The Monster Roars: On From Little Tokyo, With Love and Asian Girl Rage

Guest Post by Sarah Kuhn

I have always had an explosive temper. As a kid, it felt too big for my body—a monster that lived inside of me, pounding against the walls of my chest, screaming to be released into the wild. My anger burned fast and fierce and bright, and I quickly learned that the only way for a girl to handle that monster was to put it in a cage. Shove it down into the depths of your body until you can't hear it scream anymore.


Little girls aren't supposed to let that anger spill out of them, to draw others into their messy maelstrom of chaos. And, as societal stereotypes constantly remind us, little Asian girls aren't supposed to even feel that anger in the first place. We're supposed to be sweet and small and dutiful. We're supposed to offer ourselves up for the consumption of others.


We're not supposed to let the monster roar.


I still remember what my mother would say to me whenever that temper of mine started to flare. She saw my face go red, my eyes go wild, my tiny fingers curl themselves into tiny fists—white-knuckled golf balls of rage.


It would start as a stern command, issued in the Asian Mom Drill Sergeant Voice I was fairly accustomed to: "I need you to CALM! DOWN!


But then it would morph into a more soothing, meditative chant—her breathing syncing with mine as it slowed and softened: "Calm…caaaaaaaalmmmmmm…”


It usually worked. The monster would retreat: exhausted, the anger that had burned so bright reduced to a pile of ash. Until next time.


What was I always so angry about? Probably everything. I used to brush this off with a joke about typical moody kid things, tween things, teen things. I'd mention my black velvet choker, my pseudo-goth aesthetic, my stompy Doc Martens that never stomped quite hard enough.


But I was also fighting daily battles that were invisible to me, wars I did not realize were wars. As one of the only non-white faces in a very small, very white town, I was introduced early to a wide range of what racism could be: microaggressions, macroaggressions…just plain old aggressions. The simple act of walking down the street was always a possible adventure.


There is one incident that stands out in my mind. It is not the most horrifying nor the most inconsequential, it exists somewhere in between. And it probably stands out because it is the one and only time I can remember when my mother did not tell me to CALM! DOWN!


Mom and I were getting donuts at a local hole in the wall we went to practically every week. In the midst of me explaining to my mother for the millionth time why "pink” was totally a flavor, a gigantic man lurched up and loomed over us. In my memory, he is seven feet tall, he has a bushy mountain man-type beard, and his eyes flashed with pure hate.


He snarled something about the Japanese taking all of "our” lumber—all of it. "You can't trust them,” he spat out, giving us that look I'd become accustomed to in various configurations. It's the look that says, You are them. And I will never let you forget it.


And then he leaned in close and hissed a single word at us, a word that to me had meant identity, community, family, love.




The old woman behind the counter—someone who saw us every week, who could greet us by name, who affected the "kindly small town donut shop owner” demeanor like she was auditioning to be in a Hallmark holiday movie—just laughed.


How hilarious! she seemed to be saying. How adorable that this terrifying giant of a man sees you as them.




I actually wrote a fictionalized version of the donut shop incident into one of my books, I Love You So Mochi. It was surprising to me that I included something so close to real life. In fiction, I am usually attempting to move the things I write about several degrees away from my actual experiences. Maybe I want to recontextualize things for myself so the feeling is still the same, but the facts are different. In fiction, I can still have the prickly, complicated, fiercely close relationship I had with my mother—but I don't have to lose her to cancer when I am 22, right out of college, and trying to launch myself into adult life. She can still live in my words. I can rewrite our ending as many times as I want, so that maybe we don't have an ending at all.


I can't really explain why I wrote that moment into a story and kept it almost exactly the same—I suppose that magical thing that happens sometimes with writing took over, and the story had a mind of its own. A lot of times, my stories don't tell me what they're really about until I've gotten through the first draft.


