The Books I Fell in Love with as an Awkward Immigrant Teenager
by Sara Saedi
If you read my memoir, Americanized, then you’ll know that high school was not the best years of my life. As an awkward immigrant teenager, I was regularly disappointed by this fact. I wanted my life to be like the chorus of a John Cougar Mellencamp song. I wanted someone to look past my unibrow and hormonal acne, wrap me in their letterman jacket, and tell me that I was so beautiful, it hurt to look at me. While I waited for that to happen, I turned to books. I couldn’t leave the country without a green card, but at least I could lie in bed, open a book, and escape into someone else’s miserable life.
These titles resonated with me at that age and remain some of my favorites:
The Bell Jar
I totally judged this book by its cover. It’s still my all-time favorite. That 1960s font, that dead rose … it’s iconic. Esther Greenwood (the book’s heroine) gets to live in New York City and write for a magazine, but she never feels as cool or beautiful or smart as the society types she’s surrounded by. Admittedly, I did wonder if all of Esther’s problems could go away if she just brushed her hair, but that aside, The Bell Jar is a harrowing tale of one woman’s downward spiral. Esther was an outsider, and she didn’t want to fall in line with societal expectations. It’s a bummer she’s not as recognizable a character as that Holden Caulfield guy.
Like Water for Chocolate
Forget Romeo and Juliet. Tita and Pedro were my kind of star-crossed lovers. Tita loves Pedro, Pedro loves Tita, but as the youngest daughter in her family, Tita can never marry and has to take care of her mother until she dies. Pedro marries Tita’s sister instead. DRAMA. Tita finds solace in cooking, and all of her sadness and longing emerge through her food. Esquivel’s writing is magical. As a victim of unrequited love for much of high school, I fully understood Tita’s plight. I don’t think my fragile heart would have survived if my Pedro hooked up with my sister.
The Hottest State
Ethan Hawke was my ultimate celebrity crush back in the ’90s. Troy Dyer in “Reality Bites” was the adult version of all of the boys I loved in high school. Cocky, aloof, magnetic, vulnerable. Of course I read Hawke’s debut novel multiple times! Of course I still cherish my autographed copy! William Harding, the novel’s protagonist, is a 21-year-old actor living in New York and grappling with his first bout of heartbreak. It cheered me up knowing that you can be a hot actor and still have your heart trampled on. Rejection doesn’t discriminate.
I came from a boisterous and highly emotive immigrant family. My dad cried a lot. My mom didn’t have an emotion she knew how to repress. In comparison, the Jarrett family felt like a breath of fresh air! They were so cold and distant and detached. This book is part family drama, part coming-of-age tale and it examines how a family unravels under the weight of grief. Spoiler: It’s not a feel-good novel. The saddest part of this book is that when I was reading it in high school, my crush looked at the title and told me he thought I was ordinary. Oh, the horror.
The Joy Luck Club
It was easy to draw parallels between my Middle Eastern family and the Chinese American families in The Joy Luck Club. Not only did we all immigrate to the Bay Area, but we all had epic and tragic backstories that brought us to the states. I loved the multi-generational aspect of Tan’s novel, and the way it juxtaposed the mothers’ pasts with their daughters’ present-day struggles. I was only 14 when I read it, but I remember thinking that someone should write a book about my family…
How to Make an American Quilt
If Ethan Hawke was my celebrity crush, then Winona Ryder was my girl crush in the ’90s. I followed her career closely and when I saw the trailer for the movie “How to Make an American Quilt,” I decided I needed to read the book. It’s basically The Joy Luck Club for Americans, but instead of mahjong, these women have a quilting circle. Finn (Ryder’s character) gets cold feet after her boyfriend proposes to her and visits her great aunt and grandmother to sort through it. She bonds with their quilting circle, and we’re treated to flashbacks to each of their lives that inform Finn’s marital dilemma. I loved living vicariously through a heroine who was torn between two men. But as the girl who didn’t have a date to junior prom, I didn’t really understand why this was a problem for Finn.
Go Ask Alice
When I wasn’t reading, I spent my free time writing down the minute details of my life in a diary. I could tell you what I loved to order at Chili’s, what I bought at the mall, and who I was madly in love with on any given night in the ’90s just by pointing to a page of one of my high school diaries. I was probably drawn to Go Ask Alice because it was written entirely in diary entries. It’s about a 15-year-old runaway who’s addicted to drugs and it was supposed to be a real diary. I read it before the internet was invented, but a quick Google search would have informed me it was actually written by a therapist. I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time. It was far more exciting to think “Alice” was a real person.
For the record, all the diary entries in Americanized are 100% authentic.