By Sarah Sheppeck
Are you Asian? Queer? Mixed race? A twin? No? Then Addie Tsai’s debut novel Dear Twin isn’t for you—emphasis intentional.
Don’t misunderstand—there’s broader appeal in this narrative, which also tackles the less niche topics of interpersonal relationships, individuality, and abuse, both emotional and physical. But it’s clear that in this deeply personal young adult novel, fictionalized in part from the bones of her own memoir, Tsai hopes to reach certain young adults—those who identify at a core level with her pansexual, Asian-and-white, daughter-of-a-first-gen-immigrant narrator, Poppy, who can add the additional hyphenate of “identical twin” to her list of particular identities. In fact, Poppy isn’t just a twin, but a mirror twin, meaning that she and her sister Lola (short for Lolita—there are layers to that) have matching-but-opposite physical traits, like a birthmark that appears on the left side of Poppy’s face but the right side of Lola’s.
At first, Dear Twin reads like a standard suspense. At its start, Poppy admits she’s spent her entire life as half a person, made complete only by the presence of her sister. But by the time Poppy hits us with her opening line— “I wanted her back” —Lola’s already been missing for two weeks. Poppy is the only one who seems to care about finding her despite her palpable bitterness at having lived not in, but as the shadow of, her younger, more delicate twin. “Her voice was the only one that mattered,” Poppy writes with no trace of irony. “But I’ll give her a piece of myself if it means I can bring her back.”
Lola has long kept a secret PO box where she can receive mail not scoured by the prying eyes of their emotionally distant (and abusive) father. In an attempt to coax her home, Poppy constructs a series of eighteen letters to be delivered there—one for each year they’ve been alive.
Poppy’s feelings of self-doubt far surpass the usual senses of incompleteness and insecurity that come with puberty. She isn’t just unsure of who she is—she’s unsure of who she is without Lola. Indeed, our narrator’s name doesn’t even appear until page sixteen, by which point we’ve been introduced to numerous quips about her twin (delivered with no small amount of vitriol). Despite this, it’s clear enough that Poppy doesn’t feel complete without her sister—a point of frequent contention with her girlfriend, Juniper, herself a queer Asian woman, who supports Poppy’s plan only because she supports Poppy.
What follows is one part mystery, two parts journey to self-actualization. Rather than being interwoven throughout the ensuing pages, the mystery gives way to Poppy’s growth. This begins as a story of two halves; it ends the story of one whole. As she writes each letter, each one revealing additional insight into a life rife with adolescent abuse, neglect, and shared trauma, Poppy learns that she can’t spend her whole life prioritizing the sister she’s always been told to protect.
Dear Twin does a lot well. The queer romance between two women doesn’t end in tragedy, as queer relationships in film and literature so often do. Poppy and her friends feel very much like true adolescents, rather than as adolescents written by adults. But fans of traditional mystery and suspense—or even of traditional YA—might find Dear Twin to be just a little too self-aware, the denouement just a bit too-open ended, the third-act revelation, a Shyamalan-esque twist described by the novel’s own characters as “meta,” just a little too heavy-handed. And yet, again, Tsai doesn’t really seem interested in catering to “traditional” groups, unless they happen to overlap with the rarely-represented identities she’s spent so much time developing in this novel.
“I’d long made peace with the fact that the life I watched on television just wasn’t in the stars for me,” Poppy says early in the narrative, but we know this is Tsai-as-Poppy, reflecting on the experience of being a newly-minted adult with eighteen years’ experience of middling-to-nonexistent media representation behind her. Present-day Tsai knows that representation is important in all forms of media (not just visual), and in fictionalizing her own experiences to build Dear Twin, Tsai makes numerous offerings of identities rarely represented in young adult fiction, simultaneously addressing the institutional problem of overwhelmingly white/straight characters and doing her part to break the monotony.
Tsai doesn’t spoon feed her readers. The text smoothly incorporates LGBTQ slang, references to Chinese and Japanese languages, food, and film, and she’s not interested in slowing down to explain any of it for those not in the know. Even the footnotes, strewn throughout the text mostly to identify the books and songs referenced by pop culture lover Poppy, assume some preexisting knowledge of cultural indicators (“You’ll notice, perhaps, that our surname, Uzumaki, is of Japanese origin yet Baba speaks Mandarin”). That’s the point. Straight white American girls have had books written about them for centuries. Dear Twin is for the Asian girls, the daughters of immigrants, the queer girls, the multiracial girls, and yes, for the twins. For those who fall outside these categories, then whether Tsai’s work happens to be your cup of tea seems largely inconsequential.
Sarah Sheppeck is a graduate of U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with minors in dance and history from the University of Rochester and her Master’s in Secondary Education and Curriculum from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Born and raised in upstate New York with stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, she now lives in northern Maine with an ever-growing roster of rescue pets, where she pays the bills by ghostwriting books for motivational speakers.