When Marie Myung-Ok Lee starting writing a young adult novel about her experiences growing up Korean-American in a blindingly white town in Minnesota, she was only a few years removed from that setting. “Finding My Voice,” published in 1992, was widely regarded as the first YA book about being an Asian-American by an Asian-American writer.
The book fell out of print in the late 1990s, a casualty of publishing industry consolidation and bad luck. But it’s gained a new life this winter, reissued by a new publisher. “As a writer it was so unexpected,” said Lee. As a reader, when she revisited the book, she found that it didn’t feel as outdated as she worried it might be.
“In many ways, no matter how old we get, life is still just high school,” Lee said. “The insecurities people have, the different tables we sit at.”
All first novels are somewhat autobiographical, she pointed out. But this one in particular was. The life of Ellen Sung, a high school senior in fictional Arkin, Minn., closely mirrors Lee’s own youth in Hibbing, Minn., where they were the only family of color. “It’s still very hermetically sealed,” Lee said.
Lee’s parents were immigrants originally from North Korea; their reaction to the trauma and racism they endured was to attempt to be “as American as possible,” Lee said. “I would get beat up by kids calling me [an anti-Chinese racial slur], and my parents would say, ‘tell them you’re an American!’”
Growing up, Lee loved the books of Judy Blume and related to the violence in “The Outsiders.” But she didn’t see families like her own reflected in children’s books. Young adult fiction has expanded wildly since she was first writing, not to mention reading, but, she said, “I hope there will be a new generation of readers who will be interested in it. I really hope the bullies will read it!”
Lee will read 7 p.m. Thursday, December 3 at www.belmontbooks.com
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.