Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, Jennifer De Leon’s debut novel, follows Latinx teen Liliana Cruz as she transitions from a school in her diverse inner-city Boston neighborhood to a predominantly white school for an integration program known as METCO. While juggling relationship drama, she also copes with her family issues, including her mother’s depression and her dad’s sudden disappearance, which bring certain family secrets to light.
Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From covers an array of important topics, especially considering the current political climate in the United States. These topics include immigration and the anxieties that come with being undocumented, racism, tokenism, code-switching, economic inequalities, activism, segregation and self-segregation.
Perhaps herein lies the problem: the author attempts to tackle so many important topics that it falls short and instead grazes numerous topics at a surface level rather than deeply examining any one.
Packaged beautifully, with a stunning cover and a compelling synopsis, I fell into the trap of having high expectations to match. Which is, true, the rookie mistake of judging a book by its cover—but I can guarantee that even the most experienced readers fall into this trap on occasion. Though Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is an important book, it didn’t deliver at the level I expected. I didn’t love the writing style, which felt a little juvenile in comparison to the Young Adult books that have gained popularity more recently. I understand that the narrator is 15, but it felt like certain discussions could have been executed more masterfully if the writing itself was stronger.
Instead, the writing was somewhat inconsistent, the transitions were sometimes rough, and there were scenes that ended too abruptly. Even the ending felt short of a few words. Some plot points came together too neatly in a way that made it difficult for me to believe as a reader. These factors disrupted the flow of the writing; consequently, it took me a while to get into the book.
One of the central issues in the book regarding productive ways to engage in activism tied in nicely with the theme of identity and finding your voice, considering the book as a coming-of-age novel.
On the other hand, there were scenes that made me question the means of activism in a way that seemed problematic. For example, there is a scene in which students of color are asked to describe their experiences in a way that felt counterproductive and tokenizing rather than a way to contribute to a useful dialogue. It almost felt like students of color were being asked to prove their humanity, and to an audience of predominantly white students at a school in which they experienced these very same racist incidents. Not even in a way that provided students who chose to be advocates a space in which to raise their voices, but in a way that sort of called them out purely for identifying with the background they identified with. Of course, all these incidents serve to bring to the forefront questions of how to approach activism in the first place, and what we do as individuals to contribute to a better future.
There were small details in the book that I found interesting, such as seeing Liliana describe the development of her writing skills or the hesitancy she had toward certain opportunities that her support system urged her to seize. Her mom would not let her lose out on such an opportunity as METCO, despite Liliana’s initial doubts, and others urged her to take advantage of the opportunities at her new school, such as the writing center or various student organizations. Seeing Liliana’s transition to this new environment came with its pitfalls, but the benefits are not to be missed either.
Though the book tried to tackle too many topics rather than exploring any one topic on a more thought-provoking level, it still leaves the reader with questions to consider.
Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From felt more like a beginning rather than a well-thought out exploration, but it’s still an important book. I would recommend it for people on the younger end of the young adult reading age group.