Our Wayward Fate is a much angrier, more frustrated, book than Gloria Chao’s earlier novel American Panda. Its protagonist Ali Chu, the only Asian-American student in her mostly white school, has lived her entire life dealing with racist microaggressions — and, quite frankly, horrifically overt aggressions — from teachers and friends. The emotional toll this takes on Ali practically pulses off the page. We can feel her seethe as she smiles silently at another racist joke. We can sense her shame as she prepares a PB&J sandwich for lunch, because her classmates think congee is ‘gross.’ It’s difficult to read at times, but important, and one wonders how much of this behaviour (even from teachers who should behave better!) goes unchallenged across North America.
Even Ali’s conflict with her mother, also a major plot point in American Panda, feels more fraught here. Whereas Mei’s mother was hyper-critical, Ali’s mother outright keeps a major secret from a daughter, one that potentially has a major impact on Ali’s future. While her actions are definitely wrong, I did find the mother a sympathetic figure, and couldn’t quite work up as much righteous outrage as Ali and her friends did upon finding out. I love the scenes where we learn a bit more about Ali’s mother’s history, how she felt about the choices she made, how she dealt with the racism she experienced in America, and how her own experiences led to the decisions she made about Ali’s future. I felt for her, and while I understand the perspective the narrator took, I wish Ali’s mother had been treated with a bit more sympathy.
There is a romance — between Ali and new student / fellow Taiwanese-American Chase Yu — but it feels almost secondary to the story. There are some cute moments — I love the flirting over kung fu (where their idea of a dream date involves a rooftop sparring session), and their text messages are filled with puns about their names (which honestly got old for me pretty quickly, but I can imagine a couple in love getting giddy over teasing each other that way). There’s also an angsty conflict — Chase’s family has a troubled history, and Ali’s mother doesn’t approve of the relationship.
But overall, Ali and Chase’s connection felt less like teenagers in love and more like a pair of Taiwanese-American teenagers finally finding someone who helps them be more fully themselves. Unlike Ali, who had learned to sublimate her Taiwanese background in order to fit in, Chase enters the school utterly refusing to follow suit. He calls out racist behaviour in the classroom, advocates for classmates to pronounce Ali’s name properly (‘Āh-lěe’, after a mountain in Taiwan, rather than the more Americanized ‘Allie’), and eats Chinese food with chopsticks in the cafeteria. With his friendship and support, Ali becomes braver about standing up for herself and for who she is, and while it’s disheartening to see the responses of some of her so-called friends, it’s thrilling to see Ali grow.
I personally preferred the more light-hearted American Panda, probably because I related more to Mei than I did to Ali. But I think a lot of Ali’s experiences at school will resonate with Asian-American teens. I hope those teens find this book, and, like Ali, understand that their voices matter.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.