Title: Picture Us in the Light
Author: Kelly Loy Gilbert
Published: April 10, 2018
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Goodreads Description: Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
If someone ever asked me what it was like growing up as a first-generation Asian American in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would hand them this book.
At its surface, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert was a story about high school senior, Danny Cheng, uncovering a family secret. But, peel it back, and the book had so many more layers.
Right away, Gilbert did a fantastic job at establishing Danny Cheng’s background. His parents were Chinese immigrants who moved to the highly affluent city of Cupertino, sometimes called the heart of the Silicon Valley, to offer their child a chance at a better life. They weren’t like the typical “tiger” parents of the kids Danny went to school with. Whereas his classmates’ parents tired their kids into becoming perfect versions of their visions of success (ie. doctors, lawyers, and engineers), Danny’s parents were lax and supported his ambitions of becoming an artist.
Not only did Danny win the lottery with his parents, but he also had an incredible group of friends. From the head of the school paper, Regina, to ASB president, Harry, Danny’s friends were not only extraordinary in their achievements, but also their character. While Danny did not have a fraction of the accolades or the wealth his peers had, he knew he was privileged just to live and go to school with them in Cupertino.
Danny’s acquiescence that everything in his life was perfectly A-OK because of his background and where he resided struck a chord in me.
He felt that he had no reason to complain because, hell, he had it good, and it could be so much worse. But, it was that tainted thinking that chewed away at his mental health and all the other fear-driven students at his school. It was challenging to “look on the bright side” when you were young and the only sliver of the world you had seen, and barely understand the mechanics of, was your hometown.
Trigger Warnings: suicide, death, racism, assault
It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the student body at Danny’s school was Asian and (although it’s never explicitly said) probably first-generation. I know there is the admittedly fortunate stereotype of Asians being the model minority, but I also don’t think people understand the stress the kids in Danny’s type of community are put under to uphold some crazy standards.
(When I was in high school, we had to fill out a 24 hour schedule and an advisor instructed us to make sure that we included 8 hours of sleep and that all our activities actually added up to 24 hours. Some people had submitted 26 and 28 hour schedules in the past.)
Students literally kill themselves over a pervasive fear of failure. There’s so much weighing on the shoulders of these kids because their parents expect so much of them. It’s not enough for them to be good at science or good at soccer—they need to excel. They all might be standout students, but in a school chock-full of outstanding students, they don’t all standout to colleges. Every year, some of them find ending their lives is an easier way out than dealing with the fallout of ruining their parent’s American Dream.
(My mom didn’t leave her seven siblings in the Philippines, toil away at 48 hour shifts in a new land, or commute four hours away from the Bay Area to work a better-compensated job for years only for me to waste this life of opportunity.)
It’s the prime example of the Suicide paradox. Danny and his peers are residing in apparently one of the best places in the world, yet the area also holds one of the highest national suicide rates for people in their age group.
Suicide was something that haunted my teenage years, and I’m so grateful to have finally seen someone address from the perspective I saw it, regardless if it was “just” in a YA book.
Even ensconced within his insulated bubble of “diversity” (because I don‘t think a community where the “minority” is the majority is necessarily diverse), racists still found their way to puncture Danny’s world with remarks like “go back to your country.” Such a platitude was so stupidly simple for someone to say, but it was something Danny carried with him for life. A grotesque image of a man whispered to him that it didn’t matter that he was born in America, spoke like an American, went to an American school, or liked American things. There was always someone who viewed him as an alien invading their homeland.
(I’ll never forget sitting at a stop sign with my dad while a man honked his horn at us and told my dad, almost laughing, to go back to his country. This is his country. He hasn’t been back to India in almost two decades.
“It’s a strange and uniquely painful thing when you try to reach someone and instead you pass right through them, like a ghost; it makes you feel not all the way there yourself.”
This book felt extremely long, not in a particularly bad way, but because Gilbert seemed determined to dedicate the right amount of time to all facets of Danny’s story. Many events were revealed as drawn-out flashbacks, which added depth to the characters and complicated the present plot line. I was constantly flip-flopping about how I felt about certain characters, especially Danny himself, until I decided not to judge them too hard because they were all entirely human and fallible.
When I finally finished the book, I knew the story wasn’t just about high school senior, Danny Cheng, uncovering a family secret:
Picture Us in the Light was an emotional and beautifully constructed story that presented a kaleidoscopic view on immigration, love, sacrifice, guilt, identity, art, mental health, self-worth, and, ultimately, self-acceptance.
^Look at all those words lol. This book was packed.
Picture Us in the Light spoke to my core in ways I cannot express. It was only one example of the Asian American experience, but it hit me again so forcefully of how important it is to see myself represented in stories. I know this book won’t have the same impact on everyone that it had on me—it’s one thing to read a ¡ᴰᴵᵛᴱᴿˢᴱ! YA story and another thing to live it. But if you want to read one account of what it’s like growing up as a first-generation Asian American, here’s the book.