SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
David Yoon's debut novel has set off commotion, excitement and a movie option. It's "Frankly In Love," in which we meet Frank Li, a high school senior and self-described nerd who, with his best friend Q, plays video games, watches obscure movies, gets high SAT scores, doesn't talk about girls - except, of course, when they do, which is a lot.
Frank's parents are Korean. He doesn't like the hyphen before his own American. He develops what I'll call age-appropriate feelings for a Brit, a girl in his calculus class. But his parents say Frank should only get crushes and go out with Korean girls. What's Frank to do?
David Yoon joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
DAVID YOON: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: And how much is this story drawn from your own life?
YOON: The inspiration came from when I had - when I became a parent myself. I don't know about you, but when I had my daughter, all these random memories of my own childhood came kind of flooding back.
YOON: And one of them was when I was in high school, my parents were pretty set on having me only date Korean girls. And so as a result, I would wind up hiding my entire love life from them, which in hindsight, it's kind of a strange thing to do, is hide something so important from people who are so important in your life.
SIMON: Yeah. Frank's parents own and run a store. They're in Southern California. They work hard and love him, but (laughter) they're tough on him, aren't they?
YOON: They are. And they come from that very classic immigrant mentality, where they do all the dirty work so that their kids should never have to. And part of that deal is the kid's job is to hunker down and study and kind of not mess around too much. They also have ideas about maintaining sort of this concept of Korea that they brought to America. And that burden falls on Frank's shoulders.
SIMON: Yeah. His sister has been cast out of the family, essentially, hasn't she? Goes to Harvard, but gets cast out of the family.
YOON: Right, yeah, yeah. And his sister is sort of a cautionary tale for Frank because on paper, she did everything right. You know, she studied. She got into the best school.
SIMON: Winds up as a venture capitalist, I believe.
YOON: Venture capitalist, yeah. So she's in an extremely well-paying professional job. She ticks all the boxes, except she marries a black man. And for that reason alone, she is disowned by the family.
SIMON: If white parents did that, we would have no compunction about calling them racist.
YOON: That's very true, yes. And it's very easy to call Frank's parents racist. And one of my missions in writing this book was to really write from a point of view of acceptance and understanding because it would have been very easy for Frank to be the angry teenager who just kind of shakes his fist at the sky and says my parents are racists.
But if you really look at your parents - Frank really looks as his parents as human beings instead of capital-M Mom and capital-D Dad. Then he'll see that they're people who came from a very ethnically homogenous country with extremely ethnically rooted ideas of identity. And they come to this country, America. And we're all about diversity and multiculturalism, or at least we're trying our darndest. And for them, you know, what was that culture shock like? And how did they navigate this upside-down concept for them that anyone from anywhere could come here and become American because there's no such notion in Korea.
SIMON: Without giving away too much, Frank has a childhood friend, Joy, who's in a situation similar to his. So they kind of hatch a plan, don't they?
YOON: They do, yeah. It's OK. You're not really spoiling anything because the fake dating troupe, it's a time-honored tradition in rom-coms. And so essentially, you know, Frank's got - he's got these parents. And his friend Joy has her parents, who are also kind of very traditional. And so they team up to fake date each other so that they can see whoever they want behind their parents' backs. What could possibly go wrong, right?
SIMON: I can't imagine. Oh, wait...
YOON: I know (laughter).
SIMON: ...I've read the book. A number of scenes in this book show, even in polyglot Southern California, just because of the way he looks, Frank is often expected to be some kind of ambassador of Korean culture.
YOON: Yeah. There's one scene in particular where Frank is with his white girlfriend's parents, and he's taking them out to - or they just sort of find themselves at a Korean restaurant. So as you'd expect, they start peppering him with all these questions like what is this, what am I eating, what is this made out of. And Frank feels this intense pressure to be the expert, to be the Korean food tour guide.
And one thing that I learned as I was writing this scene was that Frank - at some point, he runs out of answers. And so he's forced to say the words I don't know. And I myself have a hard time saying I don't know when I'm confronted with this expectation of myself to be somewhat of a Korean expert, you know? And I love those words, I don't know. They say to me and they say to Frank you know what? You don't have to be an expert in everything Korean.
And it never really occurred to me until I wrote this book that I had to call - I've been calling myself Korean American my whole life. Why don't we call it the other way around? Why don't we say an American of Korean descent? There's always this qualification that I am Korean first and American second. Whereas, you know, the white majority in this country, they don't have to deal with that kind of thing. They just call themselves Americans.
SIMON: Recognizing that you have a whole other career as an artist - in fact, you're an illustrator of your wife's great books - my God, such success with your first YA novel. You're going to continue down this path?
YOON: Oh, my gosh, it's been an absolute dream come true. I was there, I mean, of course, every step of the way for my wife's success, too. And the community in YA is - it's just so supportive. And I like to say they keep the flame. They hold the light. They keep hope alive. And they're very relentlessly positive, relentlessly understanding kind of empathetic group of people. So I'm really happy to join their ranks. And yeah, I'm actually going to continue down this path. I have some other things in the work, but I am a proud YA author for sure.
SIMON: David Yoon, his novel, "Frankly In Love." Thank you so much for being with us.
YOON: Thank you so much for having me.
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