by Hannah Dy
(This article was originally published at What We Experience and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
There’s nothing like recognition and validation drawn from the pages of a book, especially when representation seems so rare for members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community. As the entertainment business attempts to amend poisonous stereotypes and diversify narratives beyond the norm, it’s critical to elevate the narratives of minorities that might otherwise become ignored.
Despite the United States being home to over 23 million Asian Americans, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that only one out of twenty speaking roles in movies go to Asians and only 1% of lead roles. Poor representation in the media has been found to foster negative emotions and invoke “a psychological toll on the groups who are portrayed.” To elevate these narratives, the following recommendations and reviewed books feature LGBTQ+ Asian American protagonists in the YA genre, starting with an avid fangirl and social wallflower, Jessica Tran.
Not Your Sidekick, by C.B. Lee, follows Jess as she tries to live up to her family’s superhero legacy, get her high school crush to notice her, and manifest super powers. But without any outstanding gifts of her own, she resigns herself to local internships in order to polish her lackluster résumé. In between discovering reality-shattering secrets about superhero society hidden in her small, desert town and confronting her personal demons, Jess navigates a first relationship, expectations, and what it means to be a hero.
At first, with its hidden identities, romances, and blurred lines between villainy and heroism, the premise doesn’t seem completely unique amongst other superhero Young Adult fiction. However, Not Your Sidekick is first and foremost a high school love story between Jess and Abby Jones, the academically brilliant and popular volleyball captain. The modern fantasy and action serve more as a backdrop to a narrative about pursuing self-identity, whether that be in Jess’s family, at school, or within a crumbling, tension-high society.
The narrative is relatively straightforward and while its plot twists may appear clichéd, the story still clearly delivers its message of self-esteem and bravery. It’s a light and casual read despite its dystopian setting and also offers LGBTQ+ representation from a bisexual author. Lee’s perspective enriches her narrative and characters with authenticity that’s all too rare in the YA genre and American media overall. Jess is also a second-generation Chinese Vietnamese American who struggles with conflicts many Asian American readers will empathize with, including a scarce language comprehension and feeling isolated from both cultures. LGBTQ+ and Asian American readers may find solace in the relatability of Lee’s truthfulness, and the book also simultaneously offers an opportunity for outgroup readers to develop sympathy. All in all, C.B. Lee inputting her own personal experiences into the novel by basing her own identity around the protagonist provides refreshing, true representation.
There’s something for everyone to resonate with, whether it be friendship drama or Jess’s creative, over-the-top daydreaming of confessing to her crush. Her struggle of being “… caught up with [her] ridiculous, impossible ideas because it meant she never had to try for something real” (Lee, Chapter 7) is a universal feeling that anyone who’s ever liked someone can relate to.
Overall, Not Your Sidekick is the X-Men meets Eleanor & Park. It merges superheroes and combat-packed action with crushes, high school projects, and first kisses. When grim dystopias and complex, high fantasy seemingly reign over bookshelves, C.B. Lee’s work serves almost as a palate cleanser with its simple yet satisfying story about a fantasy high school romance with a side of saving the world and everything else in between. C.B. Lee has also written another fantasy romance, Seven Tears at High Tide, featuring another Asian American bisexual protagonist and his slightly mythological summer romance with a boy named Morgan.
But if contemporary romance with a twist of fantasy isn’t your style or you’ve already devoured C.B. Lee’s works, these are a few books with LGBTQ+ Asian American representation written by authors who identify with both the communities.
The Tensorate novels from award-winning, Asian American, non-binary author Neon Yang provides LGBTQ+ representation in a unique, fantastical, science-fiction universe. This series begins with The Black Tides of Heaven, where two twins with different gifts struggle to find their place in a brewing war.
Gearbreakers is the debut novel of Korean-American author Zoe Hana Mikuta. This found-family story follows two half-white, half-Asian soldiers tangled in a conflict between mechanical deities with ulterior motives and an enemies-to-lovers romance while the world burns.
As the demand for accurate and meaningful representation increases, these books can only make readers wonder hopefully about a future and which children of all genders, ethnicities, and sexualities will be able to immerse themselves within the pages of a novel, grin broadly, and announce, “The hero is just like me!”
Hannah Dy is a writer for What We Experience.
📸 Featured Image: Crop of book cover for Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta, artwork by Taj Francis.
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