It’s 1981 and Alma Rosen is a thirteen year-old living in New York City’s East Village. She’s mourning the loss of Grandma Miriam, her paternal grandmother who passed away a few years ago and to whom she was very close. Her parents don’t get along and she’s worried her family is going to further splinter apart. This is the backdrop of Tina Cane’s new novel in verse, Alma Presses Play. The book is marketed as a young adult novel, but Alma is still in middle school and the subject matter is just as appropriate for pre-teens as it is for teens.
Alma’s friends in the East Village are a diverse group of immigrant and first generation Chinese, Cuban and Puerto Rican kids. Alma herself is bi-cultural, as her father is Jewish and her mother Chinese American. Her identity, unlike in many YA novels these days, is never in question: she feels equally comfortable with her maternal grandparents in Chinatown as she did with Grandma Miriam. For a creation myth project at school towards the end of eighth grade Alma writes:
I was born in minutes in my mother’s kitchen,
in a wok tossed with ginger and scallions,
and matzoh brei on the side.
My mother heard my name whispered
in the sizzling oil of her wok.
“Alma,” it said. “Alma,” she said.
She and her friends enjoy eating knishes from a deli on the Lower East Side, and she’s just as comfortable with her mom’s side of the family in Chinatown, even though they didn’t learn of her existence until she was eight years old. Her maternal grandparents were not happy their daughter married someone non-Chinese, so the news of Alma’s birth took a while to get to them. Even so, over the years Alma feels accepted by her mom’s side of the family.
We celebrated 1982 the Year of the Dog with Grandmother
and Grandfather down on Hester Street my mom doesn’t
scrub the house or cut my hair the way most Chinese
mothers do we just share a big meal and I wear red
get red envelopes of cash hongbao from my grandparents
which I plan to buy records and candy with
I feel like
we celebrated the holiday halfway maybe because I am half-
Alma accepts her family and herself as they are and avoids a mixed-race identity crisis. In any case, her family’s way of celebrating the Lunar New Year probably has more to do with assimilation than the fact that Alma is half-Chinese. The book is more about growing up, anticipating high school, and what will happen to her parents’ marriage. Insofar as her childhood is atypical, it’s that she grows up in New York’s gritty East Village, where prostitution and drug abuse are on full display on the streets. Still, Alma and her friends create their own world, surrounding themselves with the popular music of the day and all their favorite candy.
Cane is Poet Laureate of Rhode Island and the novel in verse structure works nicely, as it conveys the aura of that time and Alma’s worries about her family. When the book concludes, Alma is fourteen, it’s 1982, and she’s about to start the performing arts high school in Midtown Manhattan.