Dive into a teenager’s race and gender issues in Misa Sugiura's It’s Not Like It’s A Secret

A Japanese-American teenager's struggles with her racial identity and sexual orientation are the focus of author Misa Sugiura's novel.
A Japanese-American teenager's struggles with her racial identity and sexual orientation are the focus of author Misa Sugiura's novel.PHOTOS: PAMELA GARFIELD, HARPERTEEN

Racial identity and sexual orientation issues take centre stage in Misa Sugiura's debut novel for young adults, the story of a Japanese- American teenager's move from the suburbs in mid-western America to Silicon Valley, California.

As 16-year-old Sana struggles to settle into the foreign cultural dynamics of her new environment at school, where students organise themselves into cliques according to their race, other challenges present themselves: her realisation that she is attracted to girls and a suspicion that her father may be having an affair.

The strength of the novel lies in Sugiura's ability to delve deep into identity politics - it is refreshing to see friendship and sexuality explored through the lens of a member of a minority race - while keeping her characters earnestly relatable at the same time.

A dominant trope in the novel is the push and pull between group and individual identity and the tensions that it generates when norms are broken.

Sana's clique of Asian girlfriends at first accept the fact that she is lesbian unquestioningly, and then comically do a double-take when they realise that she has deviated from the role of a model minority.

"But you can't be a lesbian. You're Asian. Asian girls aren't lesbian," a friend remarks.



    Misa Sugiura HarperTeen/Paperback/387 pages/ Books Kinokuniya/$29.40

    3.5/5 stars

When Sana begins dating a Mexican American, the less-often discussed issue of inter-minority racism emerges.

Sana finds it difficult to identify with and be accepted by her girlfriend's clique of Hispanic friends, who come from a lower socioeconomic class and struggle over concerns such as paying their family's rent and bills.

Sugiura, a former high school teacher, is skilled at exposing such everyday nuances and tensions, but she ends up biting off more than she can chew when it comes to plotting.

Alongside high school politics, Sana also tries to act on her concerns about her parents' faltering marriage at home.

Sugiura attempts to bring into the novel how perspectives about love, duty and relationships may differ between the East and the West.

These two plot threads end up feeling hastily resolved and the complex questions over systemic racism and identity categories do not get a satisfactory response from the novel's protagonists.

Still, the novel is a welcome addition to young adult literature because of its willingness to take on under-represented issues at the intersection of gender and race and is an important read for teens at a time when the world has become more globalised and diverse.

If you like this, read: The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline Woodson (Puffin, 2014, $14.69 from Books Kinokuniya), a book about a mixed-race teenager who questions her sexual preferences after she strikes up a friendship with a girl.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'Dive deep into a teenager's race and gender issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe