THE SILENCE THAT BINDS US
by Joanna Ho
Harper Teen/HarperCollins Publishing, 437 pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
Danny Chen is a basketball phenom who loves watching the Star Wars trilogy and singing, albeit off-key, Sam Smith’s song “Lay Me Down.” He enjoys eating burgers from In-N-Out and break dancing like he’s a member of the dance troupe The Jabbawockeez. At school he’s larger than life— everyone knows and admires him for his kindness and outgoing personality. To Maybelline Chen, he’s her goofy and loving big brother who cheers her up, believes in her, and always has her back no matter what. But when Danny dies by suicide, May finds herself coping with more than just her brother’s passing. Joanna Ho’s compelling new novel The Silence That Binds Us explores the impact of suicide, and how important it is to use your voice to change the narrative and stand up against racism.
News of Danny’s death soon circulates around Sequoia Park High School during May’s junior year. Between the few “I’m so sorries,” the whispers, and the downright silence, there is one voice that drowns out everyone else’s—that of Mr. Nate McIntyre, a local tech mogul, and father of her classmate Josh McIntyre. During a meeting for all the rising juniors in May’s class— a meeting where Danny’s death hangs like a dark shroud—Mr. McIntyre blames the rise of student anxiety on the presence of Asian-Americans.
“Everyone knows that the real reason our kids are more stressed is because of all the Asians moving into our schools…We all know that last year, some Asian kid got into Princeton and killed himself on the tracks…If Princeton isn’t good enough for these people, then what is?”
Nate McIntyre’s disgusting rhetoric not only sparks waves of racist comments from other White parents and students, it hurts May. Danny was more than just “Some Asian kid—” he was her friend, her confidante, her brother. With help from her Haitian-American best friends Tiya and Marc Duverne, May learns that remaining silent does nothing but allow voices like Mr. McIntyre’s to drown out and rewrite the narratives of people like her family, of people like Tiya and Marc, of people like Danny.
In The Silence That Binds Us, Joanna Ho makes May’s voice ring clear. The majority of May’s story is told through her first-person perspective, one that’s equal parts cynical and thoughtful. Ho unflinchingly taps into May’s emotions, letting her grief bleed raw through every word and line. The chapters ebb and flow according to how May feels, with some being only one sentence when May is the most vulnerable, and the others being longer when May feels strong enough to live in a world without Danny. While I enjoyed reading through May’s thoughts, I believe her personality really shines through Ho’s use of dialogue between the characters, specifically in text messages between May, her friends, and family. It’s through texts that May can be her honest self—the silly, fun-loving, passionate, and caring May that she thought was lost the night Danny didn’t come home.
Echoes of Danny reverberate throughout May’s life, his death leaving her with more questions than answers. Navigating the world without her big brother proves more difficult than she could imagine, and ultimately she blames herself for not being there for him like he was for her. Guilt-addled questions flood her mind: Why didn’t she notice that there was something off about Danny? Why didn’t she pick up on the signs, as subtle as they were? If she had been there with him the night he passed, would he…still be here with her? Ho addresses the difficult topic of suicide and what it does to the loved ones left behind. Ho doesn’t skirt around complex emotions—sadness, guilt, self-blame. Through May readers come to understand that with suicide there are no clear-cut answers as to the “why.” In the end, all one can do is move forward with memories of their loved one, as impossible as that may seem. As May says herself, “Is it possible to heal without ever really understanding what happened?”
Silence is an important theme that permeates May’s story, both before and after Danny’s passing. Before losing Danny, May’s relationship with her mother is fraught with a silence the both of them wield against each other. Her mother’s silence is like “a hippo, pregnant with disappointment,” when it comes to May’s less-than-stellar academic performance. May, in response, employs silence as a means to deal with her mother’s seemingly unending judgment. “It’s just safer to keep my mouth shut,” says May. The silence within her family, specifically between May and her mother, becomes deafening after Danny passes away, sucking them in like a vacuum. Each family member retreats within themselves, grieving quietly and becoming an island unto themselves. Even her father, usually quite talkative, hides behind a shield of silence in the wake of the crushing loss. Silence is how the Chens navigate their collective sadness, deepening the chasm that formed long before Danny.
