Ah, I’ve been wondering when I’d get this question. I admit that I’ve not been very vocal about my feelings on this book because as a fellow author, I don’t feel comfortable speaking negatively about another author’s book. But at the same time I have developed a growing angst over this subject and I will try to put it into words for you. When I first heard of the book, it was through friends who thought I’d be interested in the portrayal of a half-Korean boy. Of course I was! I bought it right away for my daughter. It sounded like a perfect teenage love story. I even recommended it to a friend of mine (non-Korean) who loved it. But then another friend of mine asked me if I had any problems with the depiction of Park and his mother and I hurriedly picked it up before my daughter could read it. Here’s the thing, it IS a lovely little teenage love story. But all I could keep thinking was, Damn it! Why did he have to be Korean? Why did this boy, who is so filled with self-loathing and contempt for his heritage, have to be Korean? Why did his mother with her sing songy broken English have to be Korean?
And because of this, I ended up giving this book away to someone I felt would enjoy it better, a non-Korean. Because I didn’t want my daughter to read this and get that same icky feeling I did. That same humiliating sinking feeling you get when you realize you’ve stumbled across an awful stereotype of a Korean and you cringe that this is all that anyone takes away. And why oh why of all books that could possibly have a diverse main character did it have to be this one that hits the NYT list? Why did Rowell have to include the worst racist comment in the world in this book and think it is okay? Because when Eleanor thinks it, she also at least recognized it was racist. I’m sure that’s why she thought it was ok to include the most racist comment against Asians. But I flinched when I read it. I was so angry when I read it. I hated Eleanor after I read it and I never ever forgave her. No, Asians don’t see things smaller because our eyes are smaller. That is racist. It’s an interesting point to make that you can fall in love with a person of a different culture and still be racist. That’s ultimately Eleanor.
But Park and his mother are more problematic. His mother is described as a chinadoll - a slur in itself. And Park just hates the fact that he doesn’t look more white like his brother. He is filled with self loathing to the point where he even says Asian men are not sexy. SAYS WHO?!! There was a period in my life when I was younger where I pushed away my culture and wished I wasn’t Korean. This was in direct correlation with the amount of racism I endured at the time. So I could understand Park, I could relate to him. But then I FOUND myself! I found my respect and love and pride for my culture. And I recognized just how important my Korean heritage was to me. Park never has that moment of self-discovery. And that is the greatest failure of this book. Because Rowell did not take the opportunity to really understand what it means to be multi-cultural. She wrote a character purely from a white person’s view, never thinking about how a minority person growing up in this country truly feels. The anguish of racism and the complexity of living between two different cultures was never explored. Instead, we are left to believe that Park goes through the rest of his life filled with contempt for his mother’s heritage. A person who wished he was white instead of Asian. And I find myself desperately wishing he’d been white too.
A really interesting post. Yes to so many things—to the China Doll description, to the pain of seeing Park hate part of himself, but especially to the part where Oh never forgives Eleanor for using/thinking in slurs. I think that’s a really authentic—and necessary—response. It’s real—just like Eleanor is for having those thoughts. Because, let’s face it, lots of people who we may or may not ever think of as racist have these moments where horrible, terrible, hateful ideas creep in. Because what we grow up with is often hard to shake off, even when we want to.
But I also think it’s ok to like Eleanor without ever forgiving her, because how many of us have people in our lives that we love, even though they say or believe hateful things? How many of the people we are or know have these deeply conflicting ideas about race and culture and what that all means? Life isn’t neat. Love isn’t neat. And sometime the people we love the most are also the people that we are most ashamed of.
But I do take exception, a bit, when she says Rowell wrote without thinking about how a minority person growing up truly feels… It is absolutely true that it wasn’t explored in any depth. E&P certainly isn’t a YA version of WOMAN WARRIOR or THE BONESETTER’S DAUGHTER or BONE. But I don’t necessarily think that YA writers need to show what teen characters will become, because I don’t believe that people stay they people they are at 15. I didn’t read Park and believe he continued on wishing he’d been white. I read him as a snapshot of a moment, and imagined that he could grow and change the same as any of us. I don’t think 35 year old Park would be just a larger version of 15 year old Park.
But seriously—a great and interesting post. These sorts of discussions are so vital, so important.
I actually believe that you can be a fan of problematic things and I do understand why people love this book. And as an adult, I can hope that Park grows out of his self-loathing. But this book is aimed at young people - teenagers. And I have to ask, what do they take away? Will they have the maturity to say “he’ll grow out of it” or will their take away be Park would rather be white?” Because that was my take away and that was why this book hurt. And I don’t think my criticism was about showing what Park’s character would become in the future. It was based solely on who he is in the book - a self-loathing boy who would rather be white. I could have accepted this if he had had even a moment of recognizing his cultural roots. (I had mine at 16, the same age Park is in the book.) But he didn’t, and as a mother of Korean American girls who are battling their own feelings of cultural confusion, it is unacceptable that she left it like that. If an author is not going to address what is a fundamental issue for POC kids growing up in this country, then the author should reconsider writing POC, because writing POC comes with a responsibility to get it right and be respectful.
i want to open a book store that is 24 hours and people can finally go out at like 2am and be like “i just finished the first book in the series i need the next one stat” or if people are just having a stressful night and want to be surrounded by books
My favorite part about this post is that someone understands that it’s calming to be surrounded by books
a book nightclub.
Someone make this happen pls.
The first half of this post is solved with a ereader…
I have no idea what a hot cross bun is, but they’re all over my dash. Someone explain this Springtime food to me.