“It came to me in a dream.”
That was the origin of Joan He’s stunning new sci-fi novel The Ones We’re Meant to Find. Her immersive second book centers on two sisters separated by an intriguing mystery. Cee wakes up on a desert island. How she got there she doesn’t know. Kasey is mourning her missing sister in a technologically advanced city in the sky. Cee’s only mission is to find Kasey and Kasey’s aim is to find out what happened to Cee. Their two intertwining perspectives craft a dance of sorts, as we learn the truth through their eyes.
When we spoke to He, she told us about the dream that sparked her imagination. “I had this image in a dream of a girl who was diving to the bottom of the sea. She was looking for something or someone, I just didn’t know what at the time,” the author shared.
As she was trying to spin out the story and build on the image that inspired her, her mind went back to the books that had shaped her own reading journey. “I looked to a lot of the young adult dystopias that I read when I was a teen. Books from around 2010, right when I was leaving middle school and heading into high school. That was really formative for me. Books like The Hunger Games, Legend, Divergent. All of those were really my entryway into young adult. So a lot of the tropes, writing, and story conventions that were used in them left this lasting impression on me.”
While The Ones We’re Meant to Find subverts and expands on the archetypes that made such an impact on He, it includes some direct references to the books that inspired her. “I really did want to pay some homage to them. Even the amnesia angle where Cee is waking up. In The Hunger Games, that scene of Katniss waking up just stuck in my mind.”
Sisterhood is at the center of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, and that in itself was a reflection of one of the most key YA tropes He picked up on. “I thought it was interesting that a lot of times in these books protagonists undertake these really great journeys. They go on to do incredible things, topple dictatorships, save the world, etc. A lot of times, early on they’re framed as more vulnerable and relatable via a sibling interaction, specifically with a younger sibling. Early on they demonstrate that they need to protect them and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves for them.”
He continued, “Even though the younger sibling might not even appear much in terms of plot, the interaction stays in your mind. A lot of times that’s cued to the reader as something we should read as upping this character’s relatability. So I really wanted to play with that truth and kind of subvert it. I was like, ‘Okay, what if the girl in my dream is searching for her younger sister. But that sister isn’t a plot device. If anything, she’s the one who’s running the plot.’ And that’s kind of how the story came about.”
It’s impossible to truly dig into The Ones We’re Meant to Find without revealing the heartbreaking secret at its core. But one of its biggest strengths is Cee and Kasey’s parallel journey which reflects He’s intricate exploration of love in all its forms. “That’s something that I find myself gravitating towards from book to book. It was a big theme in my debut, Descendant of the Crane, too. I think there are so many different ways of loving people, just as there are so many different ways people move through the world.”
Personhood, identity, and agency are all key to the tangled web of The Ones We’re Meant to Find. And for He, the latter especially recurs in her work. “I think it’s fascinating because when I was a teen, I would be doing a lot of things and I had ‘agency.’ I was trying to get good grades. I wanted more friends. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to get into a good college. I was taking all these steps, doing these things. But there was a moment where I realized maybe these are not things that I actually want for myself. A lot of these things are parental or societal. That was such a big question I dealt with as a teen and it runs through a lot of my stories.”
That question of discerning who we really are is at the heart of The Ones We’re Meant to Find. Both Cee’s and Kasey’s journeys are all about that kind of self determination we’re not often afforded as young women. For He, that theme is intrinsic to the message of the story. “That’s what the title is alluding to. At the end of the day, the ones we’re really meant to find are ourselves.”