A few years ago, I remember reading an article in Hyphen Magazine that really stood out to me called “A Novel Approach.” It talked a lot about the self-publishing experience and how one can utilize to their ability to get their work out to the world without having to deal with the difficulties of the traditional publishing industry. Right away, an example that was used was author Juan Rader Bas’s debut novel, “Back Kicks and Broken Promises;” and while he had met with agencies and publishing houses previously, he decided to take matters into his own hands in publishing it after being turned away.
From the bit that I read about the plot of Bas’s 2011 release was enough to get me interested in it. With that, I had finally gotten around to reading it this past week, and am left with mixed feelings regarding it.
“Back Kicks and Broken Promises” follows a 17-year-old Filipino boy named Ricky Gilbert who moves with his adopted family from Singapore to the U.S. (specifically New Jersey). While unsettled in his new environment at first- as well as being made consciously aware of being one of a handful of Asian kids at his new high school- he finds a form of self expression and belonging as he takes on taekwondo. As he progresses onward from rank to rank, things in his family fall apart as a big secret is revealed and matters turn for the worse as his mother’s health deteriorates. It’s through these experiences- both good and bad- that Ricky figures out who he is as a person, where he belongs, and what his family- in particular his father- means to him.
It was the surface elements that caught my attention almost immediately. This was the first book of my memory where the protagonist is of Filipino descent, and being part Filipino myself, that meant a lot in terms of seeing someone of a similar background to be portrayed in such a way that wasn’t stereotypical or degrading by any means.
This was also the first book that I read where taekwondo plays an active role in the plot, in which, again, I find intriguing, due to practicing the martial art myself. While Ricky’s interest for the martial arts perked up at first from- wait for it- watching “The Karate Kid,” it eventually evolves from the desire of being a badass of flying kicks to becoming something rooted deep in an individual that’s personalized and meaningful in his or her own way. I liked how that came about; which would make sense given the fact that Bas also practices taekwondo as well.
Beyond the surface elements though, “Back Kicks and Broken Promises” goes deep into unraveling Ricky’s already interesting position as the child of two white American parents. As a young person, one is already dealing with so much at once- self discovery, first love, etc. To add all that plus learning a secret his family has kept from him his whole life is nearly enough to drive anyone mad. It’s far more than the typical coming-of-age novel, for Bas pushes the limits in terms of having Ricky figure out who he is and what to make of his own family.
At the same time though, I couldn’t help but find the flow of the novel a bit off. There were several time jumps that I didn’t always immediately catch right away, and the number of them definitely could have been decreased. For instance, at one point Ricky talks of how he’s now a blue belt student when several chapters before, he was testing for his yellow belt.
That along with the characteristics of many of the characters and other plot maneuvers caught me off guard as well, in a way as to where I thought could have been better developed. It was hard to feel sympathetic for Ricky at times- with all that he goes through- when his temper is just out of control at times. That as well as his lack of judgment of character regarding the women he swoons over got old pretty fast as well. I also didn’t like the fact that his mother and older sister were crying often, like they had no back bone whatsoever. Not to mention that there was a plot twist several chapters before the end that I found ultimately no purpose in aside from shock value.
But in the end, I overall have to say that I admire “Back Kicks and Broken Promises” for its honesty and moral values. It was a story that could be told in many different way, but the way Bas went about it was unique and consequently daring of him. Despite its flaws, I don’t give him too hard of a time for that. It was his first novel after all. I look forward to reading more from him, whenever he decides to grace the world with another work of his.