Nghi Vo’s “The Chosen and the Beautiful” – a YA rewrite of the Great Gatsby?

by Friederike Jahn

Over the past few years, screenwriters, authors, and directors have been increasingly interested in adapting literary classics, whether it be on screen or paper. The emerging trend to revisit classic literary pieces and even rewriting them, has been quite successful with films like Little Women and West Side Story reaching box office sales.

Recently, American novelist Nghi Vo published her debut novel ‘The Chosen and the Beautiful’ after having been successful with several novellas. The novel is part of the above-mentioned trend because it retells the story of the literary classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Considered to be the ‘Great American Novel’, Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece is set in the 1920s where flapper girls, Jazz, economic prosperity, and dazzling parties dominate Western society. Told from the perspective of protagonist and first-person narrator Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby tells the story of mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, and his longing to be reunited with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. Sounds familiar, right? Any adaptation would need to capture the general atmosphere of The Great Gatsby to succeed, considering how well-known the text is. Well, in her novel The Chosen and the Beautiful, writer Nghi Vo has managed exactly that: preserving the familiar, but adding a queer, non-western vitality to Fitzgerald’s classic narrative.

Unlike Fitzgerald’s story, Vo shifts the focal point from Nick Carraway to Jordan Baker, allowing a female perspective to surface in a world predominantly controlled by men. But that’s only half the story, in Vo’s version Jordan Baker is also a queer Vietnamese person, still trying to figure out her own true identity. These characteristics have brought up the question whether The Chosen and the Beautiful ought to be considered a young adult (literature) rewrite of The Great Gatsby. Vo uses several tropes and components typically used in YA literature that really elaborate Jordan Baker’s story. The nature of her character extenuates her oddity and contrasts social norms set in the 1920s. Within YA texts, gender and sexual identity are big themes that add to the coming-of-age aspect and which are also used in The Chosen and the Beautiful. The reader learns about Jordan’s upbringings and the depth of her character, which is vital for the dynamic structure within the novel. Jordan’s queerness combines a foreign yet so familiar storyline that elevates this classic narrative to a new realm of interest for young adults that can connect and identity themselves with her character.

Today, it is not only refreshing to see classic literary pieces through a queer perspective, it is also important to acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community, which has been neglected in the literary canon significantly, especially when it comes to YA literature. With books like Nghi Vo’s, adolescents can dive deeper into a beautifully written retelling of The Great Gatsby, where female agency, a queer vitality and a non-white perspective are at the centre of attention.

Review: Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

by Alice Kronenberg

“Friends can talk about things. They can figure things out. Get past things. Dou you want a friend in your life who you can never disagree with? A friend who you can’t grow with?”

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, pos. 2808 (kindle)

Humaira Khan and Ishita Dey are nothing alike: While easy-going and amiable Hani socializes with her friends, introverted and ambitious Ishu spends her days studying to prepare for university. Despite being pushed into the same box by their classmates for being the only two Bengali girls in their year, Hani and Ishu have very little in common and do their best to avoid each other on most days.

That is, until Hani’s friends tell her that she can’t possibly be bisexual if she has only dated boys and she hurriedly invents a fake relationship with Ishu. Hesitant at first, Ishu soon agrees to Hani’s fake dating proposal, hoping that it will make her more popular and secure her classmates’ votes in the election of Head Girl.

In this sunshine x grumpy, fake-dating story Jaigirdar brings to life a breezy, heart-warming romance while simultaneously tackling more serious issues like racism, biphobia, toxic friendships and family conflicts. Keeping the tone appropriate for a young readership, she sends her characters on a journey of growth and challenges, putting them through many uncomfortable moments and painful realizations. In the end, however, the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones, making this a story of queer joy rather than queer trauma.

“Before all of this started, I didn’t even know what being in a relationship was, but now I’m pretty sure I can write a guide to real dating.”

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, pos. 3745 (kindle)

Both of the main characters have their own story in addition to their shared one. Hani starts out as a very accommodating character, constantly assimilating to her toxic white friends who don’t show any respect for her culture, her religion, or her sexuality. She is somewhat caught in between wanting to commit to her Bengali and Muslim community and her fear that her friends will exclude her if she does. Thus, a big part of her character development is learning to stand up for herself, to choose her own happiness over her friends’ opinion, and eventually to leave behind a friendship that she’s held onto since early childhood. Thanks to her relationship with Ishu as well as her loving parents, she realizes that she deserves people who support her culture and sexuality instead of mocking it.

