A Step from Heaven (Front Street), An Na's absorbing first novel, chronicles Korean-born Young Ju's life from the age of four, when she emigrated with her parents to California, through her teenage years. The heroine of this book is torn between her new life as a student in an American school and the daughter of parents who insist she speak Korean at home and adhere to many of her homeland's traditions. As a result, Young is thrown into a tumultuous acculturation process that the author describes in poignant—and entirely credible—detail.
And for good reason. An (according to tradition, the surname precedes the first name when it appears in print), too, was born in Korea and moved to California at the age of four. This fact sets up the logical first question: to what extent is the novel autobiographical? "It is—and it isn't," responds the amiable, unassuming An, who explains that "there are definitely vignettes in the novel that were triggered by my childhood memories, but there are differences between Young's life and my own. The dynamics of her family were not the same as those of my own, yet I, too, felt that I couldn't be fully American given the expectations of my family, which was definitely a traditional Korean family. I drew upon that same experience of the duality of two cultures and the pull of trying to be a good daughter while absorbing the American ways I was learning at school."
The characters in An's novel are more extreme than in her own life, she reports, a fact that her father found gratifying. In the novel, Young's father is a controlling man who becomes increasingly disillusioned, dependent on alcohol and physically and emotionally abusive to his children and wife. "I was initially afraid to show my father this book, because I knew that he would ask, 'Is this how you perceive me?' " the author recalls. "But I didn't have to worry, because he got it exactly. He knew that my story was fictionalized, yet he said that he could see where it all came from. And my mother loved it. She is so proud of me that it is amazing. She can't stop toting the book to all my old schools."
An's schooling plays a major role in her new role as author, which was hardly a long-held dream. "Being a writer was never even in my scope," notes the 1994 graduate of Amherst College. "Coming from an immigrant family, I knew it was expected that I would become a professional—a doctor, a lawyer or perhaps an academician. I had always been a voracious reader, but it wasn't until my last semester in college, when I took a course in children's literature, that I realized I wanted to create my own stories."
Her next step was enrolling in the M.F.A. program in children's literature at Vermont College, during which she began writing short pieces that were the stepping-stones to A Step from Heaven. "I started with one single impression from my childhood—the memory of my mother taking me to have my hair curled shortly after we arrived in California, since she realized that this was what most Americans looked like," says An. "And the story just took off from there as I added vignettes from my memory and was encouraged by people's positive response to what I was writing."
One of An's appreciative readers was author/illustrator Brock Cole, an instructor at the college, who wrote the soon-to-graduate student a note saying he would be happy to send her manuscript to his editor Stephen Roxburgh, publisher of Front Street, when she was ready to take this step. She eventually was, Cole did and Roxburgh called An within days, expressing interest in the novel. The author praises Roxburgh for helping her find a focus for her story and helping it "take its final shape."
Now writing full-time, the Oakland-based An is working on a new novel that she describes as "a Romeo and Juliet—type love story that centers on a Latino and an Asian character." One of the greatest rewards of being a published author, she reports, is meeting her readers face-to-face. "I just made my first school visit," she says, "and it was an incredible experience. I went into the classroom of a friend who teaches sixth grade, and the kids had all read my novel. And it was amazing how much of it they actually got—and what great questions they asked. And then they came up to me with scraps of paper torn from their notebooks, asking for my autograph. Some of them even wanted me to sign their baseball hats! It was my 15 minutes of stardom."