My friend Rebecca gave this to me as a birthday gift last year. This was a really tough week for me, so I finally picked it up off the shelf because I knew she had inscribed it (as I do with my book gifts!), and I wanted to reread the lovely, lengthy message from her and then dive into a YA book. Whether it’s fluffier or heavier, there is something about YA I find very reassuring when I’m down. Something about the way that authors have to consider carefully how they engage with and portray these issues for readers who might be encountering or going through similar issues for the first times in their lives. Young adult fiction isn’t simpler or lighter or less complex than other types of fiction. With the many layers and nuances of It’s Not Like It’s a Secret, Misa Sugiura demonstrates how, if anything, the opposite is often true.
Sana Kiyohara leaves behind her life in Wisconsin for the more cosmopolitan California. For the first time in her life, she is living somewhere with other Asian people of various backgrounds, including people her age to spend time with. She finds herself part of a “group”, making friends she never thought she would have. And from her attraction to her best friend in Wisconsin and now a new friend in California, Sana’s thinking she’s gay. This is all a lot for a teenager to deal with, for sure, but to make matters more complicated, Sana thinks her dad is having an affair—but her mom seems characteristically unconcerned by any hints Sana drops.
I liked It’s Not Like It’s a Secret because it isn’t just about Sana’s particular struggles. Sugiura encompasses a lot of characters’ struggles. In addition to Sana’s experiences, Sugiura explores what life is like for a married immigrant Japanese couple, particularly one who is a stay-at-home mother who has, all her life, built her life around the idea of enduring. Sugiura also explores the variety of ways in which teenagers respond to their parents’ attitudes and methods of upbringing. Finally, with the main climax of the novel is a potent reminder that even when you have the best of intentions, it is still possible (even easy) to cross lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
Sana’s relationship with her mother fascinates me for several reasons. Obviously, I’ve never been a participant in a mother–daughter relationship, so portrayals of this in fiction and in my friends’ lives help me better understand this unique bond. Sana’s mother obviously wants what’s “best” for Sana, yet her methods for encouraging and instructing her daughter don’t always resonate with Sana’s more American upbringing. While these kinds of intergenerational stories of immigrant families aren’t exactly rare, Sugiura is specifically examining what it’s like for a Japanese woman to raise an American-born daughter, and that’s an experience I haven’t read much about. Sana doesn’t exactly resent her mother’s behaviour at any point; she seems rather mature, actually. It’s more that she just gets frustrated, as a teenager (or, let’s be honest, child of any age) is wont to do when a parent isn’t acting the way they’d like.
Sugiura also deals deftly with race and racism, examining the ways in which non-white people can still engage in racist behaviours and inadvertently normalize or support white supremacy. Sana is Japanese and therefore falls victim to the “model minority Asian” stereotype, which is in stark contrast to Jamie’s Mexican heritage causing teachers and other authority figures to doubt her or even suspect her of criminal activity. It takes a while for Sana to recognize her privilege relative to Jamie’s friend group. There are a couple of fairly unsubtle scenes, and there are also a few scenes that are more subtle and interesting in the way the conversational dynamic turns against Sana, and as the narrator, she privately relates to us that “oh shit!” feeling when she realizes she is in the wrong.
Sugiura recapitulates this when we reach the climax and Sana does some not-so-nice things she later regrets. I really like that Sana is a flawed protagonist who messes up badly. The ending is, as Sugiura lampshades through one of her characters, a little too much like a movie. It isn’t really my jam, but if it’s yours, you’re welcome to it! I prefer, though, the way that Sana has to grow and come to terms with the fact that you can’t hit an undo button on life: your future actions don’t erase your mistakes; they only let you build on top of them. Watching Sana get rebuffed the first few times she tries to make nice is slightly painful and awkward, but it’s also a necessary part of the narrative. And I like that Sugiura resists the temptation to make Sana or Jamie the villain and the other one the wronged party. While that’s definitely a narrative in some real life relationships, often the situation is a lot more complex, and the economy of fiction doesn’t always capture that as well as It’s Not Like It’s a Secret does, both between Sana and Jamie as well as in the situation with Sana’s father.
It’s Not Like It’s a Secret features queer characters and characters of various racial backgrounds—yet this isn’t really a book about coming out (although Sana does) or a “book about race”, if you know what I mean. These are issues among other issues within the story, and I like that, in this way, it rather normalizes these concepts. Coming out stories are important, but so are stories where the protagonist’s queerness is just another part of their adolescence they have to figure out. Similarly, I love books that tackle race and racism head-on—but I also like when they confront it as part of the fabric of the narrative, much like race and racism are an unfortunate thread in the fabric of our society.
In short, this is a book that accomplishes the goals it very clearly sets out to accomplish. It’s not perfect: on an individual, scene-by-scene level the writing doesn’t always work for me. Most of the characters, despite having distinctive personalities, feel like they fall into stock roles quite easily. Nevertheless, these quibbles fade into the background when I consider my overall impression of the story. It’s Not Like It’s a Secret is one of those books that is more than the sum of its parts.