Ishu, on the other hand, is utterly unapologetic. She doesn’t care what others have to say about her culture or her appearance. She does care, however, about her parents’ approval – more than anything else, actually. Especially ever since her older sister announced that she wanted to take a break from med-school to get married, Ishu has felt the responsibility and pressure of being the ‘good daughter’ who achieves exactly what her parents expect from her. Over the course of the book, Ishu realizes that her sister might be right in choosing a different path for her life than she initially promised her family, and finds herself questioning her own plans for the future. The more she sides with her sister Nik, the more criticism she receives from her parents, and on top of that, she has to deal with people at school attempting to ruin her chances in the Head Girl election. In the end, Ishu lets go of her desire to please her parents and learns to put herself first.

Adiba Jaigirdar thus created two contrasting main characters who somehow give each other exactly the type of encouragement the other needs. Through the duo-POV narration style, Jaigirdar shows how differently people connect to their culture and how varied the lived experiences of two brown queer girls can be. Her writing style and choice of words is engaging and easily accessible. Some passages may sound a bit juvenile, but if you consider the targeted age group, the language definitely feels appropriate. What stands out positively are the many Bengali foods, clothes, and traditions that were woven into the main story – as a non-Bengali reader, I really enjoyed learning about this culture through the characters.

One aspect I’d like to discuss critically is the motivation behind the protagonists’ decision to fake-date each other. For one, there is no mention of many other friends or acquaintances Hani has outside of her trio that would speak for her popularity, so it is a bit hard to believe that Ishu actually has a shot at becoming Head Girl just because she’s dating Hani. It would have been nice to see Hani engaging with other people or being part of a larger social circle at school to show that she has an influence on the other students (e.g. by making her part of a sports team or popular school club). Also, as understandable as it is for Hani to want to prove to her straight friends that she is bisexual, and as much as I personally enjoy the fake-dating-trope, I wish there was a moment where she realizes that she should never need to invent a girlfriend to convince people of anything. She doesn’t owe her friends an explanation, much less a whole relationship, to prove her sexuality. Even though Hani did ‘break up’ with her friends at the end of the novel, it felt like it was for other reasons – for framing Ishu, for making her ditch her father, for how they treated her after she came out to them. But she never says anything along the lines of, “And by the way, I literally got a fake girlfriend when I really shouldn’t have to, and you’re still not taking me seriously”, and I think that’s the one thing that could be missing in her otherwise well-rounded character development.

Nonetheless, this is an amazing sapphic love story full of tropes we love. Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating is both light-hearted and deep and provides the perfect balance of cheesy romance, coming of age themes, and more serious social issues. Jaigirdar handled the difficult aspects very carefully, responsibly, and thoughtfully, providing a rich variety of perspectives and experiences for the reader to consider. What I also like is that the novel ends on a positive note, but not a perfect one. There are still conflicts for the protagonists to resolve – Ishu is experiencing an estrangement from her parents, Hani has just lost her two best friends – but for now, both girls are happy with their lives and their growth. So, you close the book with a sense of knowing that Hani and Ishu will continue to work on themselves off-page, and I think that’s beautiful.

The Black Flamingo is threatened by extinction in these “modern” Times !

A review of Dean Atta’s Young Adult Novel The Black Flamingo and its connection to the modern portrayal of self-identity.

by Jessica Klostermayer
Photo by Annerose Walz on Unsplash

I Want to Be a Pink Flamingo
Pink. Definitely pink.
I want my feathers to match
the hue you imagine.
I want to blend in
David Attenborough would say,
“Here we see the most typical flamingo.”
Though I don’t want to be the most,
just typical.

Atta, p. 194

This passage out of Dean Attas Novel is by far the most relatable to everybody because it describes a scenario every one of us has been through. A point in life where we don’t know who we are, so we try to be like others. With his work Dean Atta created a lovely story around finding one’s own identity and helping to establish and represent multiple sexual orientations within the literature, which can be applied and reflects our society.

The Black Flamingo

A Summary

The Back flamingo is a YA novel that tells of a half Jamaican, half Greek-Cyprian boy named Micheal, who likes to do girl-like things like playing barbies instead of playing football or doing masculine things. His otherness thrives on the toxic masculinity in his surroundings. Most likely, the fear of the otherness gets projected
at him. Throughout School/College, he has to learn where he belongs, making it even more difficult when you pretend to be a person who you aren’t.

