It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura
Harper Teen, May 2017
Reviewed from ARC
There’s something very satisfying about kicking off our first contender post with a first novel. Numerical symmetry aside, this is a book I’ve been excited to talk about because of its representation of queer Japanese American and Mexican American characters, upfront discussion of racism, engaging voice, and well-paced plot. It’s Not Like It’s A Secret hasn’t garnered a huge amount of critical attention, and it’s not a flashy book in terms of language or narrative structure. It’s a high school/family drama, where drama is definitely the emphasis. It’s also a well-crafted exploration of intersecting identities and interpersonal relationships that centers a complex character within an equally complex social world.
When Sana’s Japanese American family moves from predominantly white Wisconsin where microaggressions are an ever-present hazard of social interaction, her new home in far more diverse Silicon Valley provides different friendships, experiences, and ways of understanding herself. Sana finds a solid group of close female friends in Chinese American Reggie and Vietnamese American Hanh and Elaine who bond over cultural commonalities (namely, strict mothers). She also becomes friends, somewhat reluctantly, with Caleb, a white guy who has some hypocritical ideas when it comes to race and also, maybe, a crush on her. And then there’s Jamie, a smart, beautiful Mexican American classmate who Sana can’t help having a crush on. However much her social group has changed, problems with her family stay the same. Sana’s viewpoints clash with her mother’s traditionalism, and she avoids dealing with her growing suspicion that her father is having an affair. Through carefully paced scenes, these relationships develop and intertwine in unexpected ways to mutually inform one another.
Japanese American herself, Sugiura creates a narrative that is attentive to the intersection of queer identity, race, and cultural expectations. As Sana begins to come into her own in California, she’s torn between her attraction to Jamie and her reluctance to complicate her life and her newfound sense of belonging: “I finally fit in. I’m finally comfortable. I can finally work on the subtler points of being uniquely me, instead of having to explain the obvious Asian flag that everyone can see. I don’t want to fly a new freak flag” (82). Sana comes up against stereotypes—“‘Asian girls aren’t lesbian!’” (184)—and has to contend with her mother’s belief, informed by her upbringing in Japan, that gay people are disruptive to society (Sugiura also takes care to mention that Sana’s mother’s views are particularly conservative for Japan and not reflective of the country as a whole). These factors impact her experience coming out and confidence in finding support, but they don’t bar her from acceptance among her closest friends and family or a happy ending.
There are a number of things about Sana and Jamie’s relationship that felt noteworthy to me: the consideration given to race and class dynamics; the relative candor with which their mutual attraction is portrayed; the subtle alternate canon-making at work in the selection of women’s poetry they exchange. The novel is a coming-of-age story rather than a romance, so this relationship largely emphasizes Sana’s growth—and this is probably one of the aspects of the books I was most critical of: Jamie’s character ends up being more functional to the narrative than emotionally realized. Two significant conflicts arise in their relationship, coinciding with other major concerns in Sana’s home life. The first is Sana’s discomfort with Jamie’s Mexican American friends. Throughout the novel, racism is addressed frankly, with one character always calling it out as such. Usually, that character is Sana, who is quick to point out racist logic—especially when it’s directed at her, or when it’s her mother’s and directed at any group that isn’t Japanese. Sana has a harder time recognizing it when it’s the result of her own biases, but she is held accountable. The other conflict occurs when both Jamie and Sana cheat on each other by kissing other people. Sana, who spends much of the narrative critical of her father’s suspected infidelity, confronts her own capacity for it. In each case, the narrative draws parallels between Sana and her parents, bringing the concerns of her home life and her social life together to compelling effect.
I appreciated that the narrative doesn’t push concrete answers about sexuality, and instead stresses the importance of individual agency. Sana has one experience kissing a boy that’s physically and emotionally unpleasant and another that’s more pleasant—and that difference is neither here nor there. What matters is Sana’s feelings about who she wants to have a relationship with and the value she places on identifying as gay. While cheating plots can be heavy-handed (and are infuriatingly common in narratives with bi characters), I felt this one worked well because, apart from contributing to Sana’s character-specific growth and echoing familial tensions, it functions as a critique of compulsory heterosexuality. The problem with the heterosexual default is established early on, as Sana deals with her friends’ assumptions that she is “‘way too normal to be gay!’” (97). After supposedly accepting that Sana is a lesbian, their doubt and provocation—“‘How do you know you only like girls?’” (258)—propel her toward the mistake she makes.
Themes of honesty, responsibility, and fallibility develop over the course of the story. The importance of honesty is by no means a new theme in queer YA, but it works particularly well here, amplified by how much else Sana avoids confronting. I found it satisfying to see Sana gradually assert more control and not let others decide what shape her life should take. And her jarring discovery that she’s capable of causing unintended harm to others, especially due to her own unexamined biases—well, that felt pretty real to me.
There’s much to recommend this book as an important addition to LGBTQIA+ YA. Is the committee likely to consider it seriously? I’d love to hear your thoughts!