What makes you the person you are? There are a lot of possible answers to this question: the people we know, the things we’ve experienced, the places we’ve been, and the choices we make. But how often do we include: the books we read and the scenes that stay with us? The stories that resonate with us, after all, have a way of enveloping us, challenging us, and nestling deep into our hearts. I know I’m not the only reader out there who remembers the incredible scenes I’ve read — whether they made me laugh or cry or reflect on something meaningful — from the time I was a kid all the way up to last month.
We know intuitively that the scenes that stay with us slowly become a part of who we are, but I recently found myself wondering exactly how and why it happens. So I took some time to think about the most memorable scenes I’ve read and how they’ve helped inform my identity. Here’s a peek into my journey. Note that this post may contain some spoilers.
Scenes That Stay With Us Help Us Understand Ourselves
The first chapter books I ever devoured were from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series. In many ways, Ramona was a very different kid from me. She was bold, she was loud, and she frequently vocalized her opinions as soon as she formed them. As a shy, quiet child, I couldn’t begin to imagine being like her in those moments. Yet, when she was reflective and vulnerable, I knew just what she was going through and I often empathized with her sense of injustice. One scene that stood out to me was in Ramona the Brave when Ramona is hit with a burst of creativity while she’s making a puppet for class. Ramona’s excitement from the inspiration felt just as real to me as the fury that arose when she realized a classmate had copied her idea and was praised by the teacher for it. In a fit of rage, Ramona destroys her own owl before the teacher can see it because it’s better to not present an idea at all than to appear as if she’d imitated someone else’s. At the time, all I knew was that I’d felt that way too, but in the years since, I’ve realized the scene stayed with me because originality is something I truly value.
While the incident with Ramona felt like something I’d lived through, another memorable scene I read during my childhood was about something I had yet to experience: dealing with the death of a loved one. In Beat the Turtle Drum, the protagonist’s sister falls out of a tree to her death. This scene and everything that happens in the aftermath made an immediate and searing impression on me. At the time, I didn’t know exactly why that was — I just knew the story felt important. Later on I realized I was moved because, among other reasons, it was the first time I’d read a book that truly gutted me — the first time I truly understood the emotional power of storytelling. It was also an early indication I’d become not only a lifelong reader, but a writer as well.
As I continued to think about the scenes that have lingered with me, I started to discern a common theme among them: friendship. Before I discovered the stories of Ramona Quimby, I read and reread all of Russell Hoban’s children’s books that center around a badger named Frances and her friends and family. In A Bargain for Frances, Frances is tricked into spending all her savings to buy her friend Thelma’s used tea set. The same day, she catches Thelma buying a better tea set with the money Frances paid her. Even at a young age, I commiserated with Frances in that moment of betrayal. Similarly, when I was much older and read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, I understood the exhaustion felt by June when she finally acknowledges that the sneaky insults aimed at her by Waverly, an old family acquaintance, are indications that the connection between the two women isn’t the kind June wants. Scenes like this have helped me identify my limits in a relationship.
On the other hand, an encounter I read about just a few months ago in Sanderia Faye’s Mourner’s Bench illustrates the most beautiful aspect of friendship. When young Sarah says good-bye to her best friend, Malika, who’s moving away, she offers to let Malika read her journal. She tells Malika, “You can take it and read it so you will know the bad things I did.” When Malika tells Sarah, “I don’t need to know that, Sarah. I know you,” it brought tears — and still brings tears — to my eyes, reminding me that friends who accept all of you are the ones worth holding onto.
They Make Us Feel Seen
The Joy Luck Club was the first full novel I remember reading that featured protagonists who were second generation Chinese Americans like I am. There were many moments that felt familiar to me, but the one that made me jump out of my chair in recognition was a celebratory dinner scene. June, Waverly, and their families — including Waverly’s white fiancé — all sit down to enjoy a new year’s feast of steaming whole crabs, a scenario that feels distinctly Chinese. As they dig into the food, one of the first generation parents begins to analyze the way the fiancé eats his crab. “See how this one doesn’t know how to eat Chinese food,” she proclaims. Immediately, I felt torn between the smugness of finally being part of the majority and the embarrassing realization that I’d never be like the white Americans all around me. I’m not the only one, I thought.
