About six weeks ago I got a message from my colleague and friend, Daniel, alerting me to an interview in Tricycle Magazine with a young lady named Emily X.R. Pan. The interview focused on Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After. Published in March 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the novel was an instant bestseller, and after reading it, I understand why. If you like Young Adult Literature, Pan’s new novel is a must read. It is marketed as magical realism, but it most definitely has Buddhist elements that drive the plot and infuse the characters.
The Astonishing Color of After is the beautiful, wistful yet heartwrenching story of Leigh, a teenaged girl grieving the loss of her beloved mother, Dory. The novel begins with these words: “My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.” The tone and voice articulated in these first few sentences instantly alert the reader to prepare themselves for time spent with an exceptional teenager. Leigh is the creative, insightful, quirky daughter of a Taiwanese mother and an American father. She describes her experiences in a synesthetic manner, assigning a color to a bicycle ride or a kiss. Her life filled with art classes, indie music and a teenaged crush was irrevocably changed by her mother’s suicide. The novel opens after Leigh has lost her mom, which immediately renders the story arc on a trajectory between grieving and healing. Shortly after the death, Leigh is visited by a large red bird who brings her gifts and a note. Leigh comes to believe that the bird is her mother and that the gifts are clues to family secrets that may explain why her mother suffered so much. Leigh and her father travel to Taiwan to visit with her maternal grandparents, and Leigh experiences her Taiwanese heritage, including its Buddhist and Taoist elements, while gaining some clarity about who her mother was, who her grandparents are, and – ultimately – who she is herself.
Pan’s debut novel is a liminal narrative. The storyline weaves between grieving and healing, between America and Asia, between then and now, between this life and the next. The discourse is liminal as well. Pan writes from her experience as an Asian-American, but her protagonist Leigh is bi-racial and feels isolated and out-of-place almost everywhere. She is ‘othered’ throughout the novel; a boy at her school refers to her as exotic, and the Taiwanese people she encounters call her “mixed blood” (hunxie).
The Buddhist aspects of the novel are liminal too. Leigh had been exposed to family altars and bodhisattva images but did not know about Taiwanese Buddhist death practices, such as the burning of joss paper crafts or the 49 days of liminality between the previous life and the next rebirth. This liminal period becomes a temporal framework for the story.
One of the strongest aspects of Pan’s novel is the way she tackles mental illness and contemporary discourse (and stigmatization) around mental illness. This aspect is made very poignant in Chapter 10, when Leigh thinks:
“I can’t stop myself from wondering about the physical pain of the experience. I try to imagine suffering so hard that death would be preferable. That’s how Dr O’Brien explained it. That Mom was suffering.
Suffering suffering suffering suffering suffering.
The word circles around in my head until the syllables lose their edges and the meaning warps. The word begins to sound like an herb, or a name, or maybe a semiprecious stone. I try to think of a color to match it, but all that comes to mind is the blackness of dried blood.
I can only hope that in becoming a bird my mother has shed her suffering.” Chapter 10 Loc 516 of 5168, Kindle edition
As the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, suffering is the problem of the human condition, and also the description that a psychiatrist attached to Dory’s therapy-resistant depression. Pan does not shy away from writing about depression and suicide and how this disease affects individuals and families alike. She writes in her Author’s Note:
“I grew up witnessing firsthand the effects of depression, and watching how my family let the stigma surrounding it become one of the darkest, stickiest traps. That stigma is perpetuated by not talking.” Author’s Note, Loc 5093 of 5168, , Kindle edition
This stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide is an important contemporary issue that Pan tackles in her novel, and she is surprisingly vocal about her perceived greater intensity of this stigma for Asian families. In fact, in another debut novel interview on the website hellogiggles, Pan suggests that the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is “5000 times worse in Asian families.” Her first YA fiction book should go some way to breaking down the stigma of silence surrounding mental illness and suicide, and Pan and her publishers make sure to provide real-life (not magical realism) resources for suicide prevention and for suicide loss survivors after her Author’s Note. In this way, Pan’s novel functions as a Buddhist act of compassion, as a gift of dana to her readers.
This novel will stay with me for a long time, and I have already recommended it to adults and teens alike. I would even assign this novel in a university level syllabus, especially in a course on death and dying. Put this novel on your list of books to read sooner than later. Purchase the hardcover, ebook, or audiobook:
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