Very different but equally essential stories about immigrant kids who yearn to come to America
Kelly Yang is an essayist and award-winning children’s author who drew on her own background as a young child sent from Asia to school in the States for her young-adult debut.
Jenny Torres Sanchez started writing her newest novel for teens more than five years ago, inspired in part by growing up a child of Central American parents.
Yang’s Parachutes and Sanchez’s We Are Not From Here tell very different stories about the immigrant experience. Yet both are stunning, essential reads about those who yearn to come to the United States to begin a better life.
Parachutes is the name not just of Yang’s novel, but her subject–Asian students whose often-wealthy parents send them to American schools. Claire Wang lives a privileged life in Shanghai, but when she fails her high-school Chinese exam after writing her own essay instead of letting her tutor do it, her mother wonders if a different plan is best.
Claire at first rails against the move, which her father sees as a gateway to an American college degree:
“’You can graduate and go to college in the US. One of the UCs.’
“ ‘You can’t just get into one of the UCs,’ I say. He says it like they’re M&M’s.
“ ‘Yes, you can,’ he insists. ‘There are so many of them!’…‘And besides, even if you don’t, at least you’ll still be foreign-educated.’”
Soon Claire heads to California as part of an exchange program, attending a chichi private school and living with a host family that includes Dani, a scholarship student at American Preparatory. Dani’s family is Filipino, and she cleans many of the American Prep families’ houses for extra money.
The two girls clash at first, each judging the other. But they find common ground in an unfortunate shared experience–sexual assault and harassment. That makes Parachutes a story about rifts from both a cultural and a gender perspective. Yang, who has recently spoken out about anti-Asian racism during the rise of COVID-19, depicts each girl’s unique situation with restraint. Yet she includes enough detail to give readers a heartbreaking, infuriating sense of what her characters must endure.
And this, too, draws from her own background, as she eloquently wrote in a recent Medium essay about her assault as a teen-age undergraduate at Harvard. “My traditional Chinese parents urged me to consider backing down, worried if this got out, it would bring shame to me and my family,” she writes of filing a claim against her accuser. “But I refused to drop the charges. My voice was my armor.”
Escape from Guatemala
Jenny Torres Sanchez’s characters know about different kinds of armor, too. Fifteen-year-old Pulga, de facto brother Chico and cousin Pequeña aren’t safe any longer in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. Pulga and Chico saw local gang members murder a store owner, and one gangster vows he’ll marry 17-year-old Pequeña. Sanchez’s mother grew up in Puerto Barrios, and she drew on memories of her visits there to frame the first part of the novel.
So the trio decides to venture north in We Are Not From Here, a gritty story of perseverance and against-all-odds hope. Their journey presents new dangers, and there are no guarantees, as others are quick to tell them.
“You know you’re not going to make it, right?” a man tells Pulga, after the boy insists he has been studying maps and planning routes. “Not this time around. Not even with your little notes. This trip takes more than one try. There’s shit you won’t know, mistakes you can’t avoid, until you’re actually doing it … this is like my fourth time. I’ve almost died on these trips.”
Sanchez shows us in vivid detail how terrifying it is to ride on La Bestia, the network of freight trains that scores of migrants hop to shorten the trek north. You will root for these three, and you won’t forget the trials they endure in Sanchez’s heartbreaking, hopeful story, nor should you.
“These children deserve to be seen,” Sanchez writes in an opening letter to her readers. “I want everyone to see them.”