My new book, From Little Tokyo, With Love, centers on a biracial (Japanese and white) teenage girl named Rika who doesn't believe in happily ever after or rom-coms or fairy tales. She is constantly angry, full of rage—one of her Aunties likes to refer to her "kaiju-temper,” an actual monster that's always trying to stomp its way out of her body and fuck everything up. And Rika thinks of herself as a nure-onna, a fierce snake woman from Japanese mythology.


When I started this book, I thought I knew what it was about and that there was an obvious end to Rika's arc—she needed to learn how to control her monster, tamp down on her temper, discover how to simply not feel that rage all the time.


In short, I wanted her to CALM! DOWN!




I sold Little Tokyo at the end of 2019. I had to write most of it during 2020—through a global pandemic, a rise in racist violence, a thoroughly wild election, and what seemed like constant debate over whether various marginalized people should be considered human.


I kept telling myself this book was supposed to be joyful. Grouchy Rika gets swept into her own modern fairy tale, learns her presumed dead mother is alive and a glamorous Asian American rom-com star, and meets a cute boy named Henry who joins her on her quest through the magical summer sites and scrumptious tastes of Los Angeles. She experiences a fictionalized version of Little Tokyo's Nisei Week, a festival that brings so much of LA's Asian American community together every year. She explores the abandoned Old Zoo in Griffith Park, shows Henry the unmatched beauty of the Central Library, and finds herself drawn into a tiny, packed restaurant hosting a meet-up for Asian Hollywood.


In real life, I couldn't actually do any of these things. Pandemic lockdowns were in effect, anti-Asian hate was on the rise, and I felt constantly scared, demoralized, traumatized. And yes, angry. There was so much to be angry about, and my monster temper wanted to escape and rage her way across the world every fucking day.


But I still had to finish the book. And I still had to give Rika her happy ending—at least she was getting to experience all of these wonderful things I currently couldn't, and through that, I was sure she'd finally be able to conquer her temper and find her joy.


I tried to lock my brain in a bubble—the bubble of the book. I tried to block out the rage that was growing inside of me—now a permanent piece of my existence, a monster like Rika's nure-onna, an angry blaze that consumed my entire body and made me feel like I was constantly on fire.


I tried to construct that bubble, to shave down my sharp edges. I tried to make myself small and dutiful and uncomplicated, that perfect picture of an Asian girl.


Because how could I make my character learn to control her temper if I couldn't control my own?




After the relentless awfulness of 2020 led into the horrific shootings targeting Asian women in Atlanta, I could not help but think of all the ways I and so many other Asian women have been casually dehumanized, fetishized, and reduced to uncomplicated ciphers—only existing for others to consume, to project their fantasies onto, to be made into blank slates.


I am not going to detail the worst of my experiences for you. I am tired of offering myself up for consumption in so many ways, and for feeling like I have to prove that racism against Asian people—and a very specific kind of racism against Asian women—exists. But mostly, I kept coming back to the "smaller,” everyday moments. The things that are supposedly inconsequential. The moments where I'd laughed something off or acted like it wasn't a big deal because I was so used to it.


There were the times where a colleague sat next to me for an entire meal, then cheerfully gushed to me a book I didn't write. (No, sorry, that's the other Asian writer.) The white girls in my AP classes who earnestly told me they did not see me as Asian, but as "a person.” The many, many white guys who eagerly tried to tell me about their favorite anime/their trip to Japan/their love of K-pop/their ability to cook "authentic [pick Asian culture] food.” The where are you froms? and what are yous?, the compliments about my English and exotic mixed race "beauty” and lack of accent.


So what's the big deal? some might ask. People are curious! They're just being friendly. They're telling you you're pretty. It's flattering! You're so lucky! Everyone loves Asian girls!


Those are probably things I said to myself too, dismissing daily dehumanization because it was "flattering” or "not that bad.”


Every time I was not us, but always them.




In Little Tokyo, Rika keeps trying to flatten herself, her identity, her temper. She exists as a "tragic” mixed race orphan, dealing with racism and fetishization from white girls who try to co-opt her culture, white guys who want her to fulfill their gross fantasies, and people within her Japanese American community who purity police her identity, making her feel as if she will never truly belong.


