Narratives about racism perpetrated in and among POC (people of color) groups can feel lacking, even though the issue exists all across the board. David Yoon, illustrator of Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, tackles and addresses this issue in his debut novel Frankly in Love.
Frank Li is a senior in high school, and like most high school students, he is studying for the SATs, thinking of college and dreaming about girls. When he’s not hanging out with his best friend Q, he’s helping out at his parents’ grocery store and attending monthly shindigs called the Gathering, a social event organized every month by his parents or their Korean friends.
Underneath the surface of his normal life, Frank straddles and struggles with the two worlds of his Korean-American existence. The glaring, yet unspoken absence of his older sister Hanna, who has been disowned by his parents ever since she revealed her fiancé is a black man, tears him apart. Frank doesn’t know how to make sense of the kindhearted, hardworking parents who are simultaneously racist. His discomfort prevents him from even inviting Q, who is African American, over to his house. His parents’ double standards, such as their acceptance of Q and their disapproval of his sister’s fiancé, makes him reluctant to consider dating anybody. Frank sums up his predicament early in the story:
“My ideal woman should be Korean American. It’s not strictly necessary. I could care less. But it would make things easier. I’ve toed the dating waters only twice before, and each time something has held me back from diving in. A paralysis. I think it comes from not knowing which would be worse: dating a girl my parents hated or dating a girl my parents loved. Being ostracized or being micromanaged.”
When Frank catches the attention of his dream girl Brit Means, a white person, he keeps it a secret from his parents and sets up a pact with his childhood and fellow Gathering friend Joy Song (who is also secretly dating someone not meeting parental approval) to pretend they are dating each other, a more accepted pairing in their parents’ eyes. The plan predictably fails, but it also helps Frank find a way to true love.
The first half of the book chronicles Frank’s foray into the dating world and his disdain for his parents’ racist attitude toward blacks, Latinos and Chinese people. Variations of what Frank’s parents have said about dating and marrying a Korean person (and not a black person) have been iterated to me at some point in my own life. The reasons why were also similar (“think about the baby”– meaning its skin color). Reading these accurate portrayals of some of the things my parents have said over the years was affirming; I’m not alone.
Some of the most interesting comparisons in the book appear when Frank contrasts Brit and her family’s racial awareness with his parents’ obliviousness and general disregard over the matter. Brit’s open acknowledgement of white privilege serves only to drive a wedge that keeps them further apart. At the end of the day, Frank knows that even though Brit feels guilty and ashamed about her parents’ inability to understand the racial woes of minorities, her life decisions will be free for hers to make, unconstrained and uninfluenced by what her parents want.
“Here’s the tidbit I want to say but can’t find space for,” he says. “If Brit’s tolerance for bullshit is paper-thin, mine is mantle-thick. Because unlike her, my parents’ bullshit is a core part of my life. My parents’ bullshit has the power to decide every hour of every day, on and on into the future.”
The second half of the book has Frank confronting his conflicted feelings head on as he deals with the possibility of losing his father. He realizes this mysterious man he hardly sees, who makes racist comments from time to time, is actually someone he desperately wants to know. As he comes to terms with his father’s vulnerable physical state, Frank grapples with his identity at a Korean festival in Los Angeles and also gets a first-row seat to a debacle between his and Joy’s parents that touch on the importance of status and social background in Korean culture. Be prepared to be blown away by this argument as the dialogue is written completely in Korean.
The number of themes and issues Yoon decides to tackle in his debut novel is a challenge he pulls off well; the one complaint I have is that most nearly all the young Asian American characters perpetuate the model Asian stereotype. Would it have hurt to throw in a female athlete? A striving poet? A dancer? Someone who’s lazy or badass? Perhaps someone who wants a career in the nonprofit sector?
Other than that, racism is a sensitive topic to cover in any genre, and Yoon handles it with care and sensibility. He dares to step into territory not often ventured by other Asian American writers, bringing to light a perspective not often seen in minority narratives: instead of being the victim, the minority is the perpetrator. Yoon makes insightful points in a frank and engaging way that will compel readers to at least think about the complicated issues surrounding race in America. His book is also about family ties, Korean culture, the immigrant experience, identity and the power of love.
Be sure to catch David Yoon’s debut novel on Sept. 10.
International Examiner: Can you tell our readers a little bit about you and your professional background?
David Yoon: During my professional career, I worked first as a graphic designer, then moved on to interface design, and later user experience design before making the switch to writing full time. It was a great field of work because it blended visual creativity with technical problem solving, so it exercised by whole brain. But I was writing the whole time in the small hours of the morning. Writing was always harder than my day job could ever be—which meant it was the truest challenge of all.
