In high school, my sister once copied lyrics from a song I had written and turned them in as her own for a poetry assignment. Since I had posted the song to my blog, the school’s anti-plagiarism software flagged her submission. When I found out, I was flattered. She had always kept a cool distance from my music. I was the artsy one; she was the sporty one. This was the first time she had shown appreciation — however oblique — for my art. It was also a crack in the armour of her persona.
As much as siblings try to define themselves by what the other is not, they are fused together by a shared history and shared secrets. Having a sibling means the person who knows you best is also the one who you’re most hesitant to be vulnerable with.
I see a similar dynamic between the two sisters in Mary H. K. Choi’s novel Yolk. Jayne and June Baek live in New York City and generally avoid spending time together. Their family immigrated from South Korea to Texas, where their parents opened a pan-Asian restaurant. Growing up as restaurant kids meant Jayne and June were handed independence at a young age. They made sense of the world together, until as teenagers their personalities diverged and they drifted apart.
Jayne, the younger sibling, is struggling to find herself in New York. Her friends are flaky, her roommate/ex-lover is manipulative, and her interest in her college courses is approaching zero.
When June bumps into Jayne at a bar, she immediately admonishes her little sister for not being in class. It’s a classic older-sibling power move, but it’s also convenient cover for the real reason June tracked her down. “We have to talk,” June says, “But I don’t want to tell you here.” Jayne’s relationships may be falling apart, but at least one person in this anonymous megacity cares about enough to check up on her — even if it is her bossy big sister.
Jayne floats listlessly through the story, choosing not to address conflict head-on, and instead forcing other peoples’ hands. Does she know what she wants? Or has she spent a lifetime trying to be what others expect? To be impressive and fun and interesting without imposing too much. She takes out her insecurities on anyone who gets close to her.
For Jayne, her sister’s appearance is a reminder of her lack of ambition. June works in a financial institution, lives in a posh condo in the Upper East Side and takes Uber Blacks even when the subway would be faster. But at this moment none of that matters. June needs something from her little sister. Jayne is valuable. She has a purpose.
Jayne has done such a good job hiding a secret of her own, that it’s easy enough to slip into the same mode when she’s forced to protect her sister’s secret too. But at some point, the mask of sibling rivalry can’t keep it all in. At some point the strong, silent person decides to be vulnerable and the entire past begins to spill out into the open.
Mary H. K. Choi writes characters that are so beautifully flawed that you want to hold their hands and tell them it will all be okay. You want to keep them tucked in your pocket long after turning the final page. You think of them fondly, and remember that we all have too many flaws to be defined by any one of them. And that means there’s always a way out of the traps we set for ourselves.
This is a book about unspoken family bonds, about what caring for one another looks like, about trusting other people to see a better version of you than you allow yourself.
In one scene, Jayne is on a date at a diner. She cuts up her eggs and home fries and shuffles them around her plate without consuming any of it. Her date keeps munching enthusiastically as they get lost in conversation. She puts a napkin over the plate, having gone through the motions of eating. Her ruse is complete. She has successfully played the part and met expectations. This is yet another layer of deceit she will have to eventually pull apart. And I’m relieved she has a sister to turn to, even if that means swallowing her pride.
Rad Riot Reads is column written by members of the Rad Riot Books community that reviews literary works from the Global South, translated, queer, migrant and anti-oppressive literature.