When I read Akemi Dawn Bowman’s debut novel Starfish, I was blown away by the vivid imagery, the painfully accurate portrayals of mental illness and broken families, and the intense rollercoaster of emotions that had me riveted from start to finish. Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue is even better.
Summer Bird Blue is first and foremost novel about grief, loss, and healing. Rumi and Lea Seto are sisters with a beautiful relationship; they laugh, they fight, and they bond through their music. (My own sister is three years younger than I am, just like Lea and Rumi, so it’s hard not to identify immediately with their bond.) When Lea is killed in a car accident, Rumi is utterly lost; unsure of who she is without her sister, unable to connect with her mother, and unable to move on.
Bowman’s portrayal of grief and healing is complicated, thoughtful, and avoids tropes and easy solutions at every possible turn. There’s a cute boy, but his love doesn’t “cure” Rumi, nor does their budding romance turn out the way you think it might. There’s a grouchy old neighbor with a pain of his own, but he offers no magical words of advice to heal Rumi. Rumi’s journey is difficult, messy, and happens inconsistently in spurts and fits rather than proceeding smoothly from bad to good. She’s never completely okay and she might never be. And that’s fine.
Summer Bird Blue also centers around uncertain identity. Bowman deals deftly with issues surrounding Japanese culture, diaspora, biraciality, and queerness. Rumi is a biracial, possibly ace/aro girl trying to figure out herself at possibly the worst time in her life. She’s in Hawaii for the first time, reconnecting with her family’s roots. She’s never had a California roll before. (I found it particularly fascinating to read Bowman’s transliteration of Hawaiian pidgin, a dialect which I have never before heard or read on the page.) Rumi is also tentatively exploring her sexual/romantic orientation. She’s not sure if she’s asexual and/or aromantic. She thinks she might be, but she also doesn’t know if she’ll change or mind or if she simply hasn’t found the right label for herself. She doesn’t have all the right answers, and she doesn’t need to.
Though the inciting incident of Summer Bird Blue is the death of Rumi’s sister, the novel at its heart is about Rumi’s relationship with her mother. This, too, is complex and realistically contradictory. Rumi’s mother sends her to live with her aunt in Hawaii because she needs to recover from her daughter’s death on her own. Rumi takes this as a sign of abandonment. Neither are completely right and neither are completely wrong. Summer Bird Blue draws on a conversation about mother-daughter relationships started in Starfish: that we can crave the attention of those who reject us, and that we can love and seek the love of those who hurt us.
Summer Bird Blue is out now from Simon Pulse! You can find it here on Goodreads.
Akemi was nice enough to do a Q&A with us! Read her fascinating answers below.
1) Your characters often use creative mediums like songwriting or painting to understand the world. How do you portray them so accurately? Do you have creative hobbies outside of writing?
I’ve always been drawn to various forms of art, because I genuinely struggle with anything social. I’m not great at picking up on cues, I’m always worried I’m doing something wrong, and social anxiety often makes it difficult to communicate my thoughts out loud. It can be exhausting. But art and music and even writing was, for me, a form of therapy. It was a way to express myself. I’ve been playing the piano and flute since I was six years old, and I’ve been an avid-doodler-sometimes-painter since I learned how to use a pencil. And I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t had that outlet. I think when I write about them, it’s genuinely coming from the very depths of my soul. I’m communicating in the most honest way I can, and I guess (hopefully) that comes across to readers.
2) I was intrigued by the use of transliterated Hawaiian pidgin, which I’ve never seen done in a novel before. How and why did you choose to include it?
My dad was born and raised in Hawaii, as was all of his family for many generations. So for me, Hawaiian pidgin is just what my family speaks. I grew up calling ramen “saimin.” It was always “slippers,” NEVER “flip-flops.” We used to call boogers “hanabata.” (I was eight or nine before I realized this was Not A Thing for the other kids in Las Vegas.) The language feels familiar to me—like I’m sitting around with my dad and grandparents and aunties and uncles. And I chose to include it because I felt like not including it would be erasing such a big part of the local culture. And also, for slightly more selfish reasons, I knew it would make my family happy to see that part of them represented. My dad read so many early drafts of this book because I wanted the language to be just right, and I’m so grateful for his help.
3) If you could cast the movie adaptations of either Starfishor Summer Bird Blue, who would play the leads?
Ooh, I equal parts love this question and find it VERY hard to answer. Because I think my dream cast would probably include unknown actors for the leads, because Asian-American and multiracial actors are still so underrepresented in film right now. But I know without a doubt my DREAM would be to have Nicole Kidman play Kiko’s mom from STARFISH. I think she’d bring nuance to the role that is very much necessary, and she looks almost exactly like the person I pictured in my head when I was writing.
4) If we loved Starfish and Summer Bird Blue, what other books would you recommend?
Kelly Loy Gilbert’s PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT, Emily X.R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, and anything and everything written by Alice Oseman and Ashley Herring Blake. I also recently read A QUIET KIND OF THUNDER by Sara Barnard, which features a teen with social anxiety similar to Kiko from STARFISH, and it was so very relatable.
Review by Rebecca F. Kuang