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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Rich

In Search of a More Authentic Voice: Finding Belonging in the Pages of Percy Jackson

The following post comes from one of our senior interns, Natalie. We love periodically posting student writing, serving as a platform for their voices on writing and wellness. Perhaps even more thrilling than hitting the "publish"  button, though, is the hands-on work of the drafting and revision process--a chance for them to experience how writing and revising really can be a dynamic, collaborative process.

– Her Voice at the Table

My kindle displaying The Lightning Thief

In 2016, I was eleven-years-old. As a complete nerd, the highlight of my year was the Scholastic Book Fair. It was electric entering the library and seeing the walls lined with books dying to be opened. Although I already owned a hefty stack of TBR’s sitting at home, I knew my basket needed to be filled to the brim by the time I reached the checkout counter. 

But, I went in with one clear goal that I couldn’t leave unfulfilled: I had to acquire Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. ‘Lo and behold, I spotted it and frantically snagged it from the shelf.

Before that day at the book fair, I had only ever read YA fiction and romance – never fantasy. Percy Jackson seemed like a book for boys. Monsters, quests, and gruesome fight scenes? Yeah, no thanks! I clung to the rigidity of the gender binary for so long because I was aware, on some level, that I did not fit neatly within it, and being abnormal was something I deeply feared. 

My curiosity to discover the hype behind the books won me over in the end. I read The Lightning Thief cover to cover the same day I got it. The next day, I checked out the successive four titles in the series. At my school, you couldn’t have more than three books at a time. My librarian, gods bless her, made an exception. I walked out of there smiling, arms full, with Riordan’s entire lifeblood. By the weekend, I had finished all of them.

Percy entering Camp Half-Blood

If you had asked me, then, what I liked most about Percy Jackson, I would have probably told you the adventure and the danger, the funny chapter titles, and the magic. I liked noticing the clever ties to Greek mythology and learning more as I read. I admired Annabeth Chase: determined, valiant, and spirited. I wanted to be a daughter of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. 

Here’s what I would tell you now: Percy Jackson, at its core, is about identity. It centers itself around community and family. It reckons with bloodline and lineage. Percy Jackson is about finding the parts of the self that matter. It’s about an incessant search for belonging and creating safe spaces to exist. It’s about contextualizing the narratives we tell about ourselves. 

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” – Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief

Percy and his mom, Sally Jackson, looking at a statue of his name-sake: Perseus

When people ask me seemingly simple questions like “Where are you from?” or even “Who are you?”, my answer is never cut-and-dry. My parents (both of whom are white) traveled over 7,000 miles to adopt me from Chongqing, China. Although our family dynamic is unusual, I never felt like I didn’t belong. Raised in an open-minded biracial household, I was taught to value human uniqueness. I rarely considered physical dissimilarities and took pride in my origins – how distinctive I was in a sea of non-adopted peers! However, this innocence fractured when a classmate pointed at me, mockingly pulled their eyes tight across their face with their fingers, and blurted, “Your eyes are all funny and slanted! Chinese, Chinese!” I was flabbergasted, unsure of how to respond. Until that moment, I had never viewed myself as the “other.”  

There have been very few instances in my life where I’ve been shocked into silence, but this was one of them. In trying to make sense out of the situation, my mind swarmed with a million different thoughts, all fighting to be heard at once.

Although I never felt like an outcast in a biracial household, this occurrence made me acknowledge unsurfaced conflicts that I was experiencing, torn between two racial identities – both demanding my full attention.

Annabeth, Grover, and Percy

I quickly recognized that both Percy and I shared this same “push-pull” feeling, just in slightly different ways. Throughout the series, he wrestles with being a demigod, otherwise known as a half-blood: someone who is part mortal and part god. In being one, it is difficult for him to firmly ground himself in one world or the other, as he constantly changes between his two personas. Aside from the constant monster attacks, this lack of solidity around his identity undoubtedly sets him apart from “normal” kids his age. But soon it dawned on me: this fluidity he possessed wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – it was really an asset. While his adaptability may have isolated him from some of his peers, it allowed him to bridge perspectives others couldn’t and think critically. He could empathize with both parties: humans and gods, even when the fate of the world was at stake. 

Percy Jackson is about finding the parts of the self that matter. It’s about an incessant search for belonging and creating safe spaces to exist. It’s about contextualizing the narratives we tell about ourselves. 

With time, I more clearly understood that this in-between state gave me something invaluable: a comfort with the unknown and a burning desire to know my deepest self. In order to come into my own, I had to learn to live authentically – and loudly – without fear of judgment. The only question was how?

