Keywords: fantasy, mental illness, coming-of-age, romance, identity
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, whose mother was from Taiwan, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a stunning and heartbreaking novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
Introduction to the Story
This YA novel’s protagonist is Leigh Chen Sanders, a teenage, biracial, single child with a Chinese-Taiwanese mother and Irish-American father. Primarily a family story unfolding in contemporary USA and Taiwan, it also features high school life, friendships, and budding romances.
Abundant with intersectionality, the content addresses diverse topics such as: mental illness, through explicit descriptions of depression and suicide; race and ethnicity, through an embedded conflict resulting from interracial marriage, and by centering biracial protagonists (Asian/White, Asian/LatinX); LGBTQ identity; single parent households; and socioeconomic disparities.
As realistic fiction interwoven with magical realism, the plot offers rich potential for addressing universal themes that arise as one encounters and explores different worlds and their liminal spaces—be they physical, cultural, or psychological. Imagery and narrative style showcase artistic references (quoting Emily Dickinson’s poems, employing nuanced, precise colors as indicators of emotions, charcoal sketches, paintings, and photography), along with musical themes (notably Mom’s passionate piano playing, and Axel’s digital compositions), that serve as alternate modes of communication- “languages” in their own right.
The book’s fantastical and supernatural elements are tinged with Chinese traditional practices that continue to be observed by many people in Taiwan, and beyond. The lighting of incense is a prominent, commonplace example that also functions as a plot device to transport the protagonist elsewhere, in order to bear witness to memories that may or may not be her own. Implicit in the narrative is the potential of parallel universes, along with the idea that other dimensions may exist in which life forces dwell when they have departed from the corporeal realm.
Throughout her journey, Leigh learns about rituals that are influenced by Daoist beliefs andBuddhist teachings, as well as cultural sensibilities and folk customs dedicated to remembrances of loved ones who have passed—such as serving up lavish feasts or burning purpose-made “spirit money” and other necessities for the afterlife. Leigh’s perceived “deadline” for locating her mother-as-red-bird also aligns with the forty-nine-day period during which the spirit of the deceased is thought to hover in transit between this world and a desired release into the next life.
By setting the story during Ghost Month (the seventh month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, guiyue 鬼月; pronounced: “gway-YOU-eh”) the range of possibility broadens for contact to occur across realms, thereby enhancing this work’s sense of mystery and storytelling imagination. It is said that the transom between worlds opens the widest during this period, and more spirits and souls are free to move about among living humans. As such, in popular culture there are innumerable variations on practices and superstitions specifically associated with Ghost Month.
On its own, the word gui 鬼 (pronounced: “gway”) can mean ghost or spirit, connoting life forces—or souls—that exist beyond bodily flesh. Depending on the circumstances, context, and relationship to living individuals, a particular gui 鬼 may be benign, helpful, needy, tricky, vicious, or vindictive.
This section helps to clarify why Leigh was confused about Mom’s origins (pg. 39), and the mixture of languages as well as cultural influences Leigh encounters when she visits Taiwan.
Today’s Taiwan is a multicultural society with nearly 24 million residents, a democratic government, and distinct identities that set the island apart from its neighbors. Its citizens include an indigenous population, ethnic Chinese whose families migrated from China’s mainland over the past few centuries, and recent immigrants from Southeast Asia. Mandarin/Putonghua, Taiwanese/Hokkien, and Hakka are the main spoken languages, and traditional Chinese characters are used in writing. English is prominent in signage and public announcements to cater to international travelers. The Taiwan that Leigh experiences both shows how locals live, as her grandparents do, and features popular tourist activities—including trips to the iconic Shilin Night Market
士林夜市 and Jiufen 九份, another top destination for visitors.
Geographically, Taiwan is an island located near China’s southeastern coast. According to Jonathan Manthorpe in his book Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan: “People have lived on the island for tens of thousands of years. But identifying with scientific certainty who they were and how they came there is an ongoing process” (28). Scholar Robert Blust suggests that the indigenous population lived on the island since around 4000 B.C.E. Malayo-Polynesian peoples comprise Taiwan’s Indigenous population. Portuguese sailors dubbed the island “Formosa” in the 1500’s; during the first half of the seventeenth century, Dutch and Spanish traders established ports in southwestern and northern Taiwan, respectively. Although the Dutch dominated, they were driven out by the 1660’s, when Ming Dynasty loyalists escaping Manchu rulers (who founded the Qing/Ching Dynasty in 1644) fled mainland China and set up base on Taiwan. In the subsequent two hundred-plus years, Taiwan remained an outlying, somewhat unruly, territory of the Qing empire. Most migrants from mainland China to Taiwan during this period were from the coastal Fujian province, and their mother tongue, Hokkien, gave rise to the local vernacular that became known as “Taiwanese.” For cultural and historical context: the descendants of these early settlers became identified as benshengren 本省人 (natives; pronounced: “BEN-SHENG-ren”), differentiating them from the mid-twentieth century arrivals from China, and their descendants, commonly referred to as waishengren 外省人 (outsiders; pronounced: “WHY-sheng-ren”). In the twenty-first century however, many would consider these terms outdated or less relevant.
