Author Jane Kuo says writing is a means of process and self-discovery – “figuring things out on the page,” as she describes it.
Her new book, “Land of Broken Promises,” explores themes of race, immigration, and suburban American life. Written as a novel in verse – a form of narrative poetry meant for teen and middle-school grade readers – the story centers on a Taiwanese family living in the L.A. suburbs in the 1980s. It’s based on Kuo’s own life experiences growing up and going to school in the San Gabriel Valley.
“Land of Broken Promises” is a follow-up to Kuo’s 2022 lyrical debut, “In the Beautiful Country,” which explored the family’s immigration to America. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California’s first partner, chose the book for her summer reading list for readers aged 11-14.
Kuo grew up in Duarte, similar to Anna Zhang, the main character in her novel. Anna feels different from her peers; she works in her family’s small food business and tries to fit in while helping the family make ends meet. But when Anna discovers the family’s secret – they’re undocumented – she must navigate new responsibilities, and her parents’ worries, while trying to make sense of her life and identity.
Kuo, who is now based in the Bay Area, says this is similar to her own upbringing.
“Between 1981 to 1986, I lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant,” she writes in the book’s afterword. “When President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, he granted an estimated 2.7 million people the ability to apply for temporary legal status. My family was granted amnesty and in 1996; I became a United States citizen.”
Kuo worked in nursing for more than 16 years before deciding she wanted to pursue a writing career. She favors the novel-in-verse form because it gives her “the freedom to be sparse with words, but also have an emotional punch.” Kuo said it’s a “more forgiving” form – allowing writers to jump around in time without getting bogged down in details. It’s also digestible for young readers.
Even with complex themes of mental health, trauma, assimilation, the immigration system and feeling “other-ed,” Kuo said her book explores these through the eyes of a child, trying to create a space for herself in “the promised land.”
Kuo plays with the imagery of an idealized America, a land of opportunity for many immigrants coming in the late 20th century, and how sometimes those big dreams and promises look different than imagined.
“There’s a lot of stuff (in the book) that’s heavy – because immigrant kids have been through a lot. And that was my experience and the story I wanted to tell,” she said. “It’s this idea that you’re not just one thing. You can be so many things. It’s about Anna’s experience of being an outsider but also an insider.”
Kuo hopes that readers of all ages who read the book can learn to empathize with the characters, understand and appreciate immigrant families, and possibly even see themselves in their human struggles and stories.
“I want this to be an encouragement to folks who are undocumented. I want kids to feel seen – if they can see their experience on the page, then they can have some sense of feeling seen and understood,” Kuo said. “But I also want people to open this book, and have it be something completely outside of their experience, and yet they can still see themselves on the page.”