Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Our Friend is Here: Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of May, where Asian and Pasifika authors are invited to celebrate being Asian and Pasifika work and literature! Find the introduction post for Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month here.
The Other Side of Perfect is one of my most anticipated releases of 2021 and I was delighted to confirm my suspicions that it is also one of my favorite books of 2021. This novel takes us through Alina Keeler, aspiring career ballerina, and her heartbreaking recovery after a career-ending injury. Throughout her recovery, she confronts the systemic racism she experiences in the dance industry, her relationship with her family, and her resentment. She also tries out for the high school musical as a way to stay connected to performing, which allows to explore another side of herself, and perhaps a certain student she develops interest in.
It is an honor to have Mariko Turk visit the Pond, and she visits us today as a mauve mouse with a mug of tea (how’s that for alliteration?!). I am so excited to share my interview with her in celebration of the release date of The Other Side of Perfect, whose book birthday was yesterday. Congratulations, Mariko!
Without any further ado, please give a warm welcome to Mariko (and her tea-sipping mouse) to the Pond!
The Other Side of Perfect by Mariko Turk
Alina Keeler was destined to dance, but then a terrifying fall shatters her leg — and her dreams of a professional ballet career along with it.
After a summer healing (translation: eating vast amounts of Cool Ranch Doritos and binging ballet videos on YouTube), she is forced to trade her pre-professional dance classes for normal high school, where she reluctantly joins the school musical. However, rehearsals offer more than she expected — namely Jude, her annoyingly attractive castmate she just might be falling for.
But to move forward, Alina must make peace with her past and face the racism she experienced in the dance industry. She wonders what it means to yearn for ballet — something so beautiful, yet so broken. And as broken as she feels, can she ever open her heart to someone else?
Touching, romantic, and peppered with humor, this debut novel explores the tenuousness of perfectionism, the possibilities of change, and the importance of raising your voice.
Author Interview: Mariko Turk
Joce: Hi Mariko, and welcome to the Pond! First of all, a huge congratulations on the release of The Other Side of Perfect, and we are so happy to be celebrating with you today. Can you please tell us about yourself and your novel?
Mariko: Hi! I’m a huge fan of the Pond, and I’m super excited to be here! I’m a former academic, and I live in Boulder, Colorado with my husband and almost 7 month old baby girl. Growing up, I loved to dance, though I wasn’t nearly good enough to be on the professional track. In college, I broke my leg while dancing ballet. Fast forward a couple years, and I decided to get my PhD in English with a focus in children’s lit. After studying so many complex books for young people, I realized I wanted to try writing one of my own. So I started wondering what would happen if a half-Japanese girl who dreamed of being a ballerina suffered a career ending injury. On top of that, I wondered what would happen if, at the same time that she was coming to terms with losing her beautiful, beloved art form, she was also beginning to recognize its uglier, racist parts. Her story became THE OTHER SIDE OF PERFECT.
Joce: Alina’s story is set in a mostly White town, which is compounded with the dance industry being very White-dominant, especially in positions of power and prestige. How does this influence her experience as a biracial Japanese dancer, and do you think she would have had a different experience if her story was set in a more diverse city?
Mariko: Yes! I think the whiteness of Alina’s town directly informs her experience as a biracial dancer. Growing up in a place that’s predominantly white made it easier for her to accept the lack of diversity in her ballet school (and the ballet world in general) and not question why that was the case. I do think that if she lived in a more diverse place, she would have recognized ballet’s diversity problem sooner and questioned the biases at the root of that problem instead of accepting it as “just the way things are.” A big part of Alina’s journey is recognizing and then figuring out ways to challenge ballet’s whiteness.
Joce: One of my favorite themes in The Other Side of Perfect was that Alina’s younger sister Josie called out how Alina’s studio consistently and obviously typecast her as a biracial Japanese girl in the Chinese Tea role in The Nutcracker. This was also shown in contrast to Josie’s studio, which featured a WOC in a teaching position and a more diverse student body. Can you speak more about how these (and other) instances in the book were important pieces in Alina working through the racism she had experienced as a dancer?
Mariko: I loved writing these instances because I felt like each one opened Alina’s eyes a bit more to the racism ingrained in the ballet world. I knew there couldn’t be just one moment where the injustice became clear to her because that wouldn’t ring true. Alina was so ensconced in and devoted to ballet that it would take multiple moments—big and small—to change her perspective of it. So noticing that Josie’s modern dance school is a lot more diverse than her ballet school or watching Josie’s school’s much different version of the Chinese Tea dance are both small pieces, among many others, that come together to form Alina’s new way of thinking.