“Sometimes the hardest power to master is the power of yielding” – Hestia, The Last Olympian

Percy preparing to fight the Ares, the God of war

Many say that yielding equates to weakness or a pitiful defeat. I beg to differ. To me, it’s actually a brave and vulnerable action that requires abundant self-awareness. It is a skill that I take to heart and am still trying to develop in myself. 

For a long time, I held on to a deeply buried, internal anger against those who had deeply hurt me. Sophomore year in particular was an interesting year for me since these restless emotions reached a peak. I was transforming in the rapid way young people do and became aware of a new aspect of my identity: my queerness. 

The winged converse that Luke gives Percy

As I explored and discovered words for almost every part of human individuality, I still remained somewhat unsure of my place.

Words really do matter in broader contexts, and part of understanding each other is knowing the identities to which we each belong. Your voice isn’t merely a means of communication; it’s a testament to your livelihood.

I found that the Percy Jackson series turned out to be more meaningful as I got older – it essentially grew with me, providing relief or insight in times when I felt as if my agency had been stripped from me. I can still recount a harrowing memory from that year detailing this exact feeling:

The words fell from his lips so nonchalantly, but I felt like a knife had just plunged into my stomach. His words echoed in my mind: “Sure, love is love, but…” Bitter anguish bubbled up my throat, clawing in dissent. My mouth remained frozen in silent betrayal. Abruptly, it hit me: I wrote about my experience as a queer woman of color in this same teacher’s class. Now I sat, motionless, realizing he knew, and it didn't stop him.

Months after this interaction, it finally registered for me that I had yielded my voice and allowed him to “win.” I was kicking myself over it. I thought, I’m a naturally vocal person, why couldn’t I prompt myself to speak? I could talk freely without anxiety in any other situation. Yet, I quickly understood why. I did so for my own sake and safety. 

Luke Castellan, Percy's friend turned enemy

One of the most difficult things is knowing when to yield. In The Last Olympian, Percy encounters Hestia, goddess of the hearth and the home, for the second time as Mount Olympus is crumbling a deserted. When faced with the difficult choice of killing his enemy, Luke Castellan (a boy who was corrupted by the Titan Lord, Kronos), or surrendering the blade to him, he chose the latter. Not all fights can be won and not all people’s perspectives can change, but it shouldn’t stop you from speaking up in other areas. Being able to understand your limits and make choices that align with your values is an incredibly valuable tool, a tool which Percy champions in this moment.

Even though I felt utterly incapacitated, I chose to show up for myself and others as the year progressed. I surrounded myself in a fountain of resources, ranging from friends I confided in, to strangers whose life stories were similar to mine. I participated in almost every class discussion, voicing my opinions no matter how “radical” they may have been. 

“Your voice is your identity. If you don’t use it you’re halfway to Asphodel already.” – Nico Di Angelo, The Blood of Olympus

Grover, Annabeth, and Percy walking in Asphodel

Words really do matter in broader contexts, and part of understanding each other is knowing the identities to which we each belong. Your voice isn’t merely a means of communication; it’s a testament to your livelihood. In Greek mythology, Asphodel is a section of the Underworld where the souls of ordinary people who led indifferent lives are sent to exist after their death. Self-expression holds immense power. Orpheus, frequently depicted as the son of Apollo (God of the sun, healing, truth, and prophecy), is a strong representation of this notion. 

Orpheus and Eurydice as portrayed in Hadestown

Orpheus’s story goes like this: he has a divinely gifted voice, one that can charm anyone – even the gods. He falls in love with a wood nymph, Eurydice, and marries her. Later, she tragically dies and is sent to the Underworld. Distraught over the death of his wife, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to get her back. Armed with his main weapon, his voice, he convinces Hades to release Eurydice, but there’s a catch: he must walk in front of Eurydice and never look back. Of course he does what you expect, he looks back and Eurydice is again drawn back into the Underworld. 

When you remain silent, you’re not just withholding words, you’re stifling your identity, distancing yourself from self-acceptance and growth. There is an undoing that being silent causes. It’s like erasing parts of yourself, bit by bit, until you become a mere echo of what you could have been. Embracing your voice is a declaration that you are here, you matter, and you refuse to be relegated to the shadows of Asphodel. 

The series has aged with me. I see myself in those books again and again. They remind me that my voice matters, that my identity is valid, and that self-acceptance is a journey worth embracing. The characters and their stories are still where I left them closed in the books 8 years ago, but their formative influence on me is something that I will carry for a lifetime. 

Natalie is currently a senior in high school. She will be attending Texas A&M University next fall and majoring in Business on the Pre-Law track. Right now, she is reading Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero.

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