In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan after China lost the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japanese colonial rule lasted fifty years, until Allied forces defeated Japan in World War II. China’s Nationalist Party (KMT) government then took possession of Taiwan, later imposing martial law that lasted for nearly four decades, during which all political dissent—perceived or proven—was systematically silenced through a campaign known as the White Terror.
In the post-WWII years leading up to 1949, around two million Chinese from all over the mainland sought refuge in Taiwan as the KMT was losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, which established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949. The KMT regime proclaimed Taiwan as the temporary headquarters of the Republic of China (ROC), continuing observance of National Day on October 10 (Double Ten) and retaining international diplomatic recognition as the legitimate government of China until 1971.
The PRC continues to claim sovereignty over Taiwan as part of its national territory. In Taiwan, with a popularly-elected president, sentiments remain divided as to whether Taiwan is—or ought to become—an independent nation state or still is a province of China. By the same token, the English term “Taiwanese” has different connotations and, depending on the context, it might be: a reference to a spoken language or one’s personal identity, an indication of someone’s ancestry or birthplace, an unequivocal declaration of political affiliation, or a hybrid of these identities
Chinese language, and some terms found in the book
There are diverse spoken languages in China and throughout the diaspora. The written language, called “characters,” form basic units of written Chinese. Characters appear in two versions: Simplified (a modern format adopted in the mid-1900’s in the PRC and subsequently in Singapore) or Traditional (retained in Taiwan and Hong Kong to this day). Chinese characters used in Japanese writing (kanji 漢字) are based on Traditional characters, with some modifications.
Over the years, a number of romanization systems evolved to notate pronunciation of Chinesecharacters, based on standardized spoken Mandarin/Putonghua. Currently, Pinyin (also known as Hanyu Pinyin) is the most common and is used in this book.
This book features a sample of Chinese writing in Traditional characters 最難風雨故人來(pronounced: “ZWAY-nun-FENG-you-goo-ren-lie”) citing the last stanza of a poem by Qing Dynasty scholar Sun Xingyan 孫星衍 (1753-1818). Chinese names begin with the family name followed by the given name, i.e., Sun was the poet’s surname. The vertical layout in the book maintains the customary format of Chinese writing, with characters stacked in columns; multiple columns would be arranged from right to left.
The in-text translation: “it’s an incredible blessing to be able to see your loved ones during the most difficult times.” (pg. 64 is where the line first appears; pgs. 431-2 details its explication)Leigh refers to Waipo 外婆 (pronounced: “WHY-pwuh”) and Waigong 外公 (pronounced: “WHY-gung”) —terms that specify maternal grandparents; paternal grandparents have altogether different titles. In the Chinese language, distinct forms of address exist to delineate relatives based on gender, birth order, generational rank, and manner of association—i.e., whether on the paternal or maternal side, if by marriage, familial friendships, etc. In addition, some forms of address vary according to regional customs and linguistic usage.
Two Chinese names in this book are noteworthy: Yuanyang (Waipo’s given name), and Feng(the “family friend” who arrives to help Leigh and is visible only to her—near the end of the story, Feng is revealed to be the spirit of Waipo’s older daughter who died before Leigh’s birth). Although the author does not provide the Chinese characters for either name, based on contextual evidence, they likely correlate to two birds with symbolic significance in Chinese culture: Yuanyang means mandarin duck 鴛鴦;Feng almost certainly refers to the mythical phoenix 鳳. This interpretation is plausible in reinforcing Leigh’s increasingly tenuous connection to her dead mother, because Leigh is convinced Mom became a red bird following her suicide. Throughout her journey to find that bird, Leigh comes across plenty of feathers as proof.
The jade cicada pendant necklace
Jade refers to ornamental minerals known as nephrite or jadeite and comes in a variety of colors—the most familiar of which range from white and pale grey, to mottled green, emerald, and spinach. For thousands of years in China, jades were prized as precious and powerful stones, and jade objects were designated for ritual ceremonies, including burials. To this day, jade remains popular as a distinctive material for decorations and personal accessories.
As cultural and literary motifs in China, cicadas long have been symbols of immortality and reincarnation. In this novel, not only does Mom’s jade cicada pendant necklace find its way back to Leigh under incredible circumstances, but there is also a scene in which Waigong shows Leigh a molting cicada, echoing the theme of rebirth.
Pre-reading activity related to Chinese language and civilization (10-15 minutes)
Step 1: Compare these two Chinese characters:
Step 2: Examine their component* characters and respective definitions:
虫 + 單 示 + 單
Bug/insect Single/solitary Spirit/veneration Single/solitary
Question: What are your observations, insights, questions, based on this exercise?
Fact: these two characters are homonyms (Pinyin: chan, 2nd tone). In Mandarin, both are pronounced “chun” and rhymes with “fun” using a tone that rises in pitch, as in: “Are we having FUN?”
