Guest Blogger: Paula Yoo
Hi. My name is Paula Yoo. I am a 15-year-old white suburban punk rocker video game-playing boy trapped in the body of a 30something female Korean American.
That was my politically incorrect joke for many years. I grew up in the ’80s, obsessed with the late ’70s punk and early ’80s New Wave scenes of London, New York, and LA. Today, I own an Xbox 360 instead of an Atari.
But… I was also a teenager ashamed of her Asian heritage. I was born in America and spoke perfect English. My parents were born in Korea and spoke with a slight accent. They loved kimchee. I loved Big Macs. Part of this embarrassment and shame stemmed from being one of very few people of color in a small conservative town in Connecticut. I remember being made of fun – and judged unfairly – because of the color of my skin.
Fortunately, I later attended a more diverse college setting where I learned to embrace my Korean heritage. A lot of my Asian American friends have shared similar ethnic self-hatred and coming-of-cultural-age experiences.
So I lived happily ever after, right?
Not really. What I hadn’t realized was all those years of unfortunate racial self-hatred would still have an effect on my writing.
See, ever since I devoured E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in the 1st grade, I have always wanted to be a writer. When I finally wrote my own stories, all my characters were white. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – the greatest privilege about being a writer is that you can write about anything and anyone! My characters ranged from a medically depressed and unhappily married young mother living in New Orleans to a stoner college freshman in love with his roommate’s girlfriend.
These short stories received much praise from my creative writing professors. But they also told me something was missing… where was my voice? There still has to be some truth in fiction – but in my fiction, the truth was nowhere to be found.
Maybe I needed to live life first in order to become a better fiction writer? So I studied the human race through the lens of an objective journalist for the next nine years. I then received a prestigious fellowship to study creative writing at an MFA program. Upon graduation, ironically, I became a TV drama screenwriter instead of a novelist because I had a gift for writing dialogue… and being a TV junkie didn’t hurt! I wrote everything from NBC’s Emmy-award winning political drama “THE WEST WING” to FOX’s cult sci-fi series “TRU CALLING.” I was adept at imitating other people’s voices – I could easily capture and mimic the show creator’s writing style and voice, which is a necessary skill required for TV writers.
But I still didn’t have my own voice!
In April 2004, several writers and I were laid off from a soon-to-be-cancelled TV series thanks to low ratings. I had two choices – wallow in unemployed self-pity or take advantage of the rare free time and write.
So on May 1, 2004, I sat down in front of my laptop and wrote: “You’ve heard the joke, right? Why is a viola better than a violin? It burns longer.” I wrote until 4 a.m. about a violin audition I had in high school. (I studied the violin growing up and am still an active professional freelance musician today.)
I couldn’t stop. I wrote EVERY SINGLE DAY for 16 hours straight. I’d stumble into bed around dawn and wake up around 11 a.m. and just plop myself down in front of my laptop and start typing.
This continued for five weeks. During the first week of June, sometime around dawn, I wrote the final sentence at the bottom of page 300 of my completed novel and burst into tears.
I realized this was the first time I had ever written anything featuring a Korean American female character. GOOD ENOUGH’s main character, Patti Yoon, was ME. Okay, so she’s not 100 percent me – I’m nowhere nearly as smart as Patti and she can play circles around me on her violin! And who knew Patti’s Korean immigrant parents would play such a huge role in the novel? I had always scoffed at the “Joy Luck Club” phenomenon of Asian American authors writing these weepy tragic novels about how they suffered racism in intolerant small all-white towns and how their parents suffered even worse tragedies in fill-in-blank-Asian-country-here.
All joking aside, of course I respect these novels! We need these experiences, unique perspectives, and multicultural voices to keep our literature alive and vital. But I never thought I would write an “Asian American” novel. I thought my Great American novel would be about a migrant family of farm workers escaping the dustbowl of Oklahoma to pick grapes in California… oh wait. Sorry. Steinbeck already wrote that! 🙂
Clearly GOOD ENOUGH was inspired by my life growing up as a geeky violin-playing outcast who didn’t go to Prom. But instead of focusing on teen angst, I had found myself laughing at my own memories and realizing how funny high school really was. So that’s what I ended up writing. I never approached the book with a multicultural mission. I never intended this to be a novel preaching about the stereotypes of the Asian American model minority myth or about the cultural difficulty in communicating with immigrant parents.
But at the same time, my novel is not solely about cultural issues. In the end, it’s just a story about a girl named Patti. She could be any ethnicity/race. The book’s universal theme is… what makes us happy? Who can’t relate to that?
As for my happily-ever-after ending? I finished the revisions and submitted my novel to my literary agent. Three weeks later, he sold it to HARPERCOLLINS. And today, February 5, 2008, my YA novel GOOD ENOUGH debuts in bookstores across the country.
And sure, sometimes I still feel like a 15-year-old white suburban punk rocker video game-playing boy. One day I will write a novel about that mischievous boy and the troublesome scrapes he finds himself in!
But you know what? I had to write GOOD ENOUGH first. By discovering the truth hidden inside myself and unlocking my own authentic voice, I became a better writer. Now I can truly explore the lives of other characters with confidence and compassion. They say, “Write what you know.” I say, “Figure out what you know first before you start writing.” And then you can write about anyone… and anything. Trust me – once you find your own voice, there’s a whole world out there, just waiting for you to discover it!
About Paula: Okay, I admit it. Like Patti Yoon, I play the violin. Yes, I was concertmaster of my Connecticut All-State High School Orchestra. And I snuck out occasionally to see a couple of cool bands (sorry, Mom & Dad). But this novel is a work of fiction. Although I too was forced to undergo a really bad home perm, it burned my left ear, not my right. And there was a cute guy in my homeroom who played rock guitar and asked me to work on a few songs with him, but his name was not Ben Wheeler. When I’m not writing novels that allegedly have nothing to do with my personal life, I also write TV scripts. I was born in Virginia and grew up in Connecticut. I’ve also lived in Seoul, Korea; New York; Seattle; and Detroit. I now live in Los Angeles with my husband, who plays guitar—and yes, we jam occasionally, just like Patti and Ben.
A few weeks ago, Paula left a comment on my post comparing the description of her brand new (out today!) book Good Enough with She’s So Money by Cherry Cheva. I found her comments interesting and thought-provoking, especially when she said, “this is the first piece of fiction I have ever written where the character was Korean American.” I asked if she’d like to write a guest post for us, and she agreed. Thanks, Paula, for taking the time to share this with us.