Disclosure: The writer of this post received a free book in exchange for writing a review.
What’s an Asian mom’s worst nightmare? Your kid wants to become a comedian.
Whether you are a mom, a former kid, or Asian, “Stand Up, Yumi Chung!” has a joke for you. In this middle grade novel, debut author Jessica Kim draws on her experience as an immigrant kid who wanted to be a creator to tell the story of Yumi, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of performing onstage as a comedian.
I first met Kim at Kweli, the Color of Children’s Literature Conference, in 2019. While there were several published authors at the conference whom I recognized, Kim was a new face in the world of children’s books authors. I am always interested in Asian American writers, so we chatted. Kim told me that her book would be out next year and I learned that she is also from California, and has lived in New York as well. The personal connection made me realize that authors are more accessible than I thought, and their books are also works in progress that take years to come to fruition. I left the conference with a mental list of authors to watch for in 2020, and Kim was one of them.
It was at Kweli that I also learned about Kokila, a children’s book imprint whose mission is “to center stories from the margins.” It’s a fitting home for Kim’s book, considering the protagonist literally takes the mic and finds her own voice.
Yumi can’t be her comedian self with her Korean American family, nor does she fit in as an Asian girl in the comedy world. This results in a lot of sneaking around, made-up identities, and mother-daughter misunderstandings.
I followed up with Kim after the conference and in our conversation she talks about tiger moms, Tiffany Haddish, and how ordinary experiences of growing up Asian American deserve celebrating too. After all, being 11 years old is no joke.
YS: What was your relationship with books growing up?
JK: When I was little, my mom was a working single mom. During summer vacation or spring break, we would be home alone. Going to the library was a huge part of my childhood. It was a great escape when there was nothing else to do.
As an adult, I go to the library all the time too. I’m a heavy user. I check out a book if I can get my hands on it. If I like it, I’ll buy a hard copy.
YS: What does your personal library look like?
JK: I have a lot of books by diverse authors. The most eye-catching thing about it is you’ll see last names from many backgrounds and a lot of YA and middle grade books. I stick closely with contemporary, so there’s not a lot of sci-fi or genre books. Heartwarming and humorous books are my favorite.
YS: What have you found most supportive on your journey as an author?
JK: People in my writer community have knowledge of the industry, like how you have to send many manuscripts when you query. My closest friends are Korean diaspora writers. They’re a network of people who understand the family dynamics. It’s been a huge strength to connect with other writers from my same background. It’s like a bridge between my two worlds.
YS: It’s so important to have support.
JK: Nobody understands the pain of querying. Other writers may not understand what it’s like to have your Korean mom be like, “Where’s your book?” It’s a long, long process. I didn’t realize how long it would be from beginning to end. Having people who are familiar with that world is such a huge asset for me. Having friends who understand the pain of revision, and dealing with issues of representation and telling your story and not having it be whitewashed. It’s nice to have that safe space to be my full self.
YS: Let’s talk about Yumi. What were some of your inspirations for writing this book?
JK: I wanted to write about second gen kids coming up against their culture. Originally it was a story about a girl going to culinary school instead of college in a YA iteration. I got a lot of comments from agents saying it read a little young. So I decided to do middle grade. I had to rethink that whole plot. The original manuscript was about a mistaken identity. I thought, “11-year-olds can’t cook, I can’t use culinary, what can I do?”
YS: How did comedy come in the picture?
JK: What’s the Asian mom’s worst nightmare? It’s comedy! There’s no prestige. I love women of color who are comedians. I went to Ali Wong’s show and she was killing it and dominating. I felt like I was on stage and she was representing me. As I was recontextualizing the theme I wanted to write about, I realized comedy was it. You can make the reader laugh. Comedy was initially a vehicle, then it took on a life of its own. I did research into comics’ craft, which I think is fascinating.
Comedy is incredibly healing. A lot of comedians go on stage, and it’s their own form of therapy. A lot of comedians describe it as something you can’t live without. Yumi, too, is making other people happy and making them laugh. She gets to have her little adventure.
YS: Which comedians did you draw on while writing the book?
JK: Yumi’s comedy teacher is based on Tiffany Haddish. In her autobiography/memoir, [Haddish] chronicles her childhood through the foster care system. She was illiterate and had to survive in high school. She used comedy to ward off the bullies and hide her academic challenges. She got by by crafting jokes.
I love the story she tells about having to repeat a grade. Her counselor told her she has to go to comedy camp or summer school. She spent a summer at Laugh Factory. She was able to overcome her obstacles. I thought that’s amazing, and Yumi needs someone like that in her life. It’s OK to change your mind and chase your dreams.
