Raffles Reads: This Place Is Still Beautiful

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Venkatesan Ranjana (23A01D)

Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.

Rating: 3/5

A story about two sisters who struggle to understand each other is not  new; neither is a story about growing up in a place you love but do not belong in. The beauty of This Place Is Still Beautiful lies not in telling these age-old stories in yet another recycled form—it’s in the way XiXi Tian condenses these two archetypes, along with the central characters’ personal struggles, into a bittersweet narrative that moves the reader with its painful realism and hopeful undertones.

The novel is written in the dual perspective of two sisters, Annalie and Margaret Flanagan, raised in a small town in the Midwest by their Chinese immigrant mother. The first few pages set up a story about the seemingly irreconcilable differences in the sisters’ personalities creating conflict that they will have to work their way through. However, the circumstances under which they will have to do so are inordinately shocking, as their house becomes the target of a hate crime: a huge racial slur is painted on its walls.

The gravity of the plot hits the reader with as much impact and surprise as it does seventeen-year-old Annalie, who is our opening narrator. Annalie is sweet, unassuming, and has the bearing of a typical student whose hopes for the summer consist mainly of romance with her long-time crush. Her perspective sets up the tenuous relationship between the sisters almost instantly, as she makes offhand remarks about how she is not as smart or capable as her sister is. 

Indeed, nineteen-year-old Margaret, whom we meet in the following chapter, has ambitions that have taken her far beyond the bounds of their town and into the heart of New York City for college prior to the start of the novel. Margaret appears to be sharper and colder, in everything from her internal monologue to her daily routine, but it is clear that she has her own vulnerabilities.

What is clearer is that the gap in understanding between the sisters, which initially seems minor and inconsequential, has the potential to stir up real conflict—particularly in their responses to the racial slur spray-painted across their house.

Upon witnessing the act of vandalism, Annalie is overcome with emotion, uncharacteristically calling her sister to ask her to come home in a moment of vulnerability. But when Margaret makes it back and immediately attacks the situation with her typical fury, Annalie’s palpable regret is disconcerting.

In this way, the tension between the sisters is compelling—it’s not easy to pick between the two in whichever argument they are having at a given moment. Tian does an excellent job of weaving in the realities of growing up mixed race into the characters’ struggles and the way they lash out at each other.

Their appearances are certainly a key role in shaping their experiences and perspectives. As Margaret puts it:

“People label her pretty. People label me exotic.”

White-passing Annalie’s aversion to conflict is rooted in her privilege, but her anger at Margaret for stirring up conflict in the town she genuinely loves is at times understandable.

At the same time, Margaret’s righteous anger at the townspeople and her sister’s willingness to excuse racism seems justified, considering how she is often mistaken for “full-blooded Chinese” and is treated differently than her sister as a result. Still, her narrowmindedness and lack of empathy when it comes to considering how people should stand up for themselves can make her overbearing.

None of their problems have simple solutions, and none of their struggles are one-dimensional. Annalie grapples with her relationship problems as much as she does with her friends’ casual racism. She is labelled “the rational one” and struggles to figure out at what point she should speak up, for herself and her sister. The multiplicity of the factors involved in her struggle weigh on the reader, making us more attuned to all the different decisions that lead to conflict in the novel. 

Most of the time, what the sisters argue about has very little to do with the actual issue at hand. Tian realistically captures the experience of navigating tenuous familial relationships as a younger sibling, as well as the social struggles of growing up as part of a marginalised group, in the subtle grooves of Annalie’s individual narrative arc and characterisation. 

Similarly, Margaret’s concerns are not limited to just the hate crime and her relationship to her hometown and family. As the older sibling, she is also haunted by memories of their father who abandoned them along with her mother’s own racism towards Rajiv, her ex-boyfriend. Margaret’s character tells a story of someone who has been hurt and hurts others in turn, but there is hope in the rekindling of her relationship and how she extends empathy to Rajiv, whose mother is terminally ill.

The novel is made up of numerous minute details that are held together masterfully, in a way that reflects the complexity of our own lives, from our numerous relationships to the facets of our identities that influence our day-to-day experiences. In that sense, it is a little ambitious—Tian does an excellent job of capturing the disconcerting nature of perpetually unresolved conflict in our lives, but in some cases the characterisation falls a little flat in order to keep the novel moving.

Still, amidst an emerging wave of Asian-American writers representing their experiences on the page, XiXi Tian holds her own because of how well-rounded her characters are. You, the reader, know these characters—you have seen non-confrontational Annalie and spitfire Margaret in the faces of your peers.

Tian’s own experiences and observations are viscerally conveyed through her characters, and the ugliness of it all is what really sells the story. Not every diaspora story has to be noble or inspirational—many of those who have had similar experiences sometimes seek relief in their inaction, like Annalie, or sometimes lash out at the wrong people, like Margaret. Tian makes it clear that they do not have to be perfect in order for their stories to be meaningful.

In that sense, the central characters’ personal struggles and imperfections enhance the way the story is told, because it is not solely about the spray-painted slur or about siblings who will never see eye-to-eye. It is about two young girls and how they choose to deal with the cards they’re dealt.

For anyone who has grown up like Annalie and Margaret have, This Place Is Still Beautiful is an excellent read that presents an opportunity to relate to the characters’ experiences, to criticise them and your own responses at uncomfortable junctures, and to learn or relearn valuable truths. For others, it is a good starting point to reflect on the unseen experiences hidden in plain sight in our everyday lives.

482560cookie-checkRaffles Reads: This Place Is Still Beautiful


Leave a Reply