WANT by Cindy Pon: A Review
I seriously enjoyed this book! It was the premise and Asian protagonist that originally attracted me to the story. WANT takes place in a dystopian Taiwan where environmental pollution plagues the city, effectively dividing society into those wealthy enough to afford protective suits (you --or, to have in Mandarin) and those who aren't (mei --or without). The protagonist is a young mei man named Zhou who decides to infiltrate the lives of the yous in order to bring down the Jin Corporation, the manufacturer of the suits that protect the wealthy and a force against environmental reform. But as Zhou becomes more entrenched in the world of the yous, he finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp's CEO. WANT is Zhou's journey to carry out this dangerous mission without compromising his own values while battling with his heart.
I have to admit that when I started this book, I assumed certain events were going to happen and saw it as a predictable-but-captivating-enough story with easy-to-read prose. However, it exceeded these expectations by a loooong shot! So if you're thinking this story sounds like it's already been done, think again! I loved so much about this novel so let me break it down in smaller, more manageable bits. Warning: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.
A futuristic/dystopian Taiwan setting
Most YA books in speculative genres that I've read are set in fantasy or dystopian worlds based on Western Cultures, such as celtic history, the roman empire, or the middle ages. So it was extremely refreshing to read a story set in a futuristic Taiwan. I have never visited Taiwan myself but I loved the rich descriptions of night markets and the exploration of technologies like an airped. Mopeds are a common form of travel in China and I assume in Taiwan as well, so it made a lot of sense for flying vehicles to include a version based on mopeds in a city like Taiwan! The question too of who is able to travel in the air both due to the accessibility of air vehicles as well as the accessibility of suits to protect against smog and concentrated pollution in the clouds is also an interesting one and well-incorporated.
Chinese/Taiwanese pop culture and historical references
I absolutely adored reading references to Taiwanese pop culture and Chinese history in this book! When I was in middle school and high school, I watched a lot of Taiwanese dramas and listened to much Chinese music. In fact, I learned a lot of Mandarin slang through consuming Chinese media. So when it came to American pop culture, I often felt lost and didn't know what people were talking about (I'm a little better about American pop culture now, but just barely). However, seeing references to Jay Chou and descriptions of the private karaoke rooms common in Asian countries reminded me of my own adolescence and made me nostalgic for other 90s Chinese pop songs.
The use of Mandarin language words for the two different classes, including a pronunciation guide at the beginning
I loved that Pon chose to use the Mandarin words, you and mei, as the names of the class divisions in this dystopian society. First of the all, the words are perfect and communicate everything she's trying to capture. And secondly, it places value on a language besides English. I have always enjoyed literature that imbues foreign languages into its prose, especially if the story takes place in a country that speaks a language other than English. It just makes more sense to me, reads more true to the story and world, and creates a deeper level of immersion. I am also a lover of languages so this made me very happy.
Masculine portrayal of an Asian boy/man who gets the girl
Film studies scholars have analyzed portrayals of Asian masculinity in mainstream films and have found that Asian masculinity is often 1) tied to martial arts, 2) absent (in other words, Asian male characters are portrayed as effeminate), or 3) tied to asexuality in that they rarely ever get the girl. This has contributed to the idea that somehow, Asian men are less desirable romantic partners. It is not uncommon to see comments on dating sites that say things along the lines of "no Asian pretty boys" or "not into Asians". These flat one-sided and stereotypical representations of Asian men can be jarring and hurtful for growing Asian boys who don't see complex and dimensional portrayals of themselves in the media they consume. Therefore I loved that the protagonist of WANT is a young Asian man who is more than just skilled at fighting but also cunning and sexy and inextricably human. I definitely think we need more of these types of characters, perhaps especially in genres geared toward an adolescent audience who may be struggling with issues of identity and cultural acceptance. For deeper discussions of Asian masculinity and sexuality, I recommend the works of scholars Tan Hoang Nguyen and Sabrina Qiong Yu.
