It’s early in the morning in Vancouver, Wash., but Emiko Jean is speaking cheerfully via Zoom and sipping from a mug, wearing a cream-colored sweatshirt with the word love written on it in black. The message on the sweatshirt, she points out, is appropriate because her new book, Mika in Real Life (Morrow, Aug.), is about love—particularly the variety between mothers and daughters.
“I think this is a universal experience for most mothers,” says Jean, 40, who channeled her feelings about having her twins, who are now four and a half, into the book. “I was terrified of how much I loved these babies, and so how could I deal with that? How could I process it? I used the page. That’s really where Mika started—this desire to tell a story about mothers, but try to drill it down into universal experiences.”
When the book begins, 35-year-old Japanese American Mika is trying to figure out who she is. She’s been fired from another job she didn’t really care about, her relationship with her boyfriend has ended, and she’s living with her best friend while trying to relate to her traditional Japanese parents; it seems that in the eyes of her mom, Hiromi, she can never do anything right. Then Mika gets an unexpected call: Penny, the daughter she’d given up for adoption 16 years earlier, is on the phone and asks if the two of them can meet.
With that, Mika’s world is turned upside down, giving her new purpose and passion as she works to create a life worthy of the daughter she had to give up. But what happens when Penny and her dad, Thomas, find out who Mika really is? And what does Mika have to do for herself in order to truly move forward?
Mika in Real Life is Jean’s adult debut, but she’s also the author of several YA novels, including the bestselling Tokyo Ever After, which pubbed in 2021. Tokyo Ever After tells the story of Izumi, a Japanese-American high school student who learns that her father, with whom she believes her mom had a one-night stand in college, is the crown prince of Japan. It was a Reese’s YA Book Club pick, and PW’s review called it a “fun, frothy, and often heartfelt duology starter.” The sequel, Tokyo Dreaming, was released on May 31.
“When you look on the surface of my novels, they seem kind of disjointed, I know,” Jean says. Her debut, 2015’s We’ll Never Be Apart, is a YA mystery and psychological thriller featuring a white protagonist. Her sophomore novel, 2018’s Empress of All Seasons, is a YA fantasy in which Jean explores historical Japan. But the variety, she explains, was all part of a progression.
“I grew up in a mostly suburban white neighborhood, in Beaverton, which is right outside of Portland, and my mom was a reading specialist,” Jean recounts. “My dad was a principal. They were educators. They were readers.” She pauses. “I think, like all writers, before I was a writer I was a reader. That’s how we all start.”
Jean remembers going to the library to check out books, almost all of which were written by white authors. “I would read all of these books and love them so much,” she says. “But I don’t think I read or saw an Asian person until it was in a film, in Mulan, when I was like 16 or 17. That’s why, with my first novel, We’ll Never Be Apart, I wrote a white protagonist.” Then came We Need Diverse Books, which gave her the courage to delve into her Japanese heritage on the page. “I was kind of getting back to my roots, so to speak. I wanted to explore contemporary Japanese American identities, and that’s what launched Tokyo Ever After.”
Before the Tokyo books, Jean had a traumatic pregnancy and birth, and suffered from severe postpartum anxiety. Meanwhile, her career was at a crossroads. “After I had my kids, I wasn’t sure if I was going to keep writing or not,” she says, “because my last book, Empress of All Seasons, had come out, and it did okay but didn’t do great. And I had written another book that was passed on by the same publisher. I was like, well, that’s it for my writing career.”
Instead of giving up, she tried something new. “I think only my agent knows about this,” she says. “I self-published four or five romance novels.” The books were written under a pen name, Jean explains, and have since been removed from circulation. “I was going through this really dark period with kids and all my postpartum anxiety, so it was really great just to write something that was light and fun and cheery.”
Ultimately, Jean channeled the character of Mika through motherhood and her own life experience. “I think she’s modeled, in a lot of ways, after me,” Jean says. “I was kind of messy as a teen, in all the ways you can be messy. I went to an alternative high school. I underperformed in lots of ways, and now that I look back, I think about the model minority myth and how it tried to put me in a box. I really think my way of rebelling against it was going to the diametric opposite, and so Mika very much is like me in that way.”
Jean adds, “I’m very careful to qualify that Mika represents one version of the Japanese American experience. That’s one of the things that I run into with the publishing industry, because there are so few authors of color, and there are so few novels that feature characters of color, that there’s such a strong desire for that novel to represent all of the experiences of a group. It creates so much pressure for us, you know? It’s kind of exciting, though, because it really means that I get to write more.”
If Jean turned to self-publishing during something of a low point in her career, Mika in Real Life has already proven to be part of a movement in the opposite direction. When the novel was being shopped last year, it created quite a stir; it was at the center of a 10-house auction before being snapped up by Morrow.
Success aside, writing more is exactly what Jean wants to do, no matter the age group (she has another young adult novel in the works). “I’m looking for that analogy where you’ve bottled something up, and it’s kind of all exploding,” she says. “You go through this, you’re exhausted. You rest, but then it just starts filling back up again. There’s a new character. There’s something new to paint. There’s something new to explore, and so it’s the best. Isn’t it the best feeling? It’s the best feeling.”
In a way, maybe it’s a little bit like parenthood. “The same day I found out Tokyo Ever After was a New York Times bestseller, my daughter went poop on the toilet for the first time,” Jean remembers. “And I found each of those events very thrilling.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.