Patricia Park makes her YA debut with Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim, a contemporary novel about a teenager grappling with academic stress, family, grief, identity, and racism. High school senior Alejandra Kim is used to feeling like an outsider as a Korean Argentine American scholarship student at affluent Anne Austere Preparatory School in Queens. She dreams of attending a small, prestigious college, where Ale believes she’ll be able to leave behind her feelings of otherness and loss surrounding her father’s recent death. Microaggressions and unwanted attention complicate Ale’s plans as she navigates relationships with her family, friends, and peers. We spoke with Park about experiencing and capturing imposter syndrome, racism, and feelings of otherness.
Your previous book was targeted towards adults. What led you to write a YA book this time?
I’m so drawn to the freshness of voice and no-BS approach in YA. I teach in the MFA program at American University, and when I first started there, a lot of my students were interested in reading and writing YA. I found myself going deep into some of their recommendations and finding other voices. I found such an honest quality to the work that I hadn’t seen in a long time. And I was grappling with this character and the story of a family—the Kims, who are Korean Argentine—and figuring out ways to access their story. Alejandra’s voice came to me, and I realized that YA was the [category] in which she was best able to tell her story, to walk us through all that’s going on in her life from imposter syndrome to grief and so on.
What challenges or differences have you found in writing toward this new audience?
It’s getting the tone right in YA, and relaying the first-person present tense with immediacy and rawness and honesty to that experience. There’s a balance there. My first novel was told in first-person past tense, and there is some degree of retrospective narration. With Imposter Syndrome, things are unfolding in real time; they are happening hot and quick, and Ale is just trying to process. It was a really fun endeavor to have to experience things beat by beat, blow by blow along with the narrator. As a writer, I know what’s up. I know what happened before, I know what happens after. So I have to balance the immediacy of Ale’s voice with dramatic irony, where I as a writer know what’s happening, maybe the reader is able to process some of these events happening, but Ale is just in that moment. So that was a fun challenge and one of the things that YA can do really beautifully.
The quotidian kind of takes on its own life. So much depends upon small gestures. And I find that especially to be the case in YA, because you have these young characters who are navigating their way through their world and through the world. What do you make of these small moments that just seem off-the-cuff? Are they microaggressions? Are they this, are they that, and do they speak larger truth?
Ale navigates both classism and racism during an already uncertain and tumultuous time in her life. How did you build Ale’s characterization with these things in mind?
Ale, like I think most young people in the world, experiences a whole range of racism. We know what overt racism looks like; we know that story. But actually, there are so many shades. And I think right now, a question that a lot of non-BIPOC people are asking is “How can I be an ally? How can I amplify?” It’s so fraught. So I’m interested, as a novelist, in these subtle nuances. A microaggressive moment might read as no big deal to Alejandra, but to her white best friend, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is catastrophic. Action needs to be taken; things need to be done.” I’m interested in exploring all those gradations and not just the black and white of major experiences like racism and classism.
In your author’s note, you said you often felt out of place in your schools and that you related to aspects of Ale’s experiences. Did you build any of your experiences into Ale’s primarily white, affluent high school? What might be different about her experiences compared to yours?
I experienced imposter syndrome so hard at so many turns in my life. It’s a lifelong, career-long struggle. One moment that really stayed with me was when I left Queens and New York City to go to a small liberal arts college. I felt like I was an alien that arrived. I spoke so differently. I acted differently. I thought differently. I just felt like an imposter who didn’t even have a mastery of the English language, even though I went to become an English major. I dreamed of writing.
Growing up in an immigrant family in Queens, even though I was born and raised here, you’re taught to treat time and language differently. Time is money. So you don’t have time to faff about. Language becomes about communicating necessities. Growing up, I did not have a language in English or Korean or Spanish to really linger on my feelings and my philosophies on this and that. I think Alejandra and I share that imposter syndrome as we’re kind of trying to navigate our way through academic circles.
You also stated in your author’s note that many of those affected by imposter syndrome are female BIPOC. Can you speak more to that observation?
