Starfish | Akemi Dawn Bowman
Kiko Himura is many things; a young artist, a teenager and half-Japanese. Brought up by her white mother who is emotionally abusive, Kiko dreams of escaping to the art school Prism. This plan is shattered however when she is not accepted. So when her childhood friend Jamie returns to town, she ends up travelling back to California with him to see other art schools and finds more Japanese culture across the country than she ever experienced growing up. Kiko’s journey results in her embracing her Japanese heritage, dealing with social anxiety, escaping abuse and potentially finding love.
This book was a joy to read. It’s beautifully written and incredibly authentic exploring themes of race, social anxiety and familial abuse. I empathised with Kiko’s character on multiple levels, being both an introvert and an ethnic minority. Bowman really captures social anxiety well with Kiko’s internal dichotomy between ‘WHAT I WANT TO SAY’ and ‘WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY’. As a reader I wanted Kiko to say the former every time but the fact is, with social anxiety, you can’t imagine saying what you really feel and letting those heavy words fill the space between you and the person you are talking to.
Confidence is a foreign concept to me, and saying how I feel, out loud, is horribly unnatural. It sounds like I’m yelling my feelings.
The biracial aspect of Kiko’s identity plays a huge part in the book. She feels like an outsider in her own home where her mother puts her down and tries to erase her Japanese side. Kiko tackles feeling unattractive and invisible, which many people can relate to, but this is made worse by the fact that she feels that she is unattractive because she is Asian. Her mother reminds her again and again that she isn’t the ideal All-American Blonde-Haired Blue-Eyed Girl™. There were so many parts in the book that I highlighted (on my Kobo, I’m not a total monster!), where I related to feeling like an outsider and feeling less attractive than the girls we’re surrounded by and are portrayed in media. This is why we need #OwnVoices. Because yes, many experiences are universal, but the ethnic minority experience is more unique.
Now when I have a crush on someone, I don’t wonder if they like the same music as me, or if they watch the same kind of movies, or if we’ll get along the way Jamie and I did. I wonder if they like Asian girls.
I felt like her abusive mother was portrayed well, flipping between being nice and flat out horrible. It was also interesting seeing the complexity of Kiko’s relationship with her mother; she’s aware of her mother’s flaws and yet still seeks her approval. Kiko does describe her mum’s kindness as fake though, so it is a little harder to understand quite how she falls for the false kindness when she recognises it so well. Plus, as many other reviewers pointed out, the book doesn’t quite do enough to recognise that her mother has mental health issues that are related to being abusive and puts her into the two-dimensional space usually reserved for popular girls and cheerleaders.
Regarding the romantic aspect; I’d forgotten the whole YA contemporary romance thing where boys in books are better. Jamie is perfect for Kiko. It could read as a too-easy escape of abuse through romance but it’s telling that Kiko wants to be secure in how she feels about herself first and how she desires to be independent before she allows Jamie into her life romantically.
The writing in this book is really beautiful and emotive, however Bowman needs to show and not tell. The opening 10 pages are completely expositionary, with Kiko explaining her mother’s abusive nature rather than showing it. Bowman says that she wrote a book that she needed as a teen and it very much feels like that. There are paragraphs where she is clearly trying to get a message across and I while it isn’t nuanced in any way, it certainly does the job.
And, just before we end this review, one of my favourite things about this book was that at the end of most chapters Kiko describes what she has been drawing and an artistic representation of her emotions (so much more than what she can put into words) that I wish that there had been illustrations too.
Definitely worth a read, it is an accurate good portrayal of an ethnic minority character and it’s really wonderfully written! A special thank you to Netgalley who sent me a free e-copy of this book to read.