Since I read The Joy Luck Club in the early 1990s, I’ve come across many more books featuring AAPI characters — many, although not all, of them who are very much like me. When reading these stories, I sometimes feel seen in a comforting way, but other times I feel unsettlingly exposed. This is how I felt earlier this year when I read Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang. In one scene, the protagonist comes across comments online about an AAPI actress who’s catching heat for speaking out about damaging AAPI stereotypes when the actress herself is dating a white man. The critiques are extreme, but as I read them, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Before I met my husband, I’d almost exclusively dated white men. I began to feel uncomfortable. Had I, in fact, been engaging in a kind of white worship that manifests itself in Asian communities? Should I, as someone who married a non-Asian, feel less qualified in advocating for other AAPI women? As disquieting as being challenged in this way makes me feel, it also make me feel seen in a refreshingly honest way.
It’s not just my AAPI identity that I recognize in books. When I read The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, I saw my experiences reflected in both the characters and in the world of classical music they inhabit. As a former violinist and graduate of a highly competitive music conservatory, I felt less lonely when reading a scene between two musicians wondering wistfully what it might have been like to be average college students, partying during the week and not choosing friends “based on their ability to play, and losing them for similar reasons.” At the same time, I felt painfully found out when another character knows he’ll never be as naturally talented as the people around him — that he’ll always have to work a little bit harder to be not quite as good. This imposter syndrome is something I’ve felt not only in music, but in many other endeavors as well.
They Make Us Think and Rethink
When I consider the books I’ve read that have inspired me to think more deeply about something, two significant scenes rise to the top. The first unfolds in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I read this book at a time when I was working in an industry teeming with people almost half my age. I was just beginning to dread reaching an age that would make me feel dismissed and irrelevant. Olive, the character in this story, is confronting this very reality at her son’s wedding. After the ceremony, an exhausted Olive lies down to take a nap and lets her thoughts wander. She thinks about how significantly her body has aged and how her relationship with her son is about to change forever. Then, a flower girl comes into the room and tells Olive she looks dead. When Olive finally gets up from the bed, she overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of the dress she’d so proudly picked out to wear that day. Olive freezes with her back against the wall, stunned and humiliated. It’s a visual that still burns vividly in my mind. Every time I remember it, I wonder, is this kind of situation inevitable? If it happens to me, will I be caught off guard? Will it be my fault for not being self aware? Will it bother me? And if I’m so worried about this, does it mean I’m afraid of getting older? These are the questions that still live in my mind — and will probably continue to evolve as the years pass.
The second scene is actually a couple of incidents that take place in A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. The first is a conversation between Grant Wiggins, a teacher who’d come back to his tight-knit Cajun community after many years of being away, and Jefferson, a young man who’s been wrongfully sentenced to death before he’s even had a chance to grow up. Wiggins reveals that although he’s the one who’s technically “free,” he’s actually bound by the limits of racial discrimination. In a later scene, Jefferson pens a letter in his journal to Wiggins, who’d been trying unsuccessfully to get Jefferson to write for months. In the missive, Jefferson shows his growth from a young man who believed his existence didn’t matter to an adult with solid opinions and a strong mind. Together, these scenes give meaning to the relationship that started reluctantly, but solidified over time. It still makes me rethink the concept of freedom — how much of it is external and how much of it is internal? What does it mean to be respected? What is true justice? It’s also a compelling example of how time and persistence can help an important relationship blossom.
They Help Make Us Laugh
A testament to Ernest Gaines’s versatile writing, A Lesson Before Dying also delivers a scene that brings me to laughter every time I think about it: the Christmas pageant performed by Wiggins’s students. From the woman in town who insists, every year, on contributing the same bed sheet as a prop even though it doesn’t match all the other sheets on set, to the student who fights the urge to correct another student’s grammar during the speaking parts, the scene is full of moments that make me guffaw out loud no matter where I am.
Another moment of humor that’s never far from my mind takes place in Elif Batumen’s The Idiot. In it, the narrator perfectly describes an awkward situation I’ve found myself in so many times. In just a couple of sentences, she sums it up: “Helen, the fiction editor, was petite and cute, with a down-to-earth manner. I could see she wanted me to like her, and I did like her. Without knowing how to demonstrate it through any speech act, I towered over her mutely, trying to project goodwill.” Like the pageant scene, it’s a scene that’s given me joy time and time again.
These are just a handful of the literary scenes that have lingered with me over the years. I’m certain there have been other ones I’ve now forgotten, but that have still unknowingly shaped me. After all, the most important thing these scenes offer is not necessarily what happens in them, but how they make us feel long after we read them. Some of these scenes take on new meanings as we age and experience more life, some of them are tied to important life milestones, and some of them continue to make us smile. No matter what role they play in our lives, the scenes that stay with us leave their mark on the way we think, feel, and move through the world.