BookBrowse Reviews The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho

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The Silence that Binds Us

by Joanna Ho

The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho X
The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2022, 448 pages

    Dec 26, 2023, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
David Bahia
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About this Book



May embarks on a journey of self-discovery and social justice when an influential community figure blames her parents for the recent suicide of her older brother.

The Silence That Binds Us by Joanna Ho is the story of Maybelline "May" Chen, a high school sophomore growing up in a Chinese Taiwanese American household who is haunted by the sudden suicide of her brother, Danny. Her frequent flashbacks reinforce an image of the ideal older sibling who was earnest and affectionate, and always knew how to make their mother laugh. Not even Danny's best friend, Marc Duverne, had been aware of the warning signs (periods of listlessness, locking himself alone in his room) he evidently took great pains to conceal. Marc's younger sister, Tiya, is May's closest friend, and her positive energy is a constant and comforting presence throughout the mourning period.

Months pass by but May and her parents have hardly begun to heal. The fall semester arrives. Since Danny's passing, May has not spoken to Josh McIntyre, a white boy she knows who rides at the top of the school social hierarchy. Josh wishes to be respectful of May's situation, but his attempts to talk with her privately backfire one night when Marc and Tiya become furious after they catch him alone with an overly inebriated May during a house party. Any hope of clearing the air is dashed when Josh's father, Nate, an influential venture capitalist, takes to the podium at a routine parent-teacher meeting. He proceeds to blame the town's recent string of student suicides, of which Danny's is now the fifth, on there being too many Asian students, and argues that the competitive values of their parents are at fault. Shockingly, a visible contingent of parents readily voice their agreement.

May is humiliated and furious. Against her parents' wishes, she writes a poem defending Danny and her family's integrity and submits it to the local paper. When Nate doubles down on his statements, May and Tiya plan a student rally to bring attention to the narratives of all minority students who face injustice. As she reaches out to classmates for support, May discovers quickly who her true allies are. She must also decide how willing she is to be an ally to Tiya and Marc, who as Black students face related but different struggles with racial bigotry. Though eager to do the right thing, May learns that making sacrifices for a just cause is not as simple as she thought when it becomes clear that Nate might use his clout to get her mom fired from her job if she goes ahead with the rally.

In The Silence That Binds Us, Ho presents a detailed narrative that addresses difficult themes. First is the issue of suicide. Ho focuses the plot primarily on the aftermath with its whirlwind of emotions that afflict not just May but the entire Chen family. The depiction of May's normally steadfast mother temporarily succumbing to overwhelming depression is especially impactful, as it shows how May is forced to acknowledge the chilling reality that her parents are only human and cannot shield her from the injustices of an outside world where she and her family are but a small minority. When May resolves to publicly fight back against Nate's dangerous rhetoric, she must do so bearing responsibility for the consequences. If she does not act, people like Nate will feel emboldened to continue scapegoating Asian people. If she does act, it may come at the cost of her mother's job.

Ho also gives ample attention to how Danny's death amplifies the tension between May and her mother. Without her supportive big brother there to tactfully mitigate their mother's high expectations, May is left alone to contend with a family atmosphere embodied by the Chinese Confucian concept of xiàoshùn, a term that she explains has no accurate translation in English because it is inherently alien to Western understanding. This manifests in her mother disapproving of May's dressing sloppily or expressing interest in a writing career instead of STEM, and lavishing praise on a classmate at dinner for getting a summer internship at Google. The conflict resonates with some other recent Asian American literature such as Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart, in which the author also depicts being torn between the cultural ethos of an immigrant household and mainstream American values.

May's resistance to her mother's values forms just one aspect of her complex exploration of her Asian identity. She also examines her father's troubled past of growing up surrounded by anti-Asian violence and gang warfare in San Francisco's Chinatown, as well as the remarkable account of his mother, who risked death when fleeing to Hong Kong during China's Cultural Revolution (see Beyond the Book). Her exploration soon expands to dovetail with the identities of Tiya and Marc, who recount their own experiences as the children of Haitian immigrants growing up around prejudice in America. When May meets their fellow members in the Black Student Union at school, she is exposed to an ever-diverse and sometimes conflicting array of personal narratives, some of which are sympathetic to the struggles of the Asian community and others that are not. The dialogues she holds with certain members are purposefully uncomfortable and expose mutually unresolved disagreements, which historic activists like Yuri Kochiyama — one BSU student points out — have striven in the past to overcome in both communities.

Ho succeeds in the objectives underscored in her Author's Note: to focus on anti-Asian racism in America and to elevate protagonists emblematic of Asian-Black solidarity, with Danny's death as the glue holding together the plot. It is his suicide and the circumstances surrounding it that motivate May's actions. Danny is the reason why May is personally involved in the fight against the marginalization of the Asian community, which awakens her to the question of what it means to be Asian in a multicultural America. Ho shows how May's exploration of her own experiences, conflicts, roots and family history empower her not only to better understand the plight of other minority communities like Tiya and Marc's, but to take the initiative and stand in solidarity with their causes as well.

Reviewed by David Bahia

This review first ran in the August 24, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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