Representation of bisexuality/queerness as complex
In the novel, Lingyi and Iris (friends of the protagonist) are two young women in a relationship. There is background given regarding Lingyi's previous relationship with another member of the group, Victor. I LOVED this love triangle, which didn't even involve the main character, because it illustrates sexuality as complex and un-binary. At no point in the novel do Lingyi or Iris self-identify as lesbian or even bisexual because so often, these labels do not accurately capture the gradient that is human sexuality. In addition, this relationship between the three of them is an incredibly beautiful portrayal of the unrequited love of a straight man for a queer woman that is in no way twisted, overly sexual, or emotionally abusive. Many of my queer female friends have told me stories of how when they tell men that they are queer or gay, they will receive responses like "well, you just haven't been fucked right" or "you need better D" (I apologize about my language here but these are real examples) or in cases of men closer to them, emotional blackmail. Victor was probably one of my favorite characters because he was in love with Lingyi but still treated both her and Iris (her girlfriend) with respect and love. He's such a great character and I wanted more of him!
Strong, intelligent female characters
All the main female characters in this book are on their A-game! Even those who seemingly aren't. And that's all I'll say about that!
Quiet not as timid or shy or weird but strong, cunning, and guarded
I think the trait of being quiet is often associated with shyness or meekness. However, Pon has created a quiet Asian woman character who is resilient and tough, just not of many words. This is such a contrast to the portrayals in Pitch Perfect and some other stories that feature quiet Asian women as weird and creepy or rude and clique-y. (Don't get me wrong, I still loved Pitch Perfect for its music and uplifting energy. This world is full of contradictions and most of the time, nothing is either/or, black/white. I can enjoy Pitch Perfect for what it is and still critically engage with it's problematic representations of Asian women). Iris, on the other hand, is measured in what she says and who she lets in, and therefore feels distant to Zhou, but also is capable of extremely human moments. Plus, she's a total bad-ass.
Orphans and their relationship to parental figures
WANT's protagonists are young men and women who have either lost their parents or been ostracized from their families. Whenever this is true, I think it's important to delve into how these characters relate to other adult figures. Pon explored this through the character of Arun's mom and how she became a sort of surrogate mother for the group. Loved reading about this relationship and wish this dynamic was developed a little further.
The mix of traditional Chinese names and English names for Asian characters
Don't want to go too much into this, but some Asian parents give their child a name in their native language, and some choose to give their children an English or more anglicized name (and of course, some do both). Nowadays, it is not uncommon for citizens of China or Taiwan to have English names as well. It was great to see this reality reflected in Pon's fictional world.
My only complaints are along the lines of "but I wanted more!" There were a few things I would have loved to see more of in this book. MORE SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD.
- more Victor!! The dynamic between Victor, Lingyi, and Iris was incredible and I would have liked to see it carried out and explored further rather than tragically ended. In a lot of ways, I felt like Victor's death was a death of convenience and because of this, that moment in the book wasn't as emotionally impactful for me than it should have been. Like it seemed impossible for him to achieve a happy ending so instead, he met with the most tragic ending possible. Which I suppose, works, right? But I personally would have loved to see a deeper exploration of how he deals with his one-sided love and how his friendship with Lingyi and Iris continues. Did anybody else feel this way?
- Family dynamics. Like I said above, I loved that Pon explored the relationship of orphaned children to parental figures in their life. But this is another relationship I thought ended too soon. I understand there had to be an inciting incident for the characters to go to such drastic measures but I think the relationship between orphaned children or even children who have been ostracized from their parents to other adults is an important one and not commonly portrayed in other books I've read or movies I've watched. In addition, I know this was not really possible to include in this book because it was written from Zhou's perspective but it would have been great to see more of Daiyu's relationship with her father, the despicable Jin himself. I really hope the sequel will delve into this relationship a little more.
It is fitting that this book's title is WANT because it left me WANTING! In the best possibly way. I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the second installment in the series!
In addition to this book being an incredible addition to the breadth of YA dystopian and science fiction novels out there, Cindy Pon herself has made a commitment to talking about and promoting diversity in fiction. She is the cofounder of Diversity in YA, along with fellow author Malinda Lo. Diversity in YA celebrates young adult books about all kinds of diversity, from race to sexual orientation to gender identity and disability, and brings "the margin to the center" by featuring book lists and news about diverse YA titles. Their website also includes statistics about diversity in literature, which are very eye opening. I highly recommend checking them out. Here is an interview they both did about Diversity in YA.
Regardless, I will be following Cindy Pon's journey closely and look forward to reading more from her! As always, keep reading to open your minds, keep writing to open your hearts <3