In Maurene Goo’s Throwback (Zando Young Readers), protagonist Samantha Kang, a Gen Z Korean American teen butting heads with her mother, Priscilla, finds herself barreling through time back to the 1990s, where she meets her mother as a 17-year-old cheerleader and aspiring homecoming queen. As Sam tries to get back to the right era, she’s surprised to learn that she has more in common with teenage Priscilla than she ever thought possible.
Goo chatted with PW about fraught mother-daughter relationships and the immigrant experience; the thrill of writing a time travel story; and what it was like to revisit the '90s.
Can you share a few sources of inspiration for Throwback?
The most obvious source of inspiration was the movie Back to the Future. I watched it about a billion times as a kid and it really informed my love of all things time travel. But I was also inspired by a lot of the teen books I read growing up—the ones that were full of magical twists, hijinks, and family dramas (a couple that come to mind: The Great Mom Swap by Betsy Haynes and Locked in Time by Lois Duncan). And then, of course, getting into the Asian American immigrant experience and mother-daughter dynamics, I have to give credit to the queen, Amy Tan, for The Joy Luck Club. A more contemporary influence while I was actively writing was Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, whose words grace my epigraph. She was able to brilliantly untangle my complicated feelings about being Asian American, being a child of immigrants, and what it all means for the future.
As you were writing, how did you go about getting into a 1990s state of mind?
I immediately made a '90s playlist. And wow, nothing takes you back like the Gin Blossoms. I also perused old Delia;s catalogs I found online, and it instantly channeled all my teen feelings of yearning—of wanting to be those girls, of wanting that life. And a rewatch of a lot of '90s teen movies were in order of course, like forever favorites Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You.
Throwback so effectively explores generational tensions between a mother and daughter—specifically, a first-generation Korean American mom and a daughter finding her own way in the world. Can you talk about creating this dynamic between the lead characters?
This was definitely new territory for me as my previous books usually dealt with the main characters being first gen with immigrant parents. But time has crept up on me during my YA career, and I realized that a Gen Z Korean American teen today would have a different dynamic with her mother. I’m a little younger than Priscilla, but I watched my older cousins go through a very different high school experience than me—one with more pressures to assimilate into white America. Given all these factors, I ended up with Sam and Priscilla and their core conflict. But I also think mother-daughter issues are quite universal, spanning generations and cultures, and Throwback appeals to that as well.
What do Sam and Priscilla ultimately learn about each other? In what ways do you hope the story will resonate with readers?
Sam and Priscilla ultimately learn to listen to each other—to try and understand someone different from them. It’s so simple yet feels impossible within families. Because we create dynamics so early on, with really entrenched perceptions of the people we are so close to, that it’s hard to step outside of that and see clearly. It’s only with time travel that Sam and Priscilla can be free of that dynamic and really get to know each other as people. I hope that the story feels a little healing for anyone who has had fraught relationships with their parents. But I didn’t write Throwback to teach lessons—I wrote it to lovingly illuminate and explore the minefield of emotions surrounding mother-daughter relationships.
The 1990s weren’t all that long ago, yet so much has changed. What has remained the same for teenagers of that generation and teens coming of age today?
Always, always—the feelings. Most YA authors, myself included, come to a moment in their careers where they wonder if they can still write about teens. On the surface, their lives are so different from our former teen lives. But the heart of a teen? That hasn’t changed. When I was growing up, I read books that were probably “dated,” but the time period, the slang, the fashion—that was all set dressing for the emotional journey of the characters. And those will always resonate, in my opinion.
What surprised you the most as you were writing Sam and Priscilla’s story?
I was surprised by how much I was on Sam’s side, at how much I related to her rather than Priscilla who I am much, much closer to in age. I’m going to attribute this to be me being a YA author—my head and heart is always living with teens.
It can be so easy to lose perspective on even fairly recent history. What can we learn from looking back?
I think it’s easy to look at the world today and feel a lot of despair—that this is the worst time in history. That humans have never been so doomed. But when you look back, no one ever felt like they were living in “peaceful times.” It’s all relative. But I find hope in that. We all meet the moment we’re living in, for better or for worse.