About Dean Atta

Comparing the cover and certain pictures of Dean Atta, it becomes evident that there are many similarities between author and character.

Dean Atta is a British poet of greek Cypriot and Caribbean descent. He is one of the 100 most influential people when it comes to representing the LGBTQ Community—doing that through his writing and performing for more than ten years. Especially his poems, as those in the Black Flamingo, found significant impact in representing all kinds of identities and what they have to deal with within our society.

“I started writing about stuff I was seeing in the news, my own sexual identity and being mixed race.”

Finding One’s Flamingo

That Dean Atta’s work and those representing something different are still important and needed can also be seen in other fields besides Literature. One thing that immediately popped into my head as I saw the cover of The Black Flamingo was the resemblance of Harry’s styles outfit at the Grammy Awards 2021. A British artist also is known for his support of the LGBTQ community and his attempts to fight against toxic masculinity.

Although Harry Styles has not to face the problems of color and status, he finds ways to address other complex issues through his status. The Perfect example for his thrive against this toxic masculinity found its peak in November 2020, where he was photographed and put on the cover of Vogue in a blue dress. With that, he has faced with criticism. Especially this comment on Twitter from Candace Owens found broad resonance which states that men who wear dresses cannot be strong and “leaders”.

That debate comes along whether masculine and feminine behavior can be pinned to one specific gender or is constructed by society, as Judith Butler would suggest. In particular is that sometimes our community has to face that what we learned earlier on in our life isn’t fixed, and I think with The Black Flamingo Dean Atta contributes to that enlightenment lovingly.


  • Isaac-Wilson, Stephen. “Dean Atta: Meet the IPhone Poet.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2018,
  • “Candace owens on.” Twitter, Accessed 9 Jan. 2022.
  • “Vogue Magazine On.” Twitter, Accessed 9 Jan. 2022.
  • Atta, Dean. The Black Flamingo. Balzer + Bray, 2021.
  • Butler, Judith. “Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory.” Theatre journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531.



Not even death will tear them apart – Review of Afterlove by Tanya Byrne

Tanya Byrne’s Young Adult novel Afterlove follows Guyanese-British teenager Ashana Persaud, also known as Ash. The blurb of the book tells us that Ash is going to die during the novel, and in fact, the first chapter already introduces us to Ash while she is ‘working’ as a grim reaper. But after this first chapter, we are allowed to get to know Ash during her last months alive – and Ash gets to fall in love for the very first time, with a girl called Poppy Morgan.

“She throws her head back and laughs and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. This delicate shiver, like the sound my grandmother’s gold bangles make when she’s clapping roti, that grows and grows until it’s so loud – I can feel it in my bones.” (p. 20)

The story of Ash and Poppy is framed by all the teenage-giddyness and excitement you would expect from a teenage love story. We experience how Ash and Poppy fall in love, from cute first dates to seemingly endless talks about their lives, identities and families. Ash gets to feel how your partner talking passionately about something you do not understand can be the most beautiful thing, even though you are standing in museum full of art – or comparing Poppy’s laugh to the sound of her grandmother’s bangles while clapping roti – or the nervous excitement of telling your parents that you are seeing someone you would like them to meet – or eagerly thinking about what their life together will look like 20 years ahead, maybe sharing a house, having a dog. While their love story definitely makes you smile and maybe even giddy as though you are falling in love for the first time too, specifically thoughts about the distant future leave you with a pang of early grief for the life Ash will never get to live. At times, you hope that the blurb somehow lied to you, but in the end, Ash dies in a painfully accidental way on New Years Eve.

“Grim reapers are responsible for the people in their parish who die the same way they did. So, in your case, you will be responsible for adolescent sudden deaths.” (p. 168)

Because Ash is in fact the last person to die that year, she joins a group of grim reapers and takes on the job of escorting the souls of the city’s deceased to Charon. The way this works in the novel is simple, yet its concept is still fun and interesting – Grim reapers actually freely move around us and just distract themselves until they are called to escort a soul. In order to not be noticed by the loved ones they left behind, their appearances change ever so slightly so that it would be plausible to just be mistaken for themselves, because being actually recognized can dangerously affect the natural order of life and death. But when Ash sees Poppy again, she is ready to risk it all – She is willing to break every rule just to be with Poppy again.

It’s OK to take the songs you skip off your playlist. It’s OK not to finish the book if it feels like a closed door, not a window. It’s OK not to get married, if you don’t want to. It’s OK not to have kids, if you don’t want them. It’s OK not to know all of this yet.