I see this in my classroom with my students, and I see it with younger members of my family. We are so grateful to be given our seat at the table, and I think we don’t feel that we deserve that seat. That certainly has been my experience. You feel like you’re the kid at the adult table or the imposter at the professionals’ table, and you’re kind of quaking in your boots the whole time, nervous, thinking you’re going to get found out for the imposter you are. Where does that come from? We’re told “these are traditionally not your spaces, so when and if you get here, you’d better prove that you can earn it and that you can keep it.” So I think part of my writing imposter syndrome and writing Ale’s story is so that girls like me, women like me, who feel that they don’t belong can find some solace in Ale’s journey.
In my first publishing job, my mom said, “Even if they tell you to clean the gum from the garbage cans, do it. Never complain; just do it.” I imagine it’s like, “Yeah, be grateful you got there even if you’re effacing yourself to get there.” These are messages that we’re being told, and I think we can add an even more complicated or complex layer to that. Anyone can have imposter syndrome, but we often say BIPOC women and young women have imposter syndrome. We could also examine that further. What does it mean that we keep saying to women “You have this syndrome”? I would love to question that, and, when we’re ready to next-level it, to move beyond that too. I think we can approach this question from many angles.
How does grief about her father’s death play a role in Ale’s feelings of otherness?
The character of Papi actually has a cameo in my first adult novel, Re Jane. He’s the stock boy. In that novel, the main character, Jane, who is Korean American, keeps thinking that his name is Hwan Kim—a Korean from Korea. And at the very end of the novel, she learns that he is Juan J-U-A-N, a Korean from Argentina, like how she is a Korean from America. So this book was scripted right from Alejandra’s beginnings. Papi suffered from a form of imposter syndrome, her mother as well. So these are characters that even their “kinsmen” think are one way and it turns out that they’re not. They’re part of the Queens or Patricia Park multiverse. These characters will have a cameo and then be part of the other, and they’re all part of this world.
With Papi’s death, Ale’s way of processing that grief is she just wants to get on with it. She wants to leave New York. She thinks going to her dream small liberal arts college in Maine is going to be her ticket out of thinking about his death and grieving what he meant to her. That’s tied to her identity in that she just wants to push it aside, not deal with it. It’s too complicated; it’s not scripted like so many other identities are. So I very much think her grief shows another aspect of Ale’s struggles with her identity.
How does Queens as a backdrop shape the characters’ experiences?
When I was growing up, Queens was always the scrappy underdog outer borough. We did not have much representation, certainly not politically, but in media and the literary landscape? Forget about it. Queens was “the Valley of Ashes” in the “Great American Novel” The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald—I say “Great American Novel” in quotes since that is being challenged. But my hometown is like a gas station pit stop for all the glamorous characters in Gatsby. And I feel like that is so indicative of the larger Queens identity. It’s like, “We will overlook your stories. We will literally drive through and pass through your place because it’s not worthy of a literary destination.” So what I try to do, in all my work, is refute that. I’m writing about these communities and Queens, these minorities within minorities who are overlooked, because I think that there’s a lot of rich stories here, even if they’re not worthy of champagne-laden parties.
How has your experience as a professor influenced your writing?
My pedagogy and my teaching very much influence my writing. As I mentioned, part of how I came to YA was as a response to my students. I thought, “What are they interested in? How am I going to help them become better writers? Who are the people there, who are the writers they’re engaging with?” So it started that way, but also, sometimes you get better at a thing once you’re tasked with explaining how to do that thing. In my classroom, we spend a lot of time talking, looking at scenes in stories, spending like an hour just looking at one scene, going line by line and figuring out the craft elements at work. How does the author build subtext? How is the dialogue constructed here? What are the beats in the scene? What’s the pulse? As I teach it, I become better at the craft, because I have to figure out the language with which to explain it.
What are you working on now?
I have a new YA coming out next year, fingers crossed. It’s called What’s Eating Jackie Oh? It’s about an aspiring teen chef who is navigating the anti-Asian climate in New York. And she may or may not have a cameo in this book—she does. It’s all part of that Park multiverse.
What do you hope readers will take away from your writing?
I want them to feel less lonely. I want them to have hope. I don’t think that a reader needs to be of the same cultural, ethnic, racial background of the characters they’re reading about. I’m hoping through the specific stories of Alejandra and Jane that I can speak to the universal. So anybody who feels lonely, who feels they don’t belong in this world or the other, who feels like they have a toe in each one but doesn’t quite have their place, I hope they can take some solace in the pages with any of my characters.
Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim by Patricia Park. Crown, $18.99 Feb. 21 ISBN 978-0-593-56337-3