I felt the same way when I read your books! I was drafting after the election, so I was in that fiercely-protective-of-immigrant-America headspace. Early on in my career, I boldly declared during a panel, “I’m always going to write Korean-American girls.” Later it made me cringe to recall that statement, but, honestly, I could? I feel like if I were to write a book about high school kids, the temptation to set it in, oh, 1999–2003 would be very strong. Because what is it about Asian culture that feels so specific rather than universal to everyone outside of it? It was a lot more angsty and action-packed and my editor and I decided that Clara being the main focus would be best. I read Maurene’s latest, The Way You Make Me Feel, with great joy and a sense of recognition I never got to experience as a young adult reader. I feel like we’re two of the only Korean-American writers writing about Korean-American L.A., and there is just so much ground to cover. Once the prankster, more fun-loving element was brought in, she really came to life — all her vulnerabilities and fears. How do you keep up with the youth, Maurene? I talked to her over email about The Way You Make Me Feel. And I wanted this story to be about L.A. Earlier versions of this book had four POVs — four girls stuck in Clara’s dad’s food truck over the course of one crazy night. I’m glad it made you feel that way. Adrian and Jules met in high school and Jules got pregnant when they were both 18. There are, I’m happy to report, a handful now — I’ve written a few, and so has Maurene Goo. Because I’m writing my version of teenagehood and it may or may not accurately represent teens today, but that’s not really what drives a story, you know? There is something about the cover that makes me emotional and proud, too. Martin’s Minotaur. Yes! I did have someone say once that the diversity felt forced and I just had to laugh. There was a moment when I realized that, oh, I wrote another father-daughter book. I also wanted to say that this cover is amazing. I also wish that I had books like mine growing up, it’s 99.9 percent of the reason why I started writing YA. I took it for granted that what I read would have nothing to do with my day-to-day life, growing up Korean-American in Los Angeles, taking novels along when I accompanied my mom to the Korean grocery store or went to youth group at our Korean church.
I’m not sure there were any novels about Korean-American Angelenos when I was discovering fiction in the ’90s. But as a reader you just rolled with “sanitary napkins” and old-fashioned phrases because you were so caught up in whether or not Margaret would get her damn period. (My last book focused on that as well.) But right away I knew that this was a different family story — one that was unconventional by American standards, let alone by Korean-American standards. What brought her to life for you? I didn’t think much about it. Like we said earlier, there are so many stories to tell — we’re just as varied in experiences as white men, and it doesn’t look like people are sick of those stories yet. Haha, I actually have a ’90s-set book idea but shelving it because I feel like, yes, the temptation to represent your youth is strong. I so wish I could’ve read this book when I was younger and just unquestioningly accustomed to reading about very serious white people going to war and getting divorced. I had strict Korean parents who restricted my leisure activities, so I spent a lot of my free time reading, and that was pretty much fine by me. Adrian’s and Jules’s stories eventually become a big part of Clara’s “coming of age.”
A lot of the book rides on KoBra, the Korean-Brazilian food truck that represents so many of the Shin family’s hopes and dreams. Because the Asian girl is in a pose that is vulnerable and a little sexy, a pose that you’ve seen on endless pretty white girls? Like, do you think about differentiating them from each other in especially conscious ways? for decades — there are so many stories out there. Can we talk about how there are a zillion Korean Americans in Los Angeles but we barely exist in pop culture? Realistic feelings and emotions and growth, but not slang or technology. It feels like a fresh interpretation of the Korean Los Angeles story, which has been anchored in part by immigrant-run small businesses. I loved the idea of having these young, flawed, and ambitious parents, with Clara putting her mother on a pedestal even though her dad raised her. Can you talk about Adrian and Jules? Which is probably what all writers do. At this point, Koreans have been “settled” in L.A. I mean, you talk about Armenian Genocide! Probably all of that plus other reasons that are hard to explain. (Sorry about Lionel Shriver, adult literary fic!) I’m sure there are still some grumpy racists out there who get annoyed by books like mine, but it’s been warmly received for the most part. When we were growing up, it was all about convenience stores and dry cleaners (which is real), but Clara’s parents wouldn’t be that much older than I am and I wanted them to have cool jobs that would be appropriate for a couple of big dreamers. That feeling of acknowledgment and recognition is so powerful, it makes me sad that so many readers are deprived of it because of the publishing landscape. Because I did and I had maybe two white friends in high school. And there is so much ground to cover. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. My high school unofficially honored Armenian Genocide day, I felt so seen when I read that! And I’m lucky enough to be in a position to tell these stories and share them. White dudes are allowed to have endless white dude protagonists who are all alcoholics, but I still get this sense that Korean-American woman feels weird and specific to people, like if someone else wrote multiple protagonists with Tourette’s.
Yes, I have thought about this. Not only did they decide to have Clara, but they didn’t get married and eventually separated, with Adrian doing most of the upbringing. And honestly, with my books, I am conscious of it. She’s a talented writer, and her fiction pops with wit and energy. Not to say that it hasn’t been a process. I always use Judy Blume books as an example — when we were growing up, her books were dated already. MAURENE GOO: She was actually the first piece. Are you ever conscious of hanging out with a giant group of all Asians? Where did she come from? One time I went to a college party with a group of Asian girls and this white guy yelled out, “Asian Invasion.” Clever. I think about how to make the families distinct, the personalities of the main characters unique. You don’t have to be an L.A. I honestly keep staring at it and feeling weirdly proud and emotional. We’re about the same age, which is to say we graduated from high school a good many years ago. All of that stuff changes so quickly that you’d fall behind constantly if you tried to keep up. Haha, luckily, in YA, we are well ahead of the diversity convo in publishing. I want everyone to be able to feel that way. It is such a startling pleasure to read your writing and recognize my city and see it through the eyes of a fellow Korean-American girl. ¤
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. It’s annoying that I think about it, but I do. AUGUST 22, 2018
LIKE MOST NOVELISTS, I was a big reader growing up. This rings true to me, but I can just hear the whining about PC this and forced diversity that. You don’t deal with race in a head-on, heavy way in this book, but your cast is just casually dominated by characters of color. Did you grow up in Glendale? ¤
STEPH CHA: Okay, so tell me about Clara Shin. They’re really not your typical Korean immigrant parents. Do you ever worry that people will all-look-same them? Was she the first piece of this book? I hope my books normalize that sort of diversity because it’s real and exists and way more relatable than like, teens rowing boats to see each other and having sex with their teachers (dated Dawson’s Creek reference). This is something I stress about from time to time. Of course, the contemporariness of this book is a huge part of its appeal. I love that Clara’s parents are a food truck entrepreneur and a social media influencer. Is it because an Asian’s girl’s face is so prominently displayed? When I published my first book in 2013, things were definitely different and having a Korean-American main character was probably a liability. But in the end, I’m always just trying to challenge myself so I don’t find myself writing the same book over and over again. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds. For a while, I did stress about keeping up with the youth, but now I don’t bother. Thanks so much, Steph. as told through one of the many immigrant families who build it, every day. Korean to love Maurene’s books, of course (though if you are, go buy them all right now). I read the classics, and whatever friends and teachers happened to recommend — a selection that was, in retrospect, extremely heavy on white male authors. She was always there — less of a prankster in earlier drafts but I always envisioned a character who was a bit surly, detached, and had complicated feelings about her family. You have three books now with young Korean-American female protagonists.