David Yoon's debut novel has set off commotion, excitement, and a movie option.
It's Frankly in Love, in which we meet Frank Li, a high school senior and a self-described nerd, who, with his best friend Q, plays video games, watches obscure movies, gets high SAT scores and doesn't talk about girls — except, of course, when they do. Which is a lot.
Frank's parents are Korean — he doesn't like the hyphen before his own "American." And when he develops what we'll call age-appropriate feelings for Brit, a white girl in his calculus class, his parents say he should only get crushes on and go out with Korean girls. What's Frank to do?
"When I was in high school, my parents were pretty set on having me only date Korean girls," Yoon says. "And so as a result, I would wind up hiding my entire love life from them — which in hindsight, it's kind of a strange thing to do, is hide something so important from people who are so important in your life."
On Frank's family
[His parents] come from that very classic immigrant mentality where they do all the dirty work so that their kids should never have to. And part of that deal is, the kid's job is to hunker down and study, and kind of not mess around too much. They also have ideas about maintaining sort of this concept of Korea that they brought to America, and that burden falls on Frank's shoulders.
And his sister is sort of a cautionary tale for Frank, because on paper she did everything right. You know, she studied, she got into the best school ... she's in an extremely well-paying professional job. She ticks all the boxes — except she marries a black man. And for that reason alone she is disowned by the family.
On Frank's parents' attitudes
It's very easy to call Frank's parents racist. And one of my missions in writing this book was to really write from a point of view of acceptance and understanding, because it would have been very easy for Frank to be the angry teenager who just kind of shakes his fist at the sky and says, "My parents are racists!" But if you really look at your parents — Frank really looks at his parents — as human beings instead of capital-M Mom and capital-D Dad, then he'll see that they're people who came from a very ethnically homogenous country with extremely ethnically rooted ideas of identity. And they come to this country, America, and we're all about diversity and multiculturalism — or at least we're trying our darndest. And for them, you know, what was that culture shock like, and how did they navigate this upside-down concept, for them, that anyone from anywhere could come here and become American, because there's no such notion in Korea.
On the pressure Frank feels to be an ambassador for Korean culture
There's one scene in particular where Frank is with his white girlfriend's parents and he's taking them out to, they just sort of find themselves at a Korean restaurant. So as you'd expect, they start peppering him with all these questions and what is this, what am I eating, what was this made out of? And Frank feels this intense pressure to be the expert, to be the Korean food tour guide.
And one thing that I learned as I was writing the scene was that Frank, at some point, he runs out of answers, and so he's forced to say the words "I don't know." And I myself have a hard time saying "I don't know" when I'm confronted with this expectation of myself to be somewhat of a Korean expert, you know? And I love those words "I don't know." They say to me and they say to Frank, you know what? You don't have to be an expert in everything Korean.
And it never really occurred to me until I wrote this book that I've been calling myself Korean American my whole life. Why don't we call it the other way around? Why don't we say, an American of Korean descent? There's always this qualification that I am Korean first and American second. Whereas, you know, the white majority in this country, they don't have to deal with that kind of thing. They just call themselves Americans.
This story was edited for radio by Ned Wharton and Samantha Balaban, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.