Ellen Oh’s latest book, Finding Junie Kim, features a Korean American girl who is inspired by her grandparents’ stories of growing up during the Korean War to confront racist bullying at school. In addition to authoring six previous YA and middle grade books, Oh has contributed to short story collections, edited multiple anthologies, and is the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. Oh spoke with PW about her research process, the multi-generational Korean American experience, and her upcoming work.
In the author’s note you share that much of your inspiration for this story came from your parents’ experiences as children during the Korean War. What was the subsequent research process like for you?
I went to Korea and it was actually the first time I’d been there since I was little. It was an amazing experience for me—I went to the war museum and talked to so many people. One of my big regrets was that I didn’t get to record my father’s stories before he passed away. I knew parts of it but didn’t know the whole story and realized I was going to have a very hard time re-creating that experience. One of my close, dear friends lives in Korea and her uncle was a child of the war. So, my friend’s uncle sat down with me and started talking about his experience as a boy, and his stories became Doha’s stories. What I truly enjoyed about that experience was that I was able to ask him all of those little details about how Korea had changed. My parents had moved from Korea when they were in their late 20s, but he had seen the change, the huge industrial change, that had taken over Korea from the war to now. So having that perspective was an invaluable part of my research. I was able to think about how all of those parts were embedded into the story of Korea. There’s so much that went on. It’s not just about dividing countries, it’s about dividing families, turning people against one another because of ideology. It’s about years of systemic abuse and corruption and yet the resilience of the Korean people. In a lot of ways, I think this book is also my ode to Korea—a “this is how much I respect my motherland” kind of story.
While generational trauma certainly exists in your book, it also illustrates the power of generational resilience. How did you intertwine these two ideas, and why is the latter so important for you to portray?
Thank you so much for picking up on that. I think the important thing to remember about Koreans in general is how strong they are. They’re survivors. They have survived centuries of invasions and so many different dynasties and countries that just wanted to take over this beautiful land. And they survived and just became stronger. And that is maybe because of the strength of our culture and our ties to one another, family bonds. I don’t know what exactly the reason is, but I see Koreans especially as survivors. I see them as strong people who have suffered so much but aren’t defined by the trauma they’ve suffered. They are more than the trauma of their country.
To me, I look at our grandparents and great-grandparents who have survived so much and yet they are the backbones of our families. They tell the stories. We have joyous ceremonies and celebrations that are all about family and love and the sharing of food and stories. That is what my experience of being Korean is. It isn’t sitting around talking about how everything in life has been terrible. In fact, they don’t even talk about their trauma; you have to dig deep to get those stories from them. My experience of talking with elders is that yeah, they had trauma, but they tell it with stories of joy. Like hearing my mom tell this terrible story about being lost during the Korean War and then focusing on how they survived and had this joyous reunion with their parents. It wasn’t a story about being lost, it was a story about finding their parents. I think that’s what I wanted to really focus on—no matter how bad things are, there’s the ability to overcome trauma. And I really hope that comes through, because that to me is who we are as a people.
You wrote this before the Stop Asian Hate movement and the greater national reckoning with recent anti-Asian racism. Have your views about the book and its place in the world changed since the time of writing?
No, because the reality is that anti-Asian sentiment has been around for such a long time. It was with me from the moment I could recognize racism was a thing. The first time I came face to face with racism was in the first grade. I recognized that this was something painful and hurtful [people] were saying simply because I looked different to them. From that moment on I could never not recognize it. Once you know what it is, you realize how constant it is. I was talking to a friend of mine about how if I look back at my entire timeline it would be covered with the number of times someone said to me, “Why don’t you go back to where you really belong, why don’t you go back to your country?” Those phrases were possibly the most frequent things said to me. That is the constant othering that many Asian Americans have had to deal with their entire lives.
So, does my book mean something different now? Absolutely not. This has existed since we’ve been here. Putting a name on it and having a hashtag movement is new but the hate and violence is not. I wrote a book that was of importance to me regardless of when it would have been published. It’s because we focus on issues like bullying, trauma, and the trauma of racism that this book seems to be timely. But that wasn’t the reason at all.
What’s in the works for you?
I am working on a great project about being Asian American that I can’t talk about yet; it’s still kind of secret. It’s another project that predates the Stop Asian Hate Movement. I’m working on it with a group of wonderful, talented Asian American writers. I can’t wait to announce it. I think it’s going to be a really important project.
I also have a YA that I’m working on now about a webcomic artist who is pulled into her webcomic world and realizes that her characters aren’t actually doing what she wrote them to do. I have my third Spirit Hunters book coming out too, and I’m really happy about being able to go back. I’m excited to work with Harper and Dayo and their continuing experiences with the supernatural.
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh. HarperCollins, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-298798-4