The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan was likely my favorite book of 2020. It’s lovely and moving but also relatable and eye-opening.
I sometimes order a service from an independent bookstore, Honest Dog Books, in Bayfield, WI. I’ve never been there, sadly. Someday! A colleague told me about the “Surprise Me!” boxes and book orders customers can make on their website. The idea is that you order a book or a box of books (small, medium, or large, aka the Alaskan, the Siberian, the Malamute), or the “Classic,” which is one book. The staff at the bookstore chooses what to send you based on answers that you provide in a survey when you put in the order.
This is how I came across The Legend of Firehorse Woman by Jeanne Watsuki Houston, which I wrote about earlier in the year.
It’s an enjoyable way to encounter titles you might not otherwise come across. I’m so glad I did this last Fall because Pan’s book is so good, I almost can’t write about it.
The story centers around Leigh, a young biracial American-Taiwanese Benshengren girl, suddenly without her mother after the latter takes her own life due to her mental illness. Awash with grief, Leigh prepares to visit her maternal grandparents in Taipei, even though she’s never met them before. Even though a large part of her mother’s identity was Taiwanese Benshengren, Leigh feels severed from her identity because of a rift between her mother and her grandparents.
“It was something that Mom never wanted a part of, even though I couldn’t help thinking of it as her secret language to begin with. It belonged to her in a way that it would never belong to me and Dad.”Quote 32
One of the ways Leigh sees the world is through color. As an aspiring artist, Leigh ascribes various hues and shades to her emotions.
“Rage flares through me alizarin crimson, and a scream holds itself ready in my throat.”Pan 61
“I stand there with my feet rooted into the carpet of that memory, watching until my ribs crunch together and pulverize my heart and send the hear of my missing everywhere. The grief spills out of the sepia dark.”Pan 73
“Shame wraps around me like the prickly side of Velcro, sharpens the thought that I’ve done so much wrong. Naphthol red — the color of an angry pen marking the errors I’ve made.”Pan 259
However, after her mother’s death, she struggles to see any color. Her world becomes a charcoal sketch on blank paper.
“I would’ve had to explain that I was colorless, translucent. I was a jellyfish caught up in a tide, forced to go wherever the ocean willed. I was as unreal as my mother’s nonexistent [suicide] note.”Pan 6
Left now with her father, Leigh feels aimless. Despite loving her father, their relationship is strained because he believes Leigh should pursue something other than her artwork in college. Without her mother, Leigh feels like no one can support her aspirations to study art.
Leigh’s grief is tinged, too, with guilt from having been with her best friend and crush, Axel, when her mother committed suicide. Leigh agonizes over her choice to give in to her feelings for Axel instead of being home with her mother.
“If I could have climbed out of my goddamn hormones for just one minute, maybe my neurotransmitters would’ve signaled for me to go home. Maybe I would’ve shaken off my blindness and forced myself to take count of all the things that had been off-kilter, or at least noticed that the colors around me were all wrong.” Pan 2Pan 2
“Did we love her wrong? How did we fail?” Pan 120-21Pan 120-21
She tries to shut Axel out, but he persists in contacting her to repair their sudden separation. As much as she misses him, Leigh struggles to accept him back into her life.
A splendid red bird appears to her before she leaves the country with her father. Leigh becomes convinced that the bird is the spirit of her mother.
“My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird. I know it’s true the way I know the stain on the bedroom floor is as permanent as the sky, the way I know my father will never forgive himself. Nobody believes me, but it is a fact. I am absolutely certain.”Pan 1
Even though others don’t believe her and write off the bird as a symptom of Leigh’s strained mental health, she becomes determined to find her mother. The latter will indeed fly alongside her to Taipei, and Leigh believes can connect with her there to learn why she committed suicide.
“If only I could rewind, go back in time and ask my mother every question about every tiny thing. How crucial those little fragments are now; how great their absence. I should have saved them up, gathered them like drops of water in the desert. I’d always counted on having an oasis. But maybe that’s why the bird came. Maybe she understands that there are too many things unanswered.”Pan 35
Once in Taipei, old tensions between Leigh’s father and her grandparents resurface, and her father leaves her with them while he pursues his research in Hong Kong. Still reeling from losing her mother, Leigh feels bereft, especially because she does not speak Mandarin and struggles to communicate with her grandparents.
“If only I had been raised more Taiwanese, and could somehow prove to these people that I belong here. This was my mother’s home for the first half of her life — can’t it feel a little bit like home to me, too?”Pan 134
Nevertheless, it’s clear that her grandparents are besotted with her, and they believe her about the bird. Their Buddhist beliefs help explain why Dorry, Leigh’s mother, would return to earth as a bird after her death. As they introduce her to their community, where her mother grew up, Leigh finally begins to identify with her heritage. Through her grandmother’s friend, Feng, she also learns about Dorry’s past and experiences with mental illness, estranged parents, and identity.
“Everything in my brain is glimmering with wonder, with iridescent hues, like the colors pinned by the sun against an oil-slicked surface. Wonder, and sadness. Because I’d always imagined that one day it would be my mother telling me the stories of her family. Not memories materializing from wisps of incense smoke, memories that feel stolen.”Pan 164
One of the aspects of the novel that makes it so appealing is the writing techniques Pan uses. Her syntax alone is beautiful, especially the descriptions of Leigh’s lens of seeing her emotions in color. So, too is the structure: Pan incorporates elements of epistolary, flashback, and magical realism to tell Leigh’s story.
I really appreciate when authors tell stories about people — especially young people — connecting with their identities. Many of my students with mixed racial backgrounds sometimes struggle to find novels about them and the unique circumstances they might face. I like that Pan offers a story here of a young woman navigating the journey a person who is biracial might take if they need to better connect with their identity.
“Back at home, sometimes people say I look exotic or foreign. Sometimes they even mean it as a compliment. I guess they don’t hear how that makes it sound like I’m some animal on display at the zoo. . . . And now finding myself so directly named — hunxie, mixed blood — like a label printed out and affixed to my forehead . . . it makes something twist in my guts in a dark and blue-violet way.”Pan 79
The authentic look at mental illness is also critical. Representations of what mental illness actually looks and feels like are essential for young people to read about, so they understand that it is a genuine illness for which there are treatments. Even when suicide shatters our worlds, there are ways to manage grief, and the character of Leigh models this for readers.
“I had to fight that emptiness, that absence of color.”Pan 19
“We thought she was better. What can you do when all you see behind closed eyes are the flashes of your mother, your mother, your mother, miserable, alive, beautiful, sick, warm, smiling, dead? But not dead. Not exactly. My mother is a bird.”Pan 119
I’m incredibly grateful for this novel in so many ways, and I’m pleased to share it with you here. This is Pan’s first novel, and I believe she hit this one out of the park. She also edited a book of short stories for young adults called Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA, which I’m anxious to check out. I also can’t wait for An Arrow to the Moon, which should be out in April 2022.
Trigger Warnings: death; depression; loss of loved one; suicide; trauma
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