(p. 356/357)

Afterlove is obviously not your typical lovestory. But at the same time, when it comes to the sentiments of love, it is exactly that. Ash is ready to risk it all for Poppy, which can be seen as just teenage over-eagerness, but for Ash, it is the conviction that Poppy is just the one. She is ready to challenge death and she is absolutely certain that their love can defy death itself and that it stretches beyond life, death, and everything before and after. The cast of central characters is relatively small, some characters might be rather odd, but they still are endearing in their own way. The only thing I missed was more exploration of Ashana’s family. But overall, I enjoyed Afterlove a lot for the other reasons I already mentioned: the teenage giddyness, the interesting concepts and building of the “life” of grim reapers, the conviction of a love that stretches beyond life, death and time as we know them.

If you would like to read Afterlove, please be aware of the following Content Warnings: Death, discussion of different causes of death, lesbophobia

“Sometimes being yourself is the hardest thing” – A Review of Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Wars

Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel The Henna Wars is a highly enjoyable and entertaining read albeit not without its flaws. Set in Dublin, Ireland, the novel follows Nishat, a Bengali Muslim girl, who recently has come out to her parents whose reaction is not the outcome for which she had hoped. Heartbroken by her parent’s unsupportive behavior her feeling of isolation is further amplified by the prejudice and racism she experiences in the Catholic high school that she attends. Only her younger sister Priti seems to be her only ally and confidante. When her teacher initiates a business competition Nishat seizes this opportunity to prove herself as more as her perception by her environment. Among all this, love also seemingly knocks on her door.

Jaigirdar paints a vivid image of the struggles of intersectional identities. On the one side, we experience Nishat’s endeavor to embrace her transcultural identity as a Bengali Muslim girl in an inherently white and Catholic hegemony. Despite the racism and prejudice, further worsened by a rumor a schoolmate spreads, Nishat’s determination to be proud of her cultural heritage never wavers, instead, it is celebrated throughout the novel in various ways.  One cultural aspect is presented in the shape of food. Food is an integral part of many cultures and a shared experience between people. The novel often mentions and describes food in the novel in a highly positive manner and when a schoolmate spreads rumors about the negative effects of Bengali food it does not estrange Nishat from her heritage.

It is a refreshing take on the reconcilement of transcultural and non-normative identities. Many Young Adult novels deal with issues that many young readers may or may not experience in their formative years, as such many of these issues are often depicted as a problem. A novel that has a BIPOC as a protagonist often confronts them with their skin color and the perception thereof by the people around them. Luckily, Jaigirdar, as many recent Young Adult authors do, refrains from this old trope. Nishat does experience racism and discrimination, she is often perceived and judged on the basis of her heritage because it is the experience and part of the life of almost any immigrant or BIPOC, but it is not the focal point of the novel.

This is also beautifully displayed by Nishat’s coming out as a lesbian. She is faces problems and a less than desirable reaction from her parents but as with her heritage, her confidence in her identity never wavers. She does not see her queer identity as a problem but instead the reaction and treatment by her parents and her peers. As such the business competition presents an opportunity to assert herself as an individual that is not solely informed by her transcultural and queer identity. However, by establishing a henna business she still incorporates and embraces her cultural heritage.

The henna business touches on another important aspect of the novel: cultural appropriation. Jaigirdar demonstrates that there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. She reminds the reader that one might not always agree on what a person considers as appropriation but that it is important to listen to those that are affected by it. The novel shows that those lines sometimes blur and what one person perceives as appreciation the person from the target culture may feel their cultural identity violated and exploited. However, it is at this point where the novel sometimes falls flat. Nishat rarely communicates her concerns regarding the appropriation of her culture and the resolve of these concerns is unsatisfactory and opens more questions than it delivers answers.

This is an issue encountered several times throughout the novel. The different problems Nishat faces receive a rather lackluster and sometimes rushed resolution. Additionally, I felt as if the love story between Nishat and her classmate Flávia was also at times lacking consistence.

Nonetheless, in the whole with The Henna Wars Adiba Jairgirdar provided a solid debut as an author. Her style of narrative is simple and straightforward, she draws characters that are relatable but also flawed and touches on issues that have only become a focal point of Young Adult literature in recent years. The novel has its minor flaws that might leave the reader with an unsatisfactory resolution but in the grand scheme of things the story is a fun read, the characters are for the most part fleshed out and relatable, and it picks up on important topics such as racism and discrimination.

