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Mochi Reads: Two Summer Books About the Struggle of Belonging

Summer has always seemed like a great time to think a bit about who we are. It’s when we dabble in different fields via internships, or let our minds wander while lounging at the beach. Appropriately, this issue’s Mochi Reads are all about identity.

In Valynne E. Maetani’s Ink and Ashes, protagonist Claire Takata believes that her mother and stepfather are hiding something from her about her deceased father. It starts with the anniversary of her father’s death when she finds a letter her father wrote to her stepfather. Having previously thought her two fathers had never known each other, she digs into the past with her friends’ help—bringing ghosts from her father’s life back into hers and putting them all in danger.

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We’ll admit that Ink and Ashes can be choppy, with lulls between the high action. But what shines through is the genuine camaraderie between Claire and her friends (plus a fun romantic subplot to lighten things up). Mochi readers will also appreciate the cultural struggles of growing up in America in a Japanese family. (Who else has dealt with superstitious parents or stumbled on the inauspiciousness of the number four, a homonym for the word for death?) And for the literary fanatics among us, you’ll see how the excerpts from Claire’s diary from different stages in her life add additional insight to her character.

If you’ve ever struggled to belong anywhere, you’ll understand the sentiment behind Re Jane, debut author Patricia Park’s modern retelling of Jane Eyre. It’s not just a simple adaptation. The female lead, a half-Korean, half-American orphan, is strong and independent—unlike the original Jane—and trying to find a job in the dot-com crash of the early 2000s. When Park’s Jane lands an au pair job for a family with an adopted Chinese daughter, the challenge to fit into ethnic communities on two different continents is highlighted front and center.

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Park writes on her website of hyphenated identities, “Re Jane is a quest for Jane to answer—as well as reject—that question [of where you’re from], as she travels from Flushing to Carroll Gardens to Seoul and back. The novel is about finding a community that feels like the right fit—regardless of what or where we ‘come from.’” That’s exactly where this novel transcends the Bronte story to bring its own message. And readers don’t have to be half-Asian like Jane to relate to the struggle of “in-betweenness.”

Both novels offer glimpses into identity searching at different stages of life, one during adulthood and another in the middle of the teenage years. As these novels show, there are ways to come to terms with identity—whether through a journey back to the motherland in an effort to find a home, or a dig into the past.

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