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'Tokyo Ever After' author Emiko Jean makes the leap to adult fiction with 'Mika in Real Life'

The cover of "Mika in Real Life." (Courtesy)
The cover of "Mika in Real Life." (Courtesy)

Here & Now‘s Celeste Headlee speaks with bestselling young adult author Emiko Jean about her first book for adults, “Mika in Real Life.”

The novel centers around Mika, a directionless 35-year-old Japanese-American woman who’s contacted by the daughter she gave up for adoption.

Author Emiko Jean. (Susan Doupé Photography)

Book excerpt: ‘Mika in Real Life’

By Emiko Jean

“Penny called.”

“Ha!” Hana barked out a laugh. Then at Mika’s face, she said, “Holy s***. You’re serious.”

Mika could only nod. Her stomach flipped, thinking about it. She has new-baby smell, Hana had purred in the hospital as she held newborn Penny, rubbing her cheek against hers.

Hana sat back. “Whoa. Heavy.”

“You’re telling me.” Mika opened her mouth, but her phone beeped—an incoming text. Penny again?

“Is it her?” Hana leaned forward, reading Mika’s mind.

Mika glanced down. “No, it’s Charlie.” She checked the message. “She’s thinking of buying Tuan”—Charlie’s husband—“a life-size Lego portrait.”

Hana rolled her eyes. “Ignore her. How’d Penny find you?” Hana reached for a wooden box on the coffee table and flipped it open. Inside was a tiny plastic baggie full of weed and some papers. She set to rolling a joint between her long fingers.

Mika shrugged. “It’s the internet, Penny explained, you can find anyone these days.” But then again . . . how had Penny found her? Mika had chosen a closed adoption: her identity was kept private, and she received annual updates in exchange. Any more would have been too painful. She’d opted for scraps knowing she’d gorge herself otherwise. She guessed it didn’t matter whether Thomas Calvin told Penny Mika’s name or if Penny had stumbled upon the information snooping through her parents’ things. What mattered was the here and now. That Penny had called Mika. That Penny wanted to know Mika.

“True.” Hana licked the paper and sealed the joint. Out of anyone, Mika’s best friend would know how easy it was to find people online. A few years ago, she had tracked down her former elementary school teacher—the one who had called the color of her skin “half-and-half,” like coffee creamer. Hana was part Black, a quarter Vietnamese, and a quarter white—Hungarian and Irish. She trolled the woman into quitting social media.

Hana lit the joint, took a drag, and offered it to Mika. “What’s she like?”

Mika pinched the joint between her fingers and eyed the ceiling. There was a crack running through it that trailed down, splitting the wall. She was pretty sure they had foundation troubles. “I don’t know. The conversation was short. She’s young, hopeful, positive.” A force of nature. “She used her dad’s credit card to sign up for a free trial to find people.” Mika aimed a lopsided smile at Hana and put the joint to her lips. “She was going to cancel it before he found out.” Mika passed the joint back to Hana.

“Reminds me of us.” Hana smiled and took a drag. “So,” she said, exhaling, “what did she want?”

Mika chewed her bottom lip. Her bedroom door was open. The bed was a rumpled mess, the comforter pushed down to the end. No point in making it if she was going to slip back between the sheets a few hours later. On the floor was her favorite T-shirt featuring a Gudetama—a cartoon by the makers of Hello Kitty. What looked like a yellow blob was a lazy egg. “She wants to get to know me.” Her wheels started to turn. She took greater stock of her surroundings, her life, herself, and instantly regretted it.

What could she offer Penny? What had she accomplished? Her love life was anemic. A handful of boyfriends, one serious relationship with Leif that ended in a garbage fire. And her work life just as thin. A series of unfulfilling jobs. All of them placeholders. She had thought of herself as a stone skipping over murky water. Time passing without consequence, without thinking, staying the same, getting farther and farther from the shore. But a pebble never reaches the other side. Eventually, it sinks. When did I sink? Mika’s stomach bottomed out. “I said we could talk again, but now . . . I don’t know.” She felt as inadequate as that day in the hospital.

“Elaborate.” Hana stamped out the joint.

Mika tore her gaze from the house and focused on her lap. What were the stakes of connecting with Penny? “She might hate me. I might hate her,” Mika thought out loud. Although Mika couldn’t see herself ever hating Penny. Penny could murder someone, and Mika would bring her a shovel to bury the body. She’d always give Penny the benefit of the doubt. Believe her. “I’m sure she has questions. Lots of questions. She seems . . . persistent. She might want to know about her biological father. She wishes she had a Japanese name.”

Hana inhaled. She scooted down the couch, closer to Mika. “No doubt she’s curious. We all want to know where we come from. But she’s not entitled to that information until you’re ready.”

Under penalty of law, Mika had signed a form attesting she did not know anything about her baby’s biological father, such as his age or location, or that he had a birthmark shaped like the state of Maine on his chest. “What if she’s angry with me?” she asked in a slight voice.

Hana inhaled. “Can I give you some unsolicited advice?”

“Never stopped you before.”

“When Nicole cheated, Charlie sat me down and said: ‘There is strength in leaving and strength in staying.’ ” Hana flicked some ash from her knee. “I’m pretty sure she got it from one of those self-help gurus.”

Mika frowned. “I’m not following.”

“What I mean is there would have been strength in you keeping Penny, but there was also strength in relinquishing her. And if Penny is as smart as she seems to be, she won’t care what you’ve done; she’ll care about who you are.”

“And who am I?” Mika asked it like a dare. She thought about her unimpressive life resume. Unemployment enthusiast. Weed smoker. Biological mom.

Hana ticked off a list on her fingers. “First thing, you’re loyal. Second thing, you’re compassionate. Third thing, you have a beautiful heart. Fourth thing, you are an amazing artist who knows all sorts of things about art, especially really uninteresting things like which caves have paintings of cavemen dongs. Fifth thing—”

“That’s good.” Mika held up her hands, cutting Hana off. “I’m not exactly emotionally prepared for this.” Hana knew how messy this could get. Each year around Penny’s birthday, a package arrived. Mika would read the letter from Caroline or Thomas, stare at the photographs of Penny with her happy family, rub her thumbs over Penny’s crayon drawings, then spread it all around her in a suffocating hug. Mika would stay in bed all day. Hana would stay too. She would crawl in behind Mika, wordlessly wrap her arms around her in a mourning cocoon. Together they cried. Mika for Penny. And Hana for Mika.

“Are we ever prepared? That’s the whole point of emotions. The least you expect them, the more intense they are. That’s the beauty of feeling.”

“That’s dumb.” Mika lay her head back against the chair. The whole situation was overwhelming in every way. But Hana was there. Had always been there. “Love your face,” she said to her best friend. The three words had been their mantra since meeting as freshmen at the same alternative high school, the kind of place where students are put when folks don’t expect too much of them. Mika had taken one look at Hana and sensed a kindred spirit. Both of them, wayward branches growing from their family trees.

“Love your face too.”

Mika felt around the cushion for her phone. Right before hanging up, Penny had given Mika her number. Now, she messaged her. Excited to video chat. What time works for you?

There, done. She placed her phone away from herself. Drummed her fingers against her thighs. It will be okay. She flashed again to the hospital. To seeing Penny for the first time cradled in the doctor’s hands. Yes, it would be okay. How could it not? Penny and Mika had been a love story from the beginning.

From ‘Mika in Real Life’ by Emiko Jean, published by imprint. Copyright © 2022 by Emiko Jean. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublisher

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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