Review of the novel “When the Moon was Ours” (2016) by Anna-Marie McLemore

by Mira Kalcker

„This is the thing I learned from loving a transgender boy who took years to say his own name: that waiting with someone, existing in that quiet, wondering space with them when they need it, is worth all the words we have in us.”

McLemore, (page Number to be added)

The final sentence of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Author’s Note in When the Moon Was Ours speaks for the whole of their brilliant, partly autobiographical novel. When the Moon was Ours tells the story of Sam and Miel, best friends living in a small town and each with more secrets than most teenagers carry. Sam paints moons he hangs all over the town and Miel grows roses from her wrist that everyone knows about. But beneath this, even more secrets are hidden. For Sam, it is his gender identity, the fact that almost no one knows that the body beneath his clothes has been assigned female at birth. Miel’s secrets, on the other hand, lie even deeper than that, buried in the pages you need to read for yourself if you want to uncover them.

The novel is something completely different from all the books I have read so far, even though my bookshelves are filled with Young Adult Literature. And it makes me wonder and even a little bit frustrated that this so important and unique novel is widely unknown. While one could argue about the slow pace of the plot, McLemore explores topics that are incredibly relevant, not only for our time but especially for young adults who grow up in this world and do not quite seem to fit in anywhere.

The most obvious theme is the one of Sam’s gender identity. Samir or Samira? is the question that is being constantly asked throughout the novel. McLemore’s husband himself is transgender and as the quote from the beginning of the article already tells, they were by his side when he found himself. This makes their work so credible, writing about something that they are clearly knowledgeable of, and as they say, they also talked to their husband about his journey. Sam struggles throughout the novel with all factors, from societal to his own feelings but ultimately comes to a conclusion which is nicely done.

However, what I personally did not really like is that they introduced the concept of bacha posh to this conflict. “Bacha posh is one way of adapting to a rigid social environment where having a son is a must for any family desiring prestige and security. Families that can’t produce a son sometimes resort to this deception, dressing up one of their girls as a boy and presenting her as a male offspring to society.” (Guardian, According to McLemore, this concept is mainly practiced some regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and ends with the bacha posh returning to women when they are of age. Sam inhabits this role when he and his mother repeatedly experience cultural discrimination. While I appreciate the idea to represent a wider range of cultural concepts, I am simply not sure how brilliant McLemore’s idea truly was. Personally, I miss the credibility for why they took up bacha posh in their novel, what their connection to it is. It simply seems really random, even in the Author’s Note. Naturally, one might wonder how easily the bacha posh can later move into the role of a woman, as McLemore says, however I see tying bacha posh so tightly to being transgender as slightly problematic. It seems like an easy, overly simplified answer to the question how bacha posh impact the girl’s (or in this case, boy’s) gender identity. Especially since performativity, gender roles etc. are such an incredibly complex topic, I cannot help but think that McLemore bit off more than they can chew.

But the idea of bacha posh already points to another theme, McLemore discusses: transculturality. “When the Moon Was Ours” gently and xy speaks of what it means to grow up as a generational immigrant, from cultural practices, such as food or tales, to discrimination the characters experience. Miel is Latine [1], just as McLemore themself, Sam is Pakistani. The author also points to the idea that marginalised people always have to try harder in order to be accepted. For example, Sam’s mother is widely liked despite being Pakistani because she does exceptional work for the townspeople. Aracely, Miel’s sister and a healer, on the other hand, is quick to be judged, even though she does help people as well but within a cultural practice. Naturally, the cultural topics reach even deeper but that is something you will have to find out for yourselves. Concerning discrimination, When the Moon was Ours also touches upon internalised homophobia and how blinding it can be.

Another theme that When the Moon was Ours explores is how to find one’s own identity outside of a fixed community. McLemore does so by introducing the Bonner sisters who represent a fierce unit, a unit that has already gotten cracks when the plot of the novel begins. Developing uniquely in a fixed environment is an issue most people face growing up. Finding individuality can be scary because it usually means that the relationships we have with the people around us change. This means that we lose security and have to face our true selves. McLemore quite cleverly works this issue into her story and it becomes even more apparent through a second read.

All in all, and despite my criticism, I strongly recommend When the Moon was Ours to anyone who wants to think a little more outside of the boxes. A little magical fairy tale, a little coming-of-age story and a lot of diversity is what I would describe When the Moon was Ours as. And I personally think this is a beautiful and powerful combination.

