FS: An experience you highlight from your time in school was reading Farewell to Manzanar—the only book you’d read featuring an Asian American girl, and it was in the context of a Japanese American internment camp. Why was that experience important to you?
NC: The library was my haven at my small white parochial school—I would have gone there during every recess if I’d been allowed. Pretty much all of the protagonists in the books I read and loved were white, just like everyone I saw in my daily life. I could relate to these beloved characters for other reasons, but I could never quite see myself having the sort of adventures they did, or being important in the way they were. I think the subliminal message I got, even from books I adored, was that a girl like me—a Korean girl—couldn’t be a heroine; couldn’t be at the center of a story; couldn’t be a writer.
Then I pulled Farewell to Manzanar off the shelf one day and read it on my own. I’d never read anything about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II before, and if I hadn’t read that book I wouldn’t have learned anything else about it until we got to the one paragraph about it in my AP U.S. History textbook. It was eye opening, albeit in a strange and terrible way, to read about such blatant racism and prejudice and understand that these things were very real. That sounds so obvious, but no one I knew ever talked about racism, and the few times it was mentioned—say, in school—it was depicted as something rare, something that certainly didn’t happen to kids like me.
While I’d obviously experienced nothing like what Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston experienced, by the age of nine, I’d experienced plenty of racism at school; I had been called slurs and mocked over both my heritage and my adoption. So I knew that some people didn’t like me because I was Asian, but I didn’t know where that race-based suspicion and animus came from. I think Farewell to Manzanar played a small but crucial role in my childhood consideration of what racism was and the different and violent forms it could take at a time when no one else in my life was ready to have that conversation with me.
I was glad to know that a Japanese American woman had written this book—any books—because I loved writing so much. From then on, I tried to keep my eye out for the (very few) children’s books I could find by Asian American authors, whether nonfiction or fiction. I really wanted to believe it was possible for me to write books one day, too.
FS: You write about the parallel experience of having a loving family that was there for you as well as one that lacked understanding of the role race played in your daily life, provoking you to feel that you had to explain your experience to your white family. What caused you to move from silence to increased engagement?
NC: It was just a choice I felt I had to make. And it didn’t happen all at once. I think it grew out of my attempts to explain to them what growing up in a white family and a very white community was like for me, how that related to my decision to search for my Korean birth family, why I reached adulthood still being unsure of who I was as a Korean American adoptee. We never fully aligned on all of this—for one thing, there was so much distance between us politically, and in terms of lived experience in this country. I didn’t necessarily think I would ever fully convince them, or get them to really see what my experience was and is as an adopted Asian American woman in this country. But at a certain point, I felt as though our relationship demanded my honesty, even if we never landed on the same page. I came to see that honesty as a sign of my respect and love: I didn’t want to feel like I had to hide these important things from them any longer, or pretend they didn’t matter.
My parents loved me and I loved them, and so our relationship—and our communication about these hard topics—needed to be real and honest, even if there was a part of my life they could never fully see or grasp. I still wanted them to try, and I tried my best to understand them, too, although there was so much we didn’t agree on. Some people wouldn’t find the effort itself to be good enough, and I get that. But for me, that effort we all made was the most important part—it mattered to me that they did sometimes listen, and reconsider, and try to understand, even when full understanding proved elusive.