*Each component character has its own definition, and the meaning can shift depending on other characters and words used in conjunction. Bear in mind that Chinese is a high-context language.
Rachel Wang, Kirkus reviewer; translator/writer
Matthew Sudnik, History Department Chair, The Madeira School
Suggested Readings and Resources
Manthorpe, Jonathan. Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.
Emily X. R. Pan’s novel gives teachers and librarians opportunities to introduce students to aspects of Taiwan’s culture and history. However, Pan’s story also provides a subtle warning to educators. Early in the novel the protagonist Leigh recalls her middle school social studies unit on East Asian cultures when a teacher asked Leigh if anyone in her family practiced foot binding (pg. 39). While many teachers now recognize this particular question is inappropriate, the reference also serves as a word of caution about a greater set of issues – against fixating on esoteric anachronisms (foot binding, in this case) and narrowly focused assumptions about East Asia in too many American K-12 classrooms. Rather than limit our classroom presentation as teachers to dynasties, spirituality, and a study of cultures that is removed from history or particular geographic contexts, all of which are “othering” perspectives, Pan’s novel invites us to view Taiwan through the eyes of one young adult and, perhaps, to join her on her quest to better know herself.
Connections to literature:
Teachers of literature may choose to read this book in a class with other coming-of-age novels. Students are often introduced to coming-of-age literature through books such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Separate Peace by John Knowles, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Pan’s novel, in contrast to these classics, includes much more attention to intersectional identities and bicultural identities. It is a novel that speaks directly to the demands of cultural competency for our time. In addition, she is writing a typical high school coming-of-age story with attention to topics that are less common in older curricula – including her focus on mental illness, biracial and bicultural identities, and LGBTQ identities. By having Leigh learn more about her Chinese and Taiwanese heritage from her white father, a Sinologist, Pan seems to position her novel through her unique perspective as an author. Rather than a story told through the White gaze, Pan, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, is writing a story from her distinctly millennial Asian-American perspective. Also, by situating her protagonist in this way, Pan puts the reader in the position of Leigh, limited in their knowledge of language and culture but invited to learn. All Chinese phrases [some are Mandarin usage while others are Hokkien] are either translated into English or explained through contextual information. Throughout the novel Leigh, along with the reader, is introduced to Taiwanese culture, traditional beliefs and customs, as well as food and music.
What grade levels or student populations are best served with the book?
Our recommendation to teachers and librarians is middle school (grades 7-8) humanities or early high school world literature (grade 9). While the subject matter is mature, the book fits into a coming-of-age genre that we have found is more common in grades 7-9, when teachers and students are exploring identity formation. The reading level is also appropriate for these grades.
In schools with a Chinese language program, we believe this book also provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration between world language and humanities classes. Throughout the novel, Leigh is introduced to words and phrases that are common in the first lessons of Basic Mandarin – especially those using the popular Cheng & Tsui textbook. Students learning Mandarin could be asked to write out these words and phrases in characters or teach them to their peers in the humanities classroom.
Suggestions for History, Social Studies, and Humanities:
We would only advise using this book in History or Social Studies classes as discretionary or enrichment reading since the novel is focused on the identity development of the protagonist rather than any significant historical context. The novel is better suited to a humanities or literature course. As a work of coming-of-age literature, students will explore many aspects of diversity in America as well as aspects of East Asian culture through the lens of Leigh’s own discovery.
Emily X. R. Pan also introduces complex themes and pertinent social issues, based on which classroom conversations and discussion groups can take place. Some other possibilities include:
Race-based and gender-based power dynamics:
Leigh’s father, Brian Sanders, is a White man and an established Sinologist. In the story, he is the one who teaches Leigh the Chinese language, cultural knowledge, and behavioral etiquette, while his Chinese-Taiwanese wife—Leigh’s biological mother—does very little to educate their daughter in her own native language and culture, other than cooking certain foods. Why is that?
Racism and xenophobia:
Towards the end of the book, Leigh—along with the reader—learns that her maternal grandparents objected so vehemently to their daughter marrying someone who was not Chinese or Taiwanese that they, in effect, disowned her (pg. 423). Given that Brian Sanders was not an average “foreigner” since he already was knowledgeable about Chinese language and culture, how might we interpret the basis for the grandparents’ unyielding opinion?
Throughout her travel in the novel, Leigh learns more about the culture of Taiwan. We believe Emily X.R. Pan is inviting the reader to join Leigh in learning more about Taiwan generally.
Experiential learning activities might include:
Matthew Sudnik, History Department Chair, The Madeira School
Rachel Wang, Kirkus reviewer; translator/writer
Suggested Readings and Resources
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. London: Secker & Warburg, 1959.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
Liu, Yuehua, and Tao-chung Yao. Integrated Chinese 4th edition. Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2016.
Transition前進樂團. “翻唱鄧麗君‘你怎麼說’ Cover ‘Ni Zenme Shuo’.” YouTube, 2:01. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug_thqI47xk
VLyrical. “Tian Mi Mi – Teresa Teng Lyrics.” YouTube, 3 :35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tc2tW0jFHPo