[1] The genderneutral term “Latinx” is likely more well-known to our readers. However, most Latine people do not appreciate the term and use the more linguistically appropriate “Latine” – including McLemore.

A lifetime of poetry – Why you should read “The Black Flamingo”

How can a seemingly simple story of a boy coming of age and coming to terms with his identity be transformed into a visual journey, a tale telling of its time? In Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo (2019), this is achieved with a mix of stylistic choices: the novel features a beautiful mix of poetry, illustrations that underline the narrative, and modern means of visual communication like chat rooms. While this makes this Young Adult novel easy and quick to read, it is not a light read necessarily – the story of protagonist Michael, a queer boy with a mixed Cypriot-Jamaican heritage, is not that light and simple at all.

Michael is brought up by a single mother with little contact to his father, struggling to fully connect to either of his parents’ cultures, or the one of the country he grows up in. The reader gets to accompany him through his most formative years and memories: from a six year old boy who desperately wants a Barbie for his birthday, even though his friends find it a bit strange; a boy that is bullied at school because he doesn’t like to brawl and rather sings; a boy that tries to explore his sexuality in an environment in which nobody else seems to relate to his feelings; and finally one, who learns to have the courage and self-respect to embrace his identity, no matter what expectations others lay on him. While important topics like trauma, harassment, and drug abuse are addressed, the reader doesn’t finish the book with a heavy heart, but with a new hope and confidence – Michael has been through a lot, but in the end, he gets through all of it and finds himself to be happy. 

Atta’s novel is one of a kind for two reasons: the intersectionality that is often left out in the most famous coming of age stories in popular media, and the intermediality already addressed before. Intersectionality in this context refers to how Michael’s identity is made up of a variety of elements. He has parents with strongly differing cultural heritages, both of which do not completely fit in with Michael’s English school environment and friend group, but he is also a member of the queer community, which leaves him doubly marginalized and prone to two kinds of discrimination, making his experiences unique to his persona. 

Intermediality allows the reader to dive into Michael’s world. We experience his thoughts and feelings firsthand through the poetry he writes, beautifully illustrated in form of real pages of a notebook at times, see pictures of what he is referring to which emphasize his inner world, and can read the text messages he exchanges with peers in ways in which classic written text could not, for example by the implementation of emojis with specific cultural and generational meanings attached to them.

Most importantly though, Atta tells a story that is believable. Even if Michael is one of a kind with an arrange of specific experiences, there is always something in them that the reader can relate to in one way or another. There is nothing over-the-top fairy tale-esque or obviously forced traumatic happening – what Michael faces along his journey is as things realistically could be, and have been for some, and Atta tells them in the most authentic manner. 

Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo is the novel we all would have wished to have had while growing up. The bitter-sweet story shows the ugly truths of growing up doubly marginalized in an artistic way, with the good and the bad, without painting a grim picture. If you plan to invest your time in a novel, invest it in this one!

“The rest of the world is spinning” – Trauma Theory in “Summer Bird Blue”

Summer Bird Blue

Akemi Dawn Bowman’s novel Summer Bird Blue follows the young girl Rumi who deals with the aftermath of a car accident in which she lost her younger sister Lea. Therefore, a large part of the novel deals with trauma and how to move on, which is especially showcased for Rumi’s character. 

Rumi’s Various Traumas

There are different traumas that play a part for Rumi, a childhood trauma, the trauma of losing her sister and her mother’s abandonment. Her memories which she describes throughout the novel, force her to think about her childhood and past issues with her family (cp. 20). I would argue that her childhood trauma is one of the reasons for her behavior after Lea’s death and her mother abandoning her. Rumi and Lea’s father left the family when Lea was still very young, because he did not want to be tied down by a family since he was not sure what he wanted from life (cp. 182). Rumi’s memory of the day her father decided to leave and the conversation between her parents is incredibly detailed considering she was very young herself. She was very upset when her father said that he would have maybe stayed if not for Lea (cp. 183 ff). After their father’s abandonment, Rumi had to be and act more like a parent than a child, since she had to take care of Lea while their mother worked. Rumi is rather unsure about what to do with her life after graduation, while Lea and most of their friends already know what to do. Which is why she is often afraid she will turn out like her father (cp. 276) or is already too similar to him. Therefore, Rumi always thinks her mom liked Lea better because of Lea’s very different personality. While she does not want to die after losing her sister, she repeatedly thinks she should have died instead of Lea, because she was nice, likable, confident and knew what she wanted to do with her life (cp. 106).

