By Natalie Tan (23A01B)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
Maybelline Chen, a high school student, is the resident disappointment of her Taiwanese American family. An introvert who prefers writing poetry to mathematics, she pales in comparison to her older brother Danny: well-liked, handsome, and most importantly, Princeton-bound. Yet shortly after he receives his admission offer, Danny commits suicide, leaving May and her parents reeling at the unexpected news.
What complicates the Chens’ mourning, however, are the racist accusations leveled at their family for putting too much pressure on Danny: when the school attempts to hold a dialogue about students’ mental health, multiple white parents publicly blame the increasing stress and anxiety that their kids face on Asian “tiger moms and dads”. Leading the charge is Mr. McIntyre, the tech CEO father of one of May’s classmates, who obliquely references Danny’s death as an example of “even Princeton not being good enough for these people”.
Despite May’s father’s warning to keep her head down, May writes an impassioned poem defending her family and challenging Mr. McIntyre’s racist speech. When the poem is published in the local newspaper, it kick-starts a series of events that forces May to confront how deeply racism is ingrained in her community—and whether she’s willing to fight for her voice to be heard.
Joanna Ho’s The Silence That Binds Us deals smartly with several sensitive topics, such as mental health, systemic racism, and generational trauma. She provides a realistic and authentic depiction of the Asian-American diaspora experience, from the Mandarin sprinkled into May’s family conversations to the dishes they cook. May’s parents utter some familiar phrases— “Celeste [May’s fellow Chinese-American classmate] 很厉害 (is very impressive), but you could have a Google internship too”—and May’s rueful response is likely equally relatable for many of us:
“Of course she got a Google internship. […] She’s on the fast track to valedictorian and getting invited to fancy internships, and what am I doing? Throwing away my life because I have no summer plans yet.”
May grows into her own as she discovers how her poetry gives her a platform to speak out, but the discussion that her advocacy sparks has consequences for her family: her mother’s job in the tech industry is threatened by Mr. McIntyre, indirectly pressuring May to keep silent. As May’s student advocacy movement gathers momentum, Ho also takes the opportunity to address the problem of performative activism: Ava, the student body president and May’s fellow organiser, pulls the students’ council out of a protest after the principal implies that participating in the protest would be a black mark on her college applications.
What is commendable is also the care Ho takes to portray how racism manifests differently for different communities: May’s best friend and love interest are both African American, and their experiences with racism differ markedly from May’s own. While the model minority myth is weaponised against Asians, May’s African American friends struggle with police brutality and discriminatory hiring practices.
However, the writing is clunky, and after an engaging start, the pacing suffers as Ho takes on an excessively didactic tone, most notably with regard to scenes where Asian and African American students dismantle the cartoonishly racist views of their white classmates. Still, the novel offers a relatively nuanced discussion of intersectionality, and it will likely be approachable for all readers.
“Danny’s life mattered. And the stories we tell about him matter… I almost let fear silence me. But I’ve learnt that silence is not the answer. Our silence gives men like Nate McIntyre the power to control the narrative. To revise our histories and shape our futures.”
Ultimately, this is a touching portrait of one family’s grief and journey of healing, and it’s hard not to root for May, flawed as she is, as she grows into her own. Over the course of the novel, she goes from an angry, hurting girl to someone who realises that she possesses the power to take back her own narrative—and in doing so, empower herself and the people around her.