That Binds Us. Why do you think Asians often say I love you through “Have you eaten yet” and “Bring a jacket”?
I had this revelation when I was a new mom. My son was preemie and born at 4 lbs 5 oz. He was in the hospital for nearly two weeks because his blood sugar levels weren’t reaching healthy levels and every time he ate, the nurses had to prick his toe to measure his sugar. Then he had jaundice. So much of those first few months of parenting was about monitoring his food intake and trying to make sure he was eating enough. Calibrating my entire life around nursing and pumping – even when I went back to work. The other part of my focus was trying to make sure his body was warm and swaddled and feeling safe. It hit me that as a mom, this was how I was showing my love. That food and warmth were literally giving my son life. As he gets older, I knew there would be so many ways I would not be able to control or do to help him, but I learned early on that food and warmth – “have you eaten yet?” and “did you bring a jacket?” – were ways I could show him love and will always be able to show him love. I had literally rearranged and reprioritized my entire life around these two things for him and I know I will continue to do it for as long as I can. That’s the depth of these two questions. That’s the love these questions represent.
You included many Chinese food items (thanks for making us hungry) and mentioned how the English translation is often terrible. If you get to pick one food-related Chinese word to add to the English dictionary, which would you pick?
QQ! It’s a Taiwanese term that means a specific, consistency that is chewy and bouncy, firm and springy. We love food that is QQ!
Within the Asian diaspora, there is always the divide stemming from “You’re not Asian enough”. What do you think makes Maybelline Chen Asian “enough”?
I think just existing makes May “Asian enough.” It makes all of us Asian enough. I think it’s important for us to learn and understand our history and culture. It is as important for us to know that the mere fact that we exist makes us Asian enough.
I have a picture book coming out in a few years that explores this question through the lens of boba. Culture and societies evolve as they overlap with influencing forces and experiences. The Asian diaspora is doing exactly this; we are constantly defining and redefining our identities within our own unique contexts. It’s important to understand that “Asian” is a blanket term that encompasses so many incredibly diverse and different cultures, ethnicities and nationalities. My hope is that people will celebrate this while also finding solidarity in our shared histories and experiences.
The complex relationship between the Asian and Black diasporas is very interesting, and rarely covered. Why did you think of including it in The Silence That Binds Us?
I think the question answers itself! The Asian and Black communities are often pit against each other in media and culture, and there is a specific, systemically oppressive reason for this: It serves to divide communities that have a common oppressor and maintains the status quo of power. The “model minority” myth was introduced in the United States in response to the Civil Rights movement led by Black activists and organizers. The intention was to negate the argument for justice by pitting Asians against Blacks. Essentially: The Asians have overcome racism, why can’t you? It put the responsibility for change on the shoulders of those who had been most oppressed and diverted attention away from the real problem: the system of white supremacy. I hope that we can continue to understand our own shared histories so that we can work more closely together to create change.
There are many great books written by Asian authors recently. Any favourites?
Too many to name!
- Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura
- Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
- We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
- Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Melinda Lo
- Keep it Together, Keiko Carter by Debbi Michiko Florence
- Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen
- The Wake Up by Michelle MiJung Kim
- Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman
- Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh
- Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte
- The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
- The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Get your copy of The Silence That Binds Us here.