She tries to make herself small, less complicated. She never wants her monster to roar. She flattens herself so she won't hurt anyone.


But the whole time, she's hurting herself. Making herself smaller and smaller until she does not exist anymore.


When I finally figured that out about Rika, somewhere in the midst of my first draft, I found a much deeper well of hurt, anger, and rage within myself that I'd never acknowledged. I had dismissed and repressed so much of my anger, my monster, because I thought it was a fatal flaw. And so many times, I thought it was in response to something that was "not a big deal.” All of those "not a big deals” kept piling up, turning that anger into something that could only be felt as all-consuming fire. And I kept pretzeling myself around that rage, trying to make myself smaller and more palatable.


I thought back to my mother telling me to CALM! DOWN!...and I realized she'd been trying to tell me something else, too. She saw all that anger, burning me up, hurting me more than anyone. She also knew what the consequences of that could be if I—a girl of color existing in a small, white town—unleashed all that rage at the exact wrong moment.


And I don't think she knew how to tell me this, but perhaps she sensed that my anger didn't need to be controlled. It needed to be channeled—so that the target didn't always end up being me.


That's when I knew that Rika's arc, the one I'd been so sure of, was completely wrong.


But I finally knew what the book was really about.


Rika didn't need to control her anger, to shove it down, to deny its existence. She needed to learn that anger is not an inherently bad emotion. She needed to know that it is powerful, justified, necessary. That she is responding correctly to injustice or someone trying to hurt her or harm done to people she loves. That so much of what makes her angry is worthy of that anger. And that it can exist alongside her joy and her happily ever after, that there is space for all of those things that make her who she is.


I needed to learn that, too.




I thought about my mother a lot while I was writing Little Tokyo. I was, after all, recontextualizing our story yet again for myself, in this fantasy I'd created where a presumed dead Asian mom is magically alive, and can take that complicated relationship with her prickly teenage daughter into adulthood.


Let me return for a moment to the donut shop, because I mentioned that this was the only time my mother did not tell me to CALM! DOWN!, but I didn't tell you the end of that story.


Here's what I remember: my mother, subtly positioning her body in front of mine, blocking me from that giant racist—even though I had already grown taller than her. Standing so strong in the face of his terrifying vitriol. I remember her telling the lady behind the counter that we wouldn't be coming back again—even as that lady laughed in her face again and mumbled something about this horrible man being drunk. I remember blurting out "what an asshole” as soon as we'd cleared the shop, my face red and my body shaking with fear and rage.


I remember that being the only time in my life that I swore in front of my mother, because she did not tolerate any bullshit like that.


And I remember her meeting my eyes and simply saying: "Yes.”


I did not get in trouble. There was no punishment, no Asian Mom Drill Sergeant, no CALM! DOWN!


She was telling me that my anger was correct.


Mom always told me with her words how she wanted me to be: not so loud, not so rageful, not so much.


But she often told me a different story with her actions: don't shrink, don't hide, don't uncomplicate yourself so that others can easily consume you.


Don't make yourself as small as they think you are.




In just a few more years, I will have lived longer than my mother did. I will probably rewrite our ending an infinity amount of times. And I will hold a certain image of her close to me: Mom in that donut shop, that man looming over her, his hate beaming at us with the force of a thousand suns.


I will remember that he was so much bigger than her—but she took up more space.


In that moment, her monster roared. It roared to protect me, to show me how necessary it was, to tell me that we can be powered by anger as we try to find our way to joy.


I will think of that and remind myself that my rage is not something to "control,” but to channel—it is my superpower, my strength…and yes, my monster.


My monster roars more loudly than ever now. And I will make sure you hear her.



Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novelsa series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers' Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog's Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the beloved Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House's One World, One Book title of the year, one of People magazine's Best Books of Summer, and one of the New York Times' YA Books to Add to Your Reading List. Additionally, Sarah was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.

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