Joce: Alina’s grandparents are from Hawai’i and throughout the book, she discusses their relationship and how their history has influenced her. Can you please talk about the importance of this heritage and their relationship in her story?
Mariko: My mom’s side of the family lives in Hawai‘i, so initially, the detail that Alina’s parents grew up there was something I took from my own life. But then I realized that it really fit her story. Alina’s parents also left something they loved behind when they moved to Pennsylvania to start a new life. Alina has this sense in the first half of the book that nobody can understand what she’s going through, but then there’s a scene where she realizes that maybe her mom can understand better than she thought. I love this moment because a beautiful part of Alina venturing away from the insular ballet world is realizing that the people and things outside of it have a lot to offer her.
Joce: Another facet of Alina’s story surrounds the loss of her identity that came with her injury and quitting dance. How did you go about constructing Alina, when she was rebuilding her identity and coming to terms with her injury?
Mariko: The most important part of constructing Alina was being honest about how messily she would deal with her ballet dreams being shattered. In my first draft, she dealt with it relatively easily. I think I felt so much for her situation that I wanted her to get through it as unscathed as possible. But that didn’t make for a very interesting or honest character. So I thought truthfully about how tumultuous and often unflattering Alina’s emotions would be in this situation, and how difficult—or impossible—the recovery process would seem to her at times. Once I let her have those messy feelings, Alina began to feel rich and real.
Joce: One way Alina grapples with her departure from ballet school is through auditioning for the school musical. How does this art form help her and why did you choose musical theater in particular?
Mariko: Musical theatre is a great foil for ballet. Even though both art forms require immense talent and discipline, ballet is known for being controlled and precise while musical theatre often seems wilder and more uninhibited. It was the perfect way to push Alina into a different way of moving and thinking in the world. Also, I LOVED being in my high school musicals, so I wanted to pay homage to the wonderful weirdness of high school musical theatre.
Joce: I came across your article entitled Girlhood, Ballet, and the Cult of the Tutu in my research process for this interview. I think our readers would love to know more about the main focus of your article and how it potentially influenced the constructs of your novel.
Mariko: Oh wow! That was my first published article as a PhD student, and I haven’t thought about it in a while! It examines how ballet is represented in popular girl’s media, and also how ballet is often criticized by parents and scholars for being a limiting influence on girls because it sells them tutus, tiaras, and antiquated feminine ideologies. But in the article, I challenge that perspective by analyzing books in the popular Angelina Ballerina, Olivia, and Ivy and Bean series that offer complex, enriching, and affirmative depictions of ballet. I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but I think writing the article helped me lay the groundwork for my depiction of ballet in THE OTHER SIDE OF PERFECT. It helped me see that ballet can be both constricting and enriching, and that navigating its complexities is a deeply fascinating process.
Joce: I was a dancer on and off throughout my adolescence and into college, and I would have loved more books like this as I was growing up. What are some things you would tell young emerging dancers?
Mariko: I would say that there are so many ways for dance to be in your life, not just as a career. I mean, if it is a career, that’s fabulous! But it isn’t that or nothing. For example, I was never even close to dancing professionally and I haven’t taken a dance class in many years, but dance is still part of my life. I dance to ballet music with my nephews every Christmas, and I look forward to doing the same with my daughter when she’s older. And, of course, I wrote a dance book! So dance can still be part of your life even if you’re not a professional, and even if you stop taking classes.
Joce: On a similar topic, what would you like to see moving forward in the way that dance and dancers are represented in children’s literature?
Mariko: I think that dancers in YA, especially ballet dancers, are often portrayed as ruthless and cutthroat. I’ve read books with these dancer-types that I’ve really liked, but I’d love to see a wider range. Give me goofy, class clown dancers, nerdy, awkward dancers, eternally optimistic dancers, etc. I want all the dance stories!
About the Author
Mariko Turk grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in creative writing. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, with a concentration in children’s literature. Currently, she works as a Writing Center consultant at the University of Colorado Boulder. She lives in Colorado with her husband and baby daughter, where she enjoys tea, walks, and stories of all kinds. The Other Side of Perfect is her debut novel.