Seeing Emily by Joyce Lee Wong is an unusual young adult book because it is written entirely in verse. Following the life of Emily Wu, a sixteen year old Chinese American living in Richmond, Virginia, the book is set out in poetic episodes of first person narrative. It begins in the Chinese restaurant of Emily’s parents where she helps out part-time. The first section titled “Golden Palace” begins with a poem called “Flirting.” It is clear from this opening that Emily is embarking on a journey of adolescent awakening. However, it is not just a sexual awakening that Emily experiences but also one to her identity as an Asian American woman. Typically, feelings of shame — towards her parents’ eating habits, for example — mingle with her protective affection for them. Similarly, her feelings of ambivalence towards a talented Chinese school mate, Alex Huang, are in direct opposition to the near adulation of her first boyfriend, Nick, who, she realizes later, cannot see beyond her Asian features to the girl inside.
Emily is also an artist. Throughout the book, Emily works first on drawings, and then on a mural project for her school. She chooses a tiger to paint for the mural and uses it as a metaphor for things going on in her personal life:
As I started another tiger sketch
I thought of Nick
and felt the stirrings of heat within,
the quickening of my heartbeat
rhythmic and insistent
as the pounding of drums
echoing through the foliage of
the tiger’s jungle home.
The gift of perceiving reality through metaphor is the poet’s and that is why poetry is a suitable medium for Wong’s characterization of Emily. The poetic narrative works here to good effect in a way that would appeal to a young adult reader.
This week’s Poetry Friday host is Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children.