The Death of Lea

At the beginning of the novel, Rumi refuses to acknowledge her sister’s death (cp. 12) and describes a feeling of emptiness. She does not cry after the accident but shows other physical reactions, such as throwing up, shaking, panic, a pounding heart and a racing mind. One of her biggest issues, however, is her anger towards the situation. Rumi gets angry very fast, she screams at people, makes ruder comment than usual and destroys things (cp. 79). I would argue that her frustration and the resulting outbursts all stem from the same problem: Rumi prefers to ignore her trauma instead of speaking about it (cp. 116), which is one of the main points in Pederson’s trauma theory. He suggests that a way to overcome and heal after having experienced trauma is to speak about it (cp. Pederson 338). Therefore, Rumi’s constant refusal to talk to anybody is, in my opinion, the source of her behavior and the reason she cannot look forward. In turn her bottled up emotions show themselves in angry outbursts, where she often hurts the people around her, be it with words or actions. She also does not believe in therapy (cp. 122) and is trying to cope by herself (cp. 126) rather than seek out help. 

Rumi lost her ground without her sister and her mother (cp. 13) and she even lost the joy music once brought her. Right before the accident happened Rumi and Lea were working on one of their songs but after the crash Rumi cannot remember the song and their music notebook is gone. She thinks of a situation when they were kids, Rumi promising Lea to fulfill three wishes. After the accident Rumi is thinking about what her sister would have wanted her to do as her last wish and decides to finish the song ‘Summer Bird Blue’. But the music always reminds her of the loss (cp. 31) and she describes it as haunting (cp. 33). She calls herself selfish many times throughout the novel. She thinks she deserves that she has been abandoned by her mom, because she can’t fulfill Lea’s last wish (cp. 108) and thinks she let Lea down for not being able to finish the song (cp. 82). However, when she does start to play music again, she sees her sister’s ghost whenever she tries to play or sing (cp. 133) and Rumi comes to the realization that the music keeps her sister alive (cp. 221). She does not want to let go of Lea, because most of her life revolved around her sister (cp. 141) and she feels like she does not know how to be herself without Lea. 

Rumi’s Road Towards Healing

Eventually, Rumi starts talking about Lea consciously and realizes it helps (cp. 259), prior to this she told people her sister died but without really taking it in. Yet she is still in conflict with herself: she wants to stop feeling so empty but feels selfish for trying to move on (cp. 85, 212) and she is still not ready to say good-bye even after she starts talking (cp. 274). However, after Rumi starts talking about her sister, she admits that she remembers the accident (cp. 282) and is aware of her repression as her coping mechanism (cp. 283). McNally, a renowned trauma theorist himself and also Pederson’s basis for his own theory, says that “traumatic amnesia is a myth, and while victims may choose not to speak of their traumas, there is little evidence that they cannot.” (McNally 334). This is why Pederson also proposes that new trauma theorists should, different to their predecessors, focus on “both the accessibility of traumatic memory and the possibility that victims may construct reliable narrative accounts of it.” (Pederson 338). He continues that “a victim’s understandable desire not to dwell on a painful event” (Pederson 337) should not be mistaken for amnesia (cp. Pederson 337). This fits Rumi’s situation quite well: She does remember but chooses not to in order to protect herself. 

When she finally realizes that her sister is really gone she cries (cp. 347). Her emotions return, she talks about the trauma with her mother and also agrees to therapy. Finally letting go of her repression of the memories surrounding the accident, Rumi realizes that Lea’s last words were actually her mom calling out to her after the car crash (cp. 359). Which is consistent with what both Pederson and McNally suggest in their trauma theories as Pederson talks about McNally’s suggestion that memories of traumatic events can appear distorted or warped (cp. Pederson 339-340). A trauma victim may remember everything but sometimes these memories are muddled. So, in Rumi’s case she remembers someone calling out to her after the crash, but only later when she explores her trauma it becomes apparent to her that it had been her mother and not Lea. 

Ready to Live

In terms of further research, one could take a look at trauma connected to other characters. For example, one could look at the novel’s trauma from the perspective of Rumi’s mother, who was left by her husband to be a single mother and then lost one of her daughters. Similarly, I would say Mr. Watanabe would be an interesting character to look at in terms of trauma as well because he lost his wife and his son. Rumi, in the end, learns that she can cope with her trauma but admits it will take time (cp. 354). “I think I’m ready to live” (cp. 368) is, in my opinion, Rumi’s most important realization and closes the novel well.

