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One Teen Story # 5

January 30, 2014
Proper Girls by Lisa Ko

This is perhaps my favorite story so far in the second volume of OTS.

Before, I’d never heard of Lisa Ko. Now I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories in this forthcoming collection. “Proper Girls” is about a Chinese-American family that moves from their neighborhood in Queens, New York to an all-white suburb of New Jersey. Cyn, short for Cynthia, is the narrator of the story, a 16-17 year-old student struggling with identity personally, culturally and with in her own family.

As the Patrick Ryan, editor-in-chief of OTS, writes, “I was first drawn to Lisa Ko’s “Proper Girls” because of its voice. The narrator in this story is someone you want to spend time with, someone you find both funny and endearing. Someone you want to listen to.” Indeed, the narrator takes you in the first two sentences:

At the beginning of my junior year of high school, Lyn lit a garbage can on fire in the science wing bathroom. Things had gotten weird after she shaved her head.

Yes, that is the opening of the story titled “Proper Girls.”

(Spoiler Alert!)

It takes place in the 1980’s,  complete with all the archaic technology we have forgotten about, like payphones. How did high school students communicate before social media and cell phones? They didn’t, at least not as often. And in this world with a lack of communication, Cyn misses the most important people in her life - the people whom with she most identified.

After setting fire to the garbage can, her sister Lyn is sent to live with their aunt in Chicago and Cyn misses her for months with only a few phone conversations and one letter that doesn’t make it. When Cyn is grounded and can’t use the phone, she thinks about how much she misses her boyfriend Kai who lives 45 minutes away in the city, and through out the story is the longing to see her old friends from her old neighborhood and her old high school.

What is so good about this story is how it shapes personal identity or how people shape their identity. Cyn once identified herself with the mostly Chinese neighborhood in Queens, then it was taken away; she identified herself with her sister, going as far to say that some people mistook them for twins, until Lyn shaved her head, set fire to the garbage can and went to live in Chicago for the rest of the school year. After all this she puts her heart out in the world to try and see what happens and gets hurt in the process.

Ryan also writes:

“Cultural identity plays a big part in “Proper Girls.” So does sibling affection/rivalry. But perhaps what’s most at stake here is identity on a much more personal level. For most of us, there’s always something of a disparity between what we see when we look inward and how other people regard us, just as there’s a difference between how we picture ourselves and what we see when we look in the mirror.”

To end, here is some advise from her interview with Patrick Ryan on writing.

I keep returning to something one of my writing teachers, David Mura, said to another one of my teachers, Junot Diaz: that in order to write the book you want to write, you have to become the person you need to be in order to write that book. This reminds me that writing isn’t just about working hard and wanting to finish a book or even about being a good writer—it’s also about the work you gotta do within yourself.

Last modified on Feb. 7th, 2014 at 10:12am by .