Talking To Sarah Park

Sarah Park is a Ph.D candidate at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She graduated from UCLA with B.A. in history. She earned her M.A. in Asian American Studies, focusing on Korean American children’s literature. An avid reader with a passion for multicultural literature, Ms. Park plans to focus her career in the library and information sciences in research and teaching. Sarah Park spoke with author Paula Yoo (Good Enough) in a recent interview.

YOO: Asian American "immigrant"-themed novels were quite "in vogue" in the 1980s and 90s thanks to the popularity of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club." Now that trend has spilled into the world of young adult/middle grade novels. Why is this such a hunger and interest for these types of books, especially for young people?

PARK: Early Asian American children's literature was mostly in the form of folktales and stories about children in Asia – for example, Frances Carpenter's Tales of a Korean Grandmother, which mixes the two genres together. Since the 1950s and 1960s, with more and more critical scholarship on African American children's books, Asian Americans began to look critically at the way Asians are portrayed in children's books and decided that these folktales and stories about Asians in Asia did not provide a holistic – or diverse - portrayal of the Asian diaspora. Authors such as Lawrence Yep began to write historical and contemporary fiction as a way to reinsert our place in American history.

YOO: Some critics feel that there needs to be more broad-based novels featuring Asian American characters in "mainstream" roles where they are not always dealing with the classic issues of immigration/language barriers/racism. How do you feel about that? Are there any new books, especially for teens, that you feel are good examples of this new trend?

PARK: Immigration from Asia has been slowing down in the past couple of decades and more and more Asians are born in the US, so we see much more diversity across all ethnic Asian groups in the United States. Thus we need books dealing with issues related to immigration, language barriers and racism, as well as books informed by but not driven by those issues. Rudine Sims Bishop has a wonderful model of "culturally conscious" stories that are informed but not driven by issues of race and tend to be written by insiders from that community. To have a children's book where an Asian character's Asian heritage does not at least inform the story would be strange and quickly criticized as what Rudine Sims Bishop calls a "melting pot" story, where the ethnic background of the character has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Yangsook Choi's New Cat is a good example of a picture book where Mr. Kim's Korean origin is not the focus but somewhat informs the story. It's a little more difficult to find that type of book for older readers because there's so much more space to explore issues related to race.

YOO: Publishers now realize the importance of diversity in children's literature, particularly for teenagers who are often searching for their identity and place in society. Why do you think it's important - and perhaps necessary - for diversity in teen fiction, especially for Asian American readers?

PARK: Readers of all ages need to see our experiences (mirrors) and the experiences of others (windows) reflected in the books we read. YA fiction is particularly important and necessary for teens because they go through so much identity formation during adolescence. That's not to say that younger or older readers do not, but since we project "teen angst" or that "awkward" period onto them, maybe we should provide some good literature to deal with it J

YOO: Many Asian American authors (both veteran and up-n-coming) express frustration at being pigeon-holed or labelled as ONLY Asian American fiction when they feel their books feature universal themes. Why do you think Asian American teen fiction is important for readers of different backgrounds/ethnicities to read? In other words, why is multicultural fiction important for today's teenagers?

PARK: Multicultural literature is important for all teenagers because no one lives in a bubble. Reading about other people's experiences helps develop our empathetic sensibilities and broadens our worldview. That's sorely lacking in our world today.

YOO: Do you have any favorite books or books you think are groundbreaking/important that were written by or about Asian American young adults? Why do you think these particular books are important?

PARK: Marie Lee's Saying Goodbye, Finding My Voice and Necessary Roughness and Sooknyul Choi's Gathering of Pearls are groundbreaking because they were among the first novels about Koreans in the United States. Personally, I really identified with An Na's A Step from Heaven and Paula Yoo's Good Enough. The trauma and drama of Young Ju and Patti resonated with me in different ways, especially regarding my relationship with my parents and academic expectations. I'm sure they resonate with many Korean American girls. I laugh every time I read David Yoo's Girls for Breakfast because it's just so funny and shows an athletic Korean American, even if Nick's totally awkward in other ways. Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused is an excellent novel about an Indian American teen. Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo's What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People is also an important work because it brings together the raw and articulate voices of many mixed-race young adults.

YOO: Where do you see Asian American fiction going in the future? Do you think it will reach the same level of mainstream acceptance as African American literature has today (witness the mainstream popularity of writers from adult novelist Toni Morrison to children's novelist Julius Lester?

PARK: I definitely see Asian American fiction expanding into different genres – so much so that it will be difficult for libraries and bookstores to demarcate boundaries between "fiction" and "ethnic fiction." I really hope that Asian American fiction will reach the same level of mainstream acceptance as African American literature. I see it moving towards that now, with Fact on File's Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature (edited by Seiwoong Oh, 2007), and the acceptance of such indicated by that resource receiving an award for the Best Reference Source of 2007 from Library Journal. It takes both the writer and reader to get it to that point, so I hope that more and more Asian Americans, no matter their age or generation, will continue to express themselves creatively through writing, and that readers – of all backgrounds – will read, enjoy and appreciate those stories.

Something I'd like to add: Librarians, teachers and other educators should be careful about using controversial books in APA heritage month celebrations. For example, it's in poor taste to use The Five Chinese Brothers and Rikki Tikki Tembo, given their cultural inaccuracies and orientalist illustrations. However, these two picture books remain incredibly popular because publishers keep them in print and not enough people know about the controversies. This needs to change.