YS: Who are your personal favorite comedians?
JK: I have read a lot of memoirs by female comedians. I’ve read Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler. Comedy is such a boys’ club. The POC women who are doing this are amazing. It’s against them in so many ways, but the way they’re doing it and doing it well is so admirable.
YS: I love the premise of this book. When did you first develop ideas for this story?
JK: It’s very autobiographical. It tackled complicated feelings that children of immigrants have toward their parents. Parents who have poured so much sacrifice into you becoming a professional doctor or lawyer. This is very much based on my experience of wanting to be a writer, but being afraid of failing.
I grew up being shunted away from these creative fields. Now I’m parenting myself. I’m going about it, but not telling people about it. When I first started, I was taking classes and going to critique groups. I thought, “What if it takes five years? How hard will it be for people who don’t have connections in the industry?” I always feel like a failure when people ask “Where’s your book?” and there’s no book. All those feelings of trying to please people and fear of failure gave me a lot of raw emotions to share with my readers. Even though I’m a grown woman, it doesn’t end.
YS: It never ends. Does being a parent shape “Stand Up, Yumi Chung!” in any way?
JK: It totally does. At the same time that I’m Yumi, I’m also the mom. When I look at Yumi, she has immigrant parents, so that comes from my immigrant experience. But I have a lot of empathy for the mom too. She’s a lot more cynical because she’s seen more of the world than Yumi. She is protecting her and giving her the clearest path to success. Maybe if I was 11 and a lot more naive, I would think Yumi’s mom has no idea…but now I see that Yumi’s mom is aware of what her daughter wants to do, but also trying to be realistic about Yumi’s chances of being an Asian American kid and a comic.
Another thing about being a parent that I identify with is in the beginning where Yumi’s a little embarrassed of her mom. She wishes her mom was a little more like her white friends’ moms. On the sitcoms, the parents say “I love you,” I kiss you and I hug you. That’s how love is shown.
YS: That’s so true. But there isn’t just one love language.
JK: That’s not universal love, that’s the American language of love. There are a lot of languages of love, and that kind of love is no less. Yumi’s mom is staying up and cutting fruit while she’s studying. She knows what chapter she’s on and she sells her jewelry so Yumi can go to hagwon — that level of attention is a kind of love too. That’s a quintessential child of an immigrant journey. Our parents always loved us. That was a really important lesson from being a mom. It’s a different dialect of the same discussion. It widens Yumi’s world to see who her mom is and that part of her identity.
YS: The mom is such a great character. It’s her book as well as Yumi’s book.
JK: I rewrote the mom three or four times, from start to finish. As an Asian American writer, I wanted to go there with the representation. The only representation of Asian moms you see is tiger moms. That’s how I presented her in the beginning, but I didn’t like it. As an author, I’m cognizant that my readers may not have Asian moms in their lives, and this would be their first dip into that world.
YS: Tiger moms are the only representation of Asian moms you see in American media.
JK: Moms, too, are straddling two cultures and we unintentionally accept the bias we have against the tiger mom character. I didn’t want to play into that stereotype. She’s also a dreamer who has an eye for design. You think you know the mom, then you get to know the real mom. You become sympathetic to her by the end. We are people too. Just because we want our kids to excel doesn’t mean we are unloving.
YS: How do you feel about the book getting out in the world?
JK: It’s like giving birth. You can’t wait because you’ve been waiting so long and you just want to see their face, but it’s also terrifying. I hope I didn’t put anything wrong. It’s a little scary to know it’s unchangeable. I mostly had adult reviewers so far so I’m excited to see it in kids’ hands.
YS: Will there be a sequel for Yumi?
JK: I’m really happy with how Yumi’s story ended, so I’m sending her on her way. I am writing another book that’s also humor and contemporary. I’ll be exploring topics and it’ll be something written from a similar POV.
YS: What I love about kidlit today is it invites readers to tell their own story. What would you say Yumi is inviting us to do?
JK: By the end, you learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. That’s the one thing that really held her back. She’s really a funny and cool girl, but there’s a lot of fear. She embraced who she is and is being herself. Make mistakes — that’s something all kids can relate to. This online culture with likes, favorites, followers — everything’s so quantitative and it’s a hard place to be 11. It’s a very stifling atmosphere for kids who are struggling. It’s easy to be boxed in. Really, we’re not just one thing but 18 million things. Yumi would want kids to just be you and that’s OK.