When the world denies you choices, you make your own.”
Her fingers skim to my wrists; she draws me even closer. “This is my choice.”

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

As a little girl, I read a lot of books about warriors; one could say I tore apart library bookshelves, voraciously looking for the next story that would take me far away from my inner-city neighborhood and into a different world every week. The stories about girls with swords have always been my favorite – heroes who cared less about dresses and boys, and more about saving others. But, while I found books like these at times, I always had an insatiable hunger to find tales of girls who looked like me. Where were the stories about girls of color saving the day? What I would have given to pick up <i>Girls of Paper and Fire </i>when I was kid – especially before I was sexually assaulted.

I read Girls on the last week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year. We are almost two years removed from the explosion of the #metoo movement, and I don’t hear many folks talk about sexual violence anymore. While these painful stories aren’t in the headlines as often, for most of us, memories of the violence we survived simmer beneath the surface of our skin, at times consuming us.
The book tells the story of Lei, a girl taken from her village and forced into a life as an escort to the cruel Demon King. Her journey parallels the true stories of many sex-trafficked women, but Ngan is intentional in framing the story to be more relatable to all experience of sexual violence. Not all of the women feel that they are abused, and the perpetrator, while written as a demon, is described as possessing human-like features: he is “handsome,” has a talent for charming others, and is a gregarious conversationalist. Ngan is careful to illustrate what many don’t know about perpetrators: while media demonize abusers, to many people, those who violate us can be “charming” and “admirable” to onlookers. In the same vein, not all victims identify as such, and the journey to calling an experience sexual violence can be a long, arduous one. For some, calling it rape is harder than surviving it.

I squeeze my eyelids, trying to expel the images from them. But I know that no matter how hard I try, what happened tonight is going to stay with me forever. The shamans might have healed my bruises, but the King’s brutality is still all over me. It lives in my skin.

As a writer, and a survivor advocate, I read a lot of stories about women, and watch a lot of films and television shows that try to take on the relevancy of sexual assault post #metoo. Very rarely do I come across stories that are written for survivors, rather than about us; that illustrate the non-linear journey and imperfection of survival, rather than write about our miraculous heroism and strength after rape. Before I read Natasha Ngan’s final pages explaining why she wrote Girls, I already knew: <i> she gets it. She’s one of us.</i>

Ngan’s telling of Lei story is a love letter to survivors – especially for those of us who have loved other survivor sisters. I have never read a story about two queer women of color who survive sexual violence together, nor have I ever read of what it feels like to learn how to love another survivor as you heal together. But I’ve lived it, and Lei and Wren’s story made me feel so very seen.


Though flashes of that night still come to me every time Wren and I have touched since, and she’s been careful to only take it further when I’ve made it clear that’s what I want, there’s something slightly different about our intimacy now. Still, each time it gets a little easier to stay in the moment, and right now I allow myself to let go.

Love after assault is hard, and even with a wonderful, thoughtful partner, bad memories resurface – sometimes paralyzing your body during a moment when all you wish to do is to love that other person completely. We survivors can’t turn off our trauma at will, but we deserve happy endings too, and we deserve stories that tell of the messiness of trauma and healing that shape our journey to happiness. Ngan has gifted us two powerful warriors whose greatest strength is the fire of their vulnerability; their ability to understand that they are imperfect, and that what they’ve survived didn’t give them a special power to fight back – that fire of rebellion was always within them.

I will give a  content warning to some readers, because like me, descriptions of violence can sometimes turn a pleasant read into a long night of tending to your triggers. But, rather than sadness, I found so much comfort and solidarity in Lei and Wren’s journey together. Read their story.

One last note to Natasha Ngan: Thank you.

For any readers who have experienced sexual assault: I am so, so sorry for what you have been through. My wish is that, like me, you were able to find some form of kinship and empowerment in Lei’s journey.

You didn’t have to come out to us as readers, but you did, likely because of the same reason I did, because after generations of surviving violence, one of the most powerful things we as survivors can do for our sisters is to be visible among ourselves – to tell each other the most powerful words: You are Not Alone.

Thank you, Natasha, for writing a story that I’m sure, at times, wasn’t easy to write, but that I hope will help other survivors like us believe in the power of their fire.