Kelly Yang arrived on the scene in spring 2018 with her bestselling middle-grade debut Front Desk, which earned the 2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature, among others. Her sophomore novel Parachutes dives into young adult territory, exploring the multiplicity of diasporic identity, the insidiousness of rape culture, and the structural inequalities that govern contemporary society. Sheltering in place with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yang spoke with PW about exploring central themes across middle grade and YA, the impact of personal experience on her writing, and what it means to be an Asian American creator in the time of Covid-19.
What made you decide to make the leap from middle grade to YA for your second novel?
I wanted to write Parachutes to explore the modern-day immigrant experience, specifically centering on young people immigrating without their parents. These kids are still dealing with hardships and discrimination, but in different ways. I wanted to write about identity, privilege, power, wealth, and family dynamics. I think both books are authentic and explore these themes in their own way, so in that sense, I don’t know that it was that big of a leap.
My understanding is that Front Desk and Parachutes are both quite personal stories for you. Can you talk about that? Which of your characters do you identify with most and why?
Yes, elements of Front Desk are inspired by my childhood, while Parachutes mirrors my own experience with sexual assault in school. While I was in law school, I found myself dealing with the aftermath of this traumatic incident while fighting for justice in a school that just wanted to protect its brand. The next few years were incredibly draining, and trying to navigate that as a first-generation immigrant, as a woman of color—it made me realize that so many people in even the highest institutions are complicit.
I was a scholarship student and experienced poverty much like Dani, trying to claw my way into these Ivy League, ivory tower schools while wondering, “How much can you speak up about things?” All that is very much part of my personal experience; I also identify with Claire because of her experiences with sexual assault.
What would you consider the central themes of your work?
I’d say exploring identity, female empowerment, and struggling to find your voice and be heard. And then asking, “What happens when people deem your voice to be too loud? What does it mean to be penalized for speaking out?” My work also centers family and friendship; I’m interested in exploring what it means to be a good friend, and I enjoy writing characters who find how much we have in common as women—the amazing extent to which we can band together and speak out.
You went to college at 13, majoring in political science, and went to law school at 17. How would you say these experiences shaped your career?
One of my first editors said that really great children’s book authors usually had something big happen to them when they were teens that they can then tap into for the rest of their lives. Going to college so early was probably my “something big.” It was equal parts exhilarating and traumatizing. All that drama, angst, those memories—they resonate, even years later. These experiences allow me to connect to that time in my life when I write. To be 13–17 and in higher education—it probably put me on a different trajectory than my peers—for better or worse!
Your recent essay in Elle addresses racism in the time of the coronavirus. What do you hope readers will take from Parachutes, considering the present moment?
I hope people read Parachutes and notice how the characters are constantly dealing with microaggressions and “casual” racism throughout—I want them to realize there’s no such thing as casual racism. It’s all just racism. I really want people to read and to step into the shoes of the characters, to consider what “casually” happens to Dani and Claire, and think about why and how these things happen. I also hope this time leads to a lot of people reading lots of books by Asian American creators and other authors of color.
Your debut novel Front Desk was a bestseller, earned several awards, and made a number of Best Book of the Year lists, including PW’s. What was your reaction to its success? Why did you decide to write a sequel [Three Keys, due out in September]?
I was very shocked and surprised! Everyone at Scholastic was probably surprised; Front Desk was an emotional, sweet story acquired for not a lot of money, and I didn’t expect it to resonate with so many people.
I always wanted to write a sequel. I wanted to write a full immigrant story—from putting food on the table to navigating visa issues and feeling like an outsider—exploring the more nuanced aspects of being an immigrant. I knew I wasn’t actually finished. The sequel was actually originally scheduled for fall 2019, but I asked to push it back because I wanted it to be the best book it could be. It was really inspiring to hear from fans, and I wanted to make sure it was worthy of them.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Keep writing! Don’t give up! I rewrote Front Desk many times, with different genres and protagonists—at one point, I even wrote an entire manuscript from the dad’s point of view! It took many, many drafts to get it right, and it was important to be able to explore those ideas until it reached the current iteration. It’s crucial to have that faith and keep it—and it’s hard, you know, you might have kids, a job, etc.—but if you keep working toward that dream, you will eventually unlock it. I finally found the voice of 10-year-old Mia Tang, and everything fell into place. For Parachutes, what happened to me wasn’t something that I wanted to talk about for a long time—I wasn’t brave enough yet, and that’s okay. It takes time; be patient.
For Asian American creators specifically, it’s a really interesting time for us. Now more than ever, the world needs our stories. My advice to young Asian American creators is you don’t need to conform, or write about the white girl. You don’t need to write about the people and the neighborhoods you know to be successful. I think when I was in my 20s, I wanted to write about, you know, the pretty white girl—but it wasn’t authentic, and it wasn’t compelling. Don’t be afraid of who you are.
How are you filling your time in self-isolation? How has it affected your writing routine?
I have yet to find a writer who can successfully balance writing with self-isolation! I have three kids, and sheltering in place with them has been quite an adjustment for everyone. I’ve been trying to steal writing time by locking myself in the closet, or writing in the car in the garage—it’s so hard! During this time, I think we need to give ourselves permission to just be.
I’ve probably been producing about half as much as usual and doing a lot of outlining and plotting. There are definitely ebbs and flows. We just need to be patient. It’s fine to write every other day or so; this is not the year for anyone to be prolific.
What’s one question you’ve always wanted to be asked—and the answer?
Hmm…. I guess I would say, “How do you use what’s happening in your own life and put it on the page?” Writing is therapeutic and allows me to process. I journaled a lot growing up, and I was a columnist for 10 years. I don’t worry about writing exactly what happened—I try more to capture the intense emotions. If I can capture the essence of the emotions, instead of the exact plot, then I think I’ve succeeded.
What’s up next for you after Three Keys comes out? Do you plan on branching out to writing for other age groups?
I have more middle grade and YA projects coming out in 2021 and 2022! I don’t think I’ll branch out anytime soon. Picture books are amazing, but they’re so challenging to write—I have an inability to keep it simple. No, I’ll be happy writing middle grade and YA for a long time.
Parachutes by Kelly Yang. HarperCollins/Tegen, $18.99 May 26 ISBN 978-0-06-294108-4