David Yoo is a graduate from Skidmore College with an MA from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
His first novel, Girls For Breakfast (Delacorte) was a Booksense Pick, an NYPL Books For the Teen Age selection, and a Reading Rants Top Ten Books for Teens choice.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
Growing up in New England I was always the “token Asian kid” wherever I went. As a result I grew up deeply ambivalent about my ethnicity. I was one of those kids who was basically caught between two cultures—I was overtly Asian to my peers and not nearly Asian enough for my parents and the Korean Church community that I interacted with on weekends, and basically my entire adolescence was spent trying to not be seen as an Asian kid. I embraced being a screw-up and the class clown as part of my misguided plan to be considered the polar opposite of the model minority in order to have even a remote chance at becoming popular and getting a girlfriend.
I experienced my share of racism from bullies and strangers in the food court at the local mall, and each instance only reinforced my belief that being different was a bad thing, and it deepened my resolve to run screaming in the opposite direction of all the stereotypes about Asian Americans. I was watching an episode of Conan O’Brien years back and the comedian Louis C.K. was a guest that night, and he was talking about stereotypes, and his point was that nobody would have a problem with stereotypes if they were actually cool. And then he went on to give some examples, and he was like, “Did you know that Jews…can fly?” “Or that Mexicans…are made out of candy?” The thing is he was wrong, at least in my opinion, because despite the many malicious stereotypes, the ones that infuriated me the most growing up were, if you think about it, kinda cool. People assumed that I was a genius? And a hard worker? These days I’d love for people to mistakenly think that of me, but back when I was a teenager I got so angry about these decidedly positive stereotypes; they still limited peoples’ perception of me, which made me feel like I was less than others, or not quite human-even. I know that sounds melodramatic but that’s precisely how I felt, and to dispel these assumptions I made a conscious effort throughout high school to not study, to not excel at anything. I took a weird pride in molding myself into what was presumed to be a rarity: the underachieving Asian American teenager.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I’ve published two YA novels at this point, and they both feature Asian American male teen guys struggling with their identity. My first novel, Girls For Breakfast, deals in part with the racism I experienced as a teenager and the way it influenced my own actions; my second novel, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, is an unorthodox love triangle that explores that often intense feeling of alienation (both real and imagined) I felt growing up.
I’m not a political writer, and I shy away from writing anything that sounds remotely preachy, but what I hope to do is offer a fresh perspective of Asian American boys in fiction. I had the misfortune of growing up in the ’80s, which in hindsight has to be considered the worst time in history to be an Asian American boy growing up in a white-bred town like the one I grew up in, because people seemed to have only two Asian guys in their lives: me, and Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. Anytime a stranger saw me at the mall or at McDonalds I was fairly certain a gong was going off in their heads.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
While I certainly related to some of the characters in the novels I read growing up, I’d always wished I had a novel that was about a kid more like me, a perplexed Asian American boy that didn’t neatly fit the definition of a model minority, and who was struggling to figure out his place in the world. Girls For Breakfast was my attempt to write that book. The protagonist, Nick Park, is obnoxious, self-loathing, and projects his frustrations in ways that are far from admirable, which is to say that I tried to offer an utterly real Asian American teenager, warts and all, which in turn offers the polar opposite of some of the very stereotypes I so abhorred growing up. It would have meant the world to read a novel and discover that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. It didn’t exactly help my self-esteem to only see Asian Americans portrayed in the movies and on TV as either science nerds or asexual martial artists, and it only feeds ignorance and racism to hew so closely to these stereotypes, which is why I believe the more variety in perspectives we can offer readers the better.
David’s second novel, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before (Disney-Hyperion), due out in paperback March 2, 2010, was a Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best” selection. His first middle grade novel is forthcoming from Balzer & Bray. David lives in Massachusetts and teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Visit him at www.daveyoo.com