As high school students return to campus and fill the halls and classrooms, the collateral damage from the pandemic and the isolation of remote learning is almost palpable: More than one-third of high schoolers have reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CDC study.
Local author and former East Palo Alto Academy High administrator Joanna Ho knows quite a bit about the pressures of high school achievement and fitting in. As an alumna of Palo Alto High and the daughter of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants, Ho has navigated the minefield of performance and assimilation her whole life.
Though the bestselling author is known for writing children's picture books (including "Eyes that Kiss at the Corners," "Eyes that Speak to the Stars" and "Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma") that speak about inclusion and Asian American representation, Ho was compelled to write her latest release, "The Silence that Binds Us," after a couple of encounters she had years ago.
"I was at dinner with colleagues, and we were discussing the suicides that were occurring at the local high schools. The man across the table from me blamed Asian parents in the community for creating stress and pressure in the classroom," says Ho. The sentiment was reiterated later by a ride-share driver in the back seat of his car. She felt invisible on both occasions, recognizing that these people were vocalizing silent racism that has been perpetuated since Asians first came to this country.
In 2017, Ho embarked on her young adult manuscript — before COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate campaigns. Her protagonist, a high schooler named Maybelline Chen, grapples with the aftermath of her brother Danny's undiagnosed depression and suicide, inspired by the clusters of suicides that occurred in Palo Alto between 2008-2009 and 2014-2015. According to the CDC and based on a preliminary study in 2016, Palo Alto has a teen suicide rate of more than four times the national average. Several of these suicides occurred on the Caltrain tracks near the high schools.
Suicide is the catalyst that drives the book's overarching narrative — racism against Asian Americans.
"I set out to write a book about anti-Asian racism. At the time that I wrote the book, it was something that no one talked about," she says. Ho couldn't help but incorporate her own reactions to student mental health decline and increased attacks on the Asian community during the novel's revision process, but she stresses that so much of the book already existed before these events.
"People say that the book is timely, but Asian erasure and exclusion has always been around, and the reason why no one talked about it before is that it is systemic and was never taught," she adds.
Ho makes room for Maybelline to explore her relationships with her deceased brother, her parents who push her to stay silent and invisible and her friendship with Tiya, a Haitian girl whose brother Marc is also mourning the loss of his best friend. "May is imperfect, and it was always part of the plan for her to explore her own ignorance and complicity with her own activism," she says. "We are all on a journey, and we all make mistakes and have blind spots."
The thought that one community's success can make it harder for others isn't new, and Ho addresses the Black-Asian trope in her book. She created a scene where Maybelline asks the school's Black Student Union for its help in a protest where she plans to combat Asian stereotypes and anti-Asian online chatter. In the scene, Black students debate the model minority myth and challenge Maybelline on her lack of participation in protests organized by Black peers. Ho sets up a scene that begs for exploration and says, "My hope is to inspire and create more dialogue around Black and Asian racism."
Maybelline's organized protest, which she titles "Take Back the Narrative," is successful in the sense that it brings awareness to the silent racism that exists in the school and greater community. It illuminates the micro-moments where we are all quick to judge and stereotype. Not all of the characters in "The Silence that Binds Us" evolve, but the most important characters do, and they come together to celebrate a life lost far too soon.
The Menlo Park Library is hosting a guest panel for Suicide Prevention Month, "Thriving at All Ages: Taking action for suicide prevention," on Tuesday, Sept. 27, from 6-7:30 p.m. Visit the library's website for more information.
Help is available
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 888-628-9454. Dialing 988 will also connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. Additional resources can be found at paloaltoonline.com.