IE: Have you always been interested in writing? What got you interested in becoming a writer?
DY: In third grade, I wrote a (very) short story that I read aloud to the class. To my surprise, they loved it and laughed like crazy! It was a huge rush of connection and validation. In a way, I keep trying to get back to that first moment when I first discovered that writing could make readers feel real emotions, if crafted carefully enough. My favorite classes in junior high and high school were always English (I majored in English in college), and I felt driven to get my MFA in fiction for grad school. So yep, I’ve always been writing.
IE: You are the husband of popular YA novelist Nicola Yoon. How did you two meet?
DY: We met at my first writing workshop in grad school at Emerson College. Her stories had these incredible emotional truths, and at first, she scared the crap out of me and made me feel like I needed to step up my game just to keep up. Turns out she felt the same way about me! So what I’m saying is that from the very beginning, we’ve scared the crap out of each other, and by now we’re just used to it.
Seriously though, we started out as really great friends talking constantly about truth and art and craft—and we still do, every day. Looking back, it’s no surprise we wound up together.
IE: You are the illustrator for Nicola’s first book Everything, Everything. Can you tell us about your background as an illustrator/artist?
DY: I’ve always been drawing and sketching, mostly in a little-brother effort to be as good as my big brother, who is such a talented artist, it makes me chromium-oxide green with envy. I did take some fine art classes, but mostly I like to draw cartoons, pixel art for games, that sort of stuff. Nicola’s instinct to include drawings for her book was a happy accident, and my relatively simple line drawings worked well with the black and white medium of the printed book page.
IE: You cover a lot of ground with the themes you cover in your book. How did you pick and choose which themes you wanted to focus on and why did you focus on them?
DY: At the beginning, Frankly was a light-hearted fake-dating rom-com. But if you really unpack what fake-dating implies—especially when you’re dealing with the cultural clash inherent to the immigrant kid experience—all kinds of serious themes come spilling out. Why does [the protagonist] Frank feel like he has to hide this huge part of his young adulthood, his love life? Why does he wish his parents were more “American”? What does that even mean? Why are his parents racist? And why do they not even think they’re racist to begin with? There were so many questions that I actually had to hold back. Otherwise the book would’ve been like 1,200 pages long.
IE: Frank Li is searching the boundaries of being Korean and American and trying to find some blend of both where he could plant himself. Where did the inspiration for your story come from? Why did you choose this overarching theme to become the core synopsis of your first book?
DY: I like to say that Frank is the kid I wish I could’ve been at his age. I grew up not Korean enough to be Korean, and not White enough to be mainstream American. And I had friends who were in similar situations. We found each other and formed our own tribe of “in-betweeners,” but we couldn’t help but feel adrift in an America that only dealt in mythical racial absolutes—White, Black, Asian, Latino (there was no “Latinx” back then), and so on. America had no name for what we were, and it still doesn’t. Our national language is incomplete, and yet, as our country becomes more mixed up and diverse, we’ll find ourselves challenged to figure out how to talk about our very selves. This applies especially to my daughter, who I’m nuts about.
IE: The first half of your book seems to focus on racism through dating. I was glad to see that you showed how Korean families can be particular about their kids only dating other Koreans (not even other Asians, let alone East Asians) all in the name of making things “comfortable” for the parents. Why did you decide to make racism one of the ways Frank explores his identity? Were some of these dating stories drawn from your own experience?
DY: My parents gave me the same casual offhand ultimatum lots of Korean American kids might be familiar with: date white, never date black, marry Korean. To them (being raised in an ethnocentric monoculture) this was totally normal. To me, growing up (ostensibly) in a multicultural mixed salad, this was bonkers. But this conflict that I struggled with as a kid turns out to be one of the biggest conflicts at America’s core today: Are we an inclusive, diverse nation? Or are we something else? If so, what?
IE: The second half of your book seems to focus on Frank’s relationship with his parents, and with it, you address the lack of sentimentality expressed in Korean families and the obsession over status and family background. What made you decide to focus on these themes?
DY: Americans are highly expressive—we hug, we say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” all the time, and so on. Traditional Koreans are not highly expressive in these ways. But that absolutely does not mean they lack the capability for expressiveness or sentimentality (just look at K-dramas!). There are ways of saying “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” that are not overtly verbal but are just as powerful. We’re talking about two different love languages here. It took me a long, long time to become fluent in the love language of my own parents, and I’ve found the journey frustrating and fascinating and rewarding.
IE: What message do you want to impart on your readers overall?
DY: Love can be the hardest thing in the world. But it’s the most important. Love for a partner, love for family, love for yourself. Without love, we’re barely living.
This review is based on an advanced reader’s copy and, therefore, on uncorrected text.