Works Cited

McNally, Richard J.: Remembering Trauma. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory.” Narrative 22.3 (2014): 333–353.

Review Pet (2019) by Akwaeke Emezi

When I picked up the novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, published in 2019, for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the novel in general – especially the protagonist – since I usually just cannot bring myself to neither sympathize with nor like the protagonist of books, and especially TV shows.

The protagonist of Pet, Jam, is unusually young, but she, and especially the narration, could not have been portrayed more authentically: She is curious, the narration is simple throughout the whole book, and just like I would assume a person so young would narrate events as unusual and horrifying as the ones portrayed in the novel. The easy-to-understand narration Emezi employs is one of the many reasons I immensely enjoyed reading Pet for I didn’t have to read sentences more than once in order to understand their meaning, which can be quite frustrating at times. I find this kind of narration in a book like Pet immensely important as this novel can be categorized as a young adult novel. This means that its intended audience are teenagers, who are more likely interested in, and keep reading, books which are not hard to digest and do not take up too much time.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet builds up tension from the very first sentence: “There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.” (1), which makes it quite clear from the start that there are indeed still monsters left in the city. But the reader cannot possibly know what kind of real-life monster they will encounter at the end of the novel (Spoiler alert!): a man, a family member, who seems quite harmless and, dare I say, unimportant. The monster of the society in Lucille is not the monstrous looking Pet, but someone who does not even remotely look like someone you would consider to be a monster.

Pet shows how dangerous a society that is in denial and refuses to acknowledge what is happening around it can be, and how to proceed in a world where almost everyone but yourself is in denial about the horrors happening in front of their noses. The novel fits eerily well into our “real-life” society’s problems with its own “monsters” since even nowadays, people choose to ignore the horrors they see, instead of trying to fight them. This eerie connection to reality as we know it is even explicitly mentioned on the back of the physical copy of Pet, where it says that the novel “[…] couldn’t be more well timed to our society’s struggles with its own monsters.”

What really struck me as interesting when reading Pet for the first time, are the unusual names of the characters: Jam, Redemption, Moss, Hibiscus, Bitter, Ube, and Aloe. When googling the meaning of these names, I discovered that “Ube” means “little dad” (“Quaranic names”) or “father” (“Quaranic names”). I was very curious about the name “Jam” just because of the instant (and admittedly quite weird) connection I drew to marmalade. But after I finished the book and googled the name “Jam”, I discovered that it is “primarily a gender-neutral name of American origin” (“”), and completely understood why this book was chosen for our course “Queer and Transcultural Young Adult Literature”, and why the protagonist, who is a 15-year-old black trans girl, was given this particular name. And not only Jam’s name is “gender-neutral” (“”); “Aloe”, the name of Jam’s father, is also a name which is not singularly reserved for only one gender (“babycenter”), which further justifies this novel being chosen for the course.

But not only the protagonist of the novel is very likeable – like I mentioned at the very beginning of this blog entry -; almost every character in Pet is pleasant, e.g. her parents (most of the time), Redemption, and even Pet. This only adds to this novel being an easy and enjoyable read since I personally find it very hard and quite annoying reading a book in which I do not like most of the characters.

It really warmed my heart that Jam’s parents are so understanding and accepting of her being who she is, and that they are not trying to change her in any way. Especially the scene at the very beginning of the novel Pet, when Jam is telling her father that “she want[s] surgery” (17) and he does not even question it (17), was quite heartwarming and just the perfect example for how parents should react in a situation like this.

Considering all these mentioned aspects, the novel Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is an immensely recommendable read, which tackles society’s struggles in a completely new and different way than I have ever seen before. The likeable characters and the easy language add to this book being a quite easy and quick read; even though some of the topics of Pet are dark and connect eerily well to society as we know it nowadays.


Primary source

Emezi, Akwaeke. Pet. Faber & Faber Limited, 2019.

Secondary sources

„ The Authority for Name Information Since 1996.” Moss Gathering LLC – Las Vegas, NV – NEW, Jam: Name Meaning, Popularity and Info on Accessed 2 January 2022.

“Quaranic names. Authentic Islamic Baby Names.” Accessed 2 January 2022.

“babycenter.” BabyCenter, LLC. 1997-2022, Accessed 3 January 2022.