Silence is also, as the title of the book indicates, a force that binds. In the wake of Mr. McIntyre’s vitriolic comments about Asian Americans, May chooses to use her love of writing as a way to use her voice to combat his blatant racism. Poetry becomes May’s outlet of choice, helping her to process the myriad of feelings she experiences: the grief of losing Danny, the sadness that permeates her home in his absence, and the anger at Mr. McIntyre for reducing Danny’s life to an ugly stereotype.
Some Asian boy.
A talking point—
not a life
As if rewriting
my family’s story
in this narrative.
However, May soon learns about the sinister ways silence can be used to perpetuate harmful narratives. After submitting a series of poems to her school’s newspaper in response to Mr. McIntyre’s rhetoric, she’s met with resistance from her parents who urge her, for her own safety and the safety of her family, to stop responding, to stop fighting. May is confused and angered—why should she remain silent in the face of racism? “Is silence neutrality if it protects my family?” May asks. “Is it actually protecting my family if people like Mr. McIntyre are always allowed to control our narratives and history?” But her family is adamant that she keeps quiet, believing that once she does this whole business will eventually blow over. Although both Tiya and Marc encourage May to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice, she falters. May’s struggle becomes that of two choices: to be silent and hope for the best, or to be vocal and fight the injustice that she, her family, and her community are facing.
The silence that binds May is indicative of a larger issue at hand, a concept that Ho bravely lays out for readers to reflect upon. Within her story, May comes face-to-face with the model minority myth, an insidious concept that has effectively muted and shackled members of the Asian-American community while pitting them against other minority communities—namely, African Americans. During the Civil Rights Movement, the government and media took the studious, hard-working, and compliant Asian stereotype and used it as a tool to not only further paint other minorities in a negative light, but to also put Asian Americans in a position where remaining quiet and non-confrontational earned them a higher place in the social hierarchy —something close to Whiteness, but not quite. “Why do Asians drink the ‘White Kool-Aid?’” May asks. “We know anti-Asian discrimination is real; why are so many people satisfied with White-adjacency?” The model minority myth comes at a huge cost to Asian Americans, where they sacrifice speaking out about the injustices they face for the (false) promise of safety, status, and social mobility. May learns the hard truth as she contemplates whether or not to go against her family’s wishes and continue to speak out against Mr. McIntyre. As difficult of a concept as this is to convey, Ho traverses this tense landscape by encouraging readers to learn about the experiences and plights of others, as May learns to do.
What I enjoyed the most about this book is how the genuine friendship between May, Tiya, and Marc encourages May to use her voice to fight back against racism. Tiya and Marc are active in fighting social injustice—they participate in local protests that support Black lives and rally against police brutality, and they’re proud members of Sequoia Park High’s Black Student Union (BSU). While this is May’s first time experiencing such blatant racism firsthand, Tiya and Marc are no strangers to people like Mr. McIntyre perpetuating harmful narratives about them and the Black community. It’s through talking to, interacting with, and most importantly listening to Tiya and Marc that May learns that doing nothing in the face of racism only serves to perpetuate it.
Joanna Ho’s The Silence That Binds Us is a gripping story of grief, hope, and using your voice to rewrite and reclaim your own narrative, especially in the face of racism. May’s story teaches readers that life still has meaning and purpose, even in the wake of something as tragic as suicide.
Kristie Gadson is a copywriter by day, a book reviewer by night, and an aspiring comic book artist in-between time. Her passions lie in children’s books, young adult novels, fantasy novels, comics, and animated cartoons because she believes that one is never “too old” to learn the life lessons they teach. Kristie resides in Norristown on the outskirts of Philadelphia PA, which she lovingly calls “her little corner of the universe.”