“The Astonishing Color of After” by Emily X.R. Pan is a Must-Read about Family, Heritage, and Mental Health


Charlotte Gumpel, Staff Writer

When I first picked up “The Astonishing Color of After, I was preparing myself for a cheesy, coming of age story about a girl dealing with friend drama and annoying parents. Something big happens, and the girl begins to feel grateful for the people in her life. However, within the first few pages, I realized that this book was one like I’ve never read before. 

   On the same day Leigh Chan Sanders kissed the boy she’d pined over for years, her mother, Dory, committed suicide. She leaves no explanation, only crumpled papers in the trash. The only thing left of Dory is the bloodstain on the hardwood floors. The night before the funeral, Leigh is awakened by a crimson bird that calls out her name, and immediately she knows it is her mother. The only evidence is a box filled with rotting photos and a jade pendant necklace that her mother wore constantly. To uncover her mother’s life, she travels to Taiwan to meet her estranged maternal grandparents, and with the help of the bird and a box of magical incense that creates vivid illusions, Leigh travels through the memories of her mother to find where her family’s foundation began to crumble. 

Sinking into this book, aching with Leigh, searching for answers with Leigh is moving and heartbreaking. To read “The Astonishing Color of After” was a gift itself. The color system Pan uses to give palpable meaning to Leigh’s emotions was both brilliant and emotional and heartbreaking and more. The start of this book was extremely heavy and hard to read. When Leigh discovers what her mother has done, we feel our world crumbling along with her. 

The writing is complex and poetic, as Pan uses colors to describe Leigh’s emotions. I was highlighting phrases, circling passages, pondering chapters that felt too personal to be fiction. The ultimate accomplishment of Pan’s is her heartfelt description of suicide and its aftermath. Pan does not hesitate to highlight the questions, the regrets and the loneliness of losing a loved one. 

But Pan also doesn’t victim-blame. She gives a raw and intense take on what it is like to live with mental illness. She draws into Dory’s mind with such vigor it feels real, yet Pan does not psychoanalyze or demonize her.  Not once is it insinuated that Dory is to blame for her mental illness, and I am so very grateful for that.

Leigh’s journey is as much about her mother as it is about herself. She decides she is done living on the outskirts of American and Taiwanese culture: Leigh is enough for both, and most importantly; enough for herself. “The Astonishing Color of After” is a bold and thought-provoking story that affected me so deeply and hits me harder each time I read. It is truly a marvel of grief, heritage, self-identity, and mental health.

Warnings: mention of suicide, depression, racial slurs.