How much do you really know about your parents? In Picture Us in the Light, Danny Cheng grapples with the mysteries of his family’s past, a tragedy in his friendship group, as well as the possibilities in his future. Along with our guest, Wendy Chen, we discuss the portrayal of grief following a suicide, intergenerational trauma, and the costs of defining yourself by your achievements.
Mental health issues covered: Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide and grief (in particular, the response to a suicide in a school community)
Additional trigger warnings: child trafficking, racism, conflict with parents, the diasporic experience, interracial adoption
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About the Book
Danny Cheng has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
About the Author
Kelly Loy Gilbert believes deeply in the power of stories to illuminate a shared humanity and give voice to complex, broken people. She lives in the SF Bay Area. Her works include Conviction (published 2015), Picture Us in the Light (2018) and most recently, When We Were Infinite (2021).
About Our Guest
Wendy is a writer and reviewer whose short fiction has appeared in the Australian YA anthology Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018). She is a co-host of Lit CelebrAsian, a book blogger collective uplifting Asian voices in literature. You can find Wendy’s book recommendations on Instagram and her blog Written in Wonder.
Picture Us in the Light is a beautifully written, lyrical and touching story. Wendy, our guest for this review episode, said that this is the kind of book that would have made a lot of difference to her as a teenager. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s writing taps straight into the emotions in every scene. There was one particular paragraph where Priscilla had to put her Kindle down and let out a breath because it captured a beautiful sentiment, but there were many other quotable parts. There are a number of dark themes in the story – from mental illness to child trafficking – but they are handled sensitively.
We thought the mental health representation was handled well. Even though we rely on Danny’s perspective about other people’s experiences, we get a good sense of what they were going through. The portrayal of Danny’s parents’ immigrant experience is also well done; you can see how frightening it is to be undocumented, and also how people might come to make the decision to let their visas lapse.
Our only complaints would be around the pacing of the mysteries. In the first third of the story, the mysteries were introduced quite quickly one after the other, and it could feel like you’ve missed a step. At times, the order of events and what is/isn’t a flashback could be confusing. Elise also finds it frustrating at times as we (and Danny) couldn’t put together the threads of the mystery. Although it is the point of the story, it wasn’t an easy read when everything was feeling apart and Danny was powerless.
Overall, we thought this was a beautifully written story with vivid characters and thoughtful handling of difficult themes.
Relevant mental health resources:
- For some information about supporting parents with mental health issues, check out Children of Parents With Mental Illness (COPMI). Emerging Minds have some resources for professionals supporting this particular group.
- Lifeline and WayAhead have information about coping with grief after a person you know dies by suicide.
- For those interested, here is the Victorian (Australia) Department of Education and Training’s guide to managing trauma following an incident for schools.
More stories like Picture Us in the Light:
- The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis follows three teenage boys after a mutual friend dies by suicide.
- Wendy has three recommendations:
- Kelly Loy Gilbert’s latest novel, When We Were Infinite, centres on love and loyalty in terms of friendship, and the main character’s struggles with her self-worth and fear of losing others. There are actually depictions of some of the same mental health issues that were also in Picture Us in the Light, but are taken in a completely different direction.
- Patron Saints of Nothing by Filipino-American author Randy Ribay. It is about a Filipino American teenager trying to uncover the truth of his cousin’s death and to understand the drug war in the Philippine. Like Picture Us, it also grapples with diasporic experiences, and has that kind of really powerful, lyrical writing style whilst still being an authentic teenage voice.
- Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz, about a Filipino-American teenager who also grapples with the burdens of being a child of immigrants, and then her world is turned upside down, when she discovers that none of the things she’d imagined for her future are possible because her family has been undocumented for years.
Voices from Lived Experience
Here are some of the views we found from people who have experienced similar situations from the book, though not directly related to the book.
- Nicole Chung wrote an article in The Guardian about the stories of transracial adoptees. Wendy recommends Nicole’s book, All You Can Ever Know.
- Lion: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley is non-fiction, also written by a transracial adoptee. The story has been adapted into a movie starring Dev Patel.
On the TBR Pile
- If you have any recommendations of books that explore similar themes to Picture Us in the Light, let us know!