As an Asian American child growing up in an extremely white community, I suffered for years trying to find my place in this world. My mother was always working and barely home when I was growing up, leaving me to my extended family who were emotionally and physically abusive to me for many years. I had no relationship with my father, and I was an only child. Neither my classmates nor I could relate to one another, and I didn't have any pets to turn to in times of crisis. I coped throughout my childhood by journaling my naive thoughts into Lisa Frank diaries and writing stories to escape from my lonely life.
At school, my peers thought my bento lunch boxes of salmon with white rice and pickles were disgusting, and I for the life of me could not stomach chicken fingers or honey mustard sauce without having my stomach feel deranged for hours on end. And I was even born in this country! Overall, I knew I was different, and I felt so alone. When I finally watched the beloved children's fantasy comedy (and violent) movie Matilda in the auditorium for recess on a rainy day, I became obsessed with the storyline and immediately delved into Road Dahl's other books from the public library.
"So Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone."
― Roald Dahl
Matilda was released in the summer of 1996 from TriStar pictures and stars Mara Wilson (Matilda), Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman (Matilda's parents). Her parents were apathetic from the beginning, but as she grew older, they cared even less about her, not only because she was smart, but that she was different. She wasn't like her brother, a carbon copy of their father, a corrupt car salesman. She wasn't like her mother, who only cared about how she looked or playing Bingo. Remember the line when her mother tells Miss Honey "you chose books, I chose books!"
Rather than spending her evenings eating TV dinners and watching ridiculous game shows, she found solace in reading classic literature, a love we both happened to share. Matilda and I were similar in many ways, from being the black sheep of our families to escaping our difficult childhoods through the company of fictitious characters. Her father constantly told her to stop reading, shut up or stop talking. He belittled his own daughter from an early age, and rather than keep silent, she fought back immediately. Even when she was just a child, she had already experienced sexism and overcame it.
I didn't have a great relationship with my relatives, and even when I was a kid, I felt Matilda's agony — how her family completely ostracized her and made her feel unworthy. Although it took me years to embrace my differences from the rest of the world, Matilda discovered from an early age that she had magical powers and used all her energy honing those powers for her amusement. She found a solution to her disillusion, a skill many adults have yet to grasp. Matilda completely embraced who she was and was happier for it. Her courage inspired me to accept and love my differences. I was different because I wasn't studious like my cousins. I was different because I wasn't white enough for my classmates. I was different because I was the only one I knew who didn't have a father.
Matilda found comfort in her teacher, Miss Honey, whose empathy shines despite being bullied all her life from her aunt, who happens to be Principal Trunchbull. Even with all her pain, Miss Honey was a good person and always showed everyone around her kindness. Her character was the epitome of an absolute saint. She taught me no matter how upset I was feeling to never take that anger out on someone. On the complete end of the spectrum, Trunchbull is the definition of pure evil. She relishes in the pain of young children and does all she can do create chaos. I wasn't unfazed by her BDSM chamber, and she was probably a Pimp King, but her character was imperative in the storyline to show the dichotomy between good and evil.
Matilda was how I also ran towards kind white women, hoping they'd fill the void I had. In middle school, rather than eating alone in the cafeteria, I ate with my guidance counselor in her office. I was always the teacher's favorite, and they lavished me with attention in class. Even in high school, as I helped stock the supply room, I told my art teacher the stress I had over taking SAT's. Matilda is a story about knowing you're not alone, even when you feel like there's no one else on this planet.
I remember feeling so excited seeing Matilda's friendship with Lavender. Not only was she a POC like me, she was sassy and funny and I longed for a friend like her, who truly listened to Matilda and treated her like an equal. Their relationship was so inspiring, and I always craved that feminine friendship with someone. Also, if you recall, Lavender was the one who put the newt in Trunchbull's glass of water, causing Trunchbull to dance awkwardly as she shakes off the newt underneath her clothes. Did she deserve it? Absolutely.
Looking back now, I remember how at even such a young age, children can feel lonely. I wished so hard that I could jump into the screen, live in their world and help them take down Trunchbull. None of the girls in my school were like Lavender, but I had hope one day I'd meet someone like her and I did.
Dahl's books often have protagonists with family issues (James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, George's Marvellous Medicine). Maybe that's why I found his work so comforting, even when others have told me his stories and movies are bizarre. I devoured books and films from artists like him, such as Lemony Snicket, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. When I grew older, I discovered Dahl had also suffered abuse in boarding school, and it dawned on me how he could describe my pain through his characters so well, as if I had written the story myself.
In many of his children's books, the adults are seen as wicked villains who torment children. Still, his endings were always uplifting. At the end of Matilda, Miss Honey adopts Matilda and they each get the happily ever after both of them had wanted for so long. As a daughter of an insanely hard-working single parent, it was the first time I saw other families represented on screen. I no longer wanted to look for my father, something I daydreamed about ever since I was born.
Matilda is a story of love and overcoming obstacles. It doesn't sugarcoat the perils of childhood, and perhaps its veracity is why I felt such a deep connection to it. Most children do not want to be talked down to. They don't want to be babied. They understand the complexities of life in simple ways, and I don't think history classes or even movies should have to conceal the evils of this world. Dahl's books have always given me something when I needed it the most, but Matilda will always have special place in my heart.