Author Jessica Kim’s debut novel Stand Up, Yumi Chung is especially close to my heart. Yumi, the book’s young heroine wants to be a stand up comic, but her immigrant Korean parents want a different path for her. When Yumi ends up in a comedy camp as a result of mistaken identity, she grabs the opportunity with both hands.
I spoke to Jessica about why she wrote this story, writing about financial difficulties in middle-grade books, and her path as a teacher and writer.
Hi Jessica! As you know, I LOVED Stand Up, Yumi Chung. I’m so grateful I got a chance to read an early copy.
Yumi is a budding stand-up comic whose immigrant parents would rather have focus on her academics and pursue a conventional career. Why did you decide to write about this conflict of interests?
Thank you so much, Afoma for reading, I’m so glad that Yumi’s story resonated with you! I decided to write about the friction between Yumi and her parents because, at the time, I was struggling with my own complicated feelings about being a writer.
As a newish writer, part of me felt like it was a silly and risky endeavor to pour so much time, effort, and money into my dream of writing a book and the other part of me couldn’t help but dream anyway. It was like two parts of my heart were battling one another, one influenced by my Asian-immigrant upbringing, and the other influenced by the individualistic “can-do” attitude I developed growing up in America. That duality was fascinating to me and I wanted to explore it a little more through Yumi.
I see some parallels between Yumi’s life and yours — you both rocked a perm in middle school, have immigrant Korean parents, for example. But what are some differences between Yumi’s character and you?
Yumi and I struggle with the same kinds of fears, but our personalities are actually quite different. Unlike Yumi, I am not shy at all, in fact I skew more outgoing and chatty. I am probably a little more like Ginny than Yumi in that way.
Yumi’s time at the comedy camp are some of my favorite scenes. How did you come up with the jokes? I thought many of them were quite funny!
Thank you so much for saying that. The comedy scenes were easily the hardest scenes to write. Trust me when I say that I wrote many versions of the jokes you see published. I actually researched and studied joke structure and stand-up comedy to prepare for these scenes. Also, my editor is very funny and between the two of us, we found a few things that worked. Phew!
You’ve worked in education for a while. Why did you choose education and what’s your favorite thing about teaching?
I really loved being a teacher. There’s so many aspects about being in the classroom that were so incredibly rewarding. Being around young people who are still figuring out who they are and what they want to be is so inspiring. I also really liked the performance aspect of being a teacher. Trying to figure out ways to deliver academic content in an engaging and meaningful way was such a thrilling challenge. I really miss it but I’m looking forward to returning to schools soon, this time as an author on a school visit!I also really liked the performance aspect of being a teacher. Trying to figure out ways to deliver academic content in an engaging and meaningful way was such a thrilling challenge. – @jesskimwrites Click To Tweet
While Yumi’s story is central to your novel, Yuri’s trajectory really warmed my heart. I also loved the girls’ sisterhood. Do you have a sister? What inspired Yuri’s character?
I do, in fact I have two sisters. (Yes, I am a middle child) The character Yuri, was based, in part, on my older sister who is actually a doctor. (I have a lot of doctors in the family including my husband, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law) Like Yuri, my sister is very diligent and devoted to our family. In a lot of ways, she followed a more traditional route that many parents in my community encourage. I was more of a creative type and did things my own way. People didn’t always get it, but eventually I figured out my path and I wanted my readers to see that that’s okay, too.I was more of a creative type and did things my own way. People didn’t always get it, but eventually I figured out my path and I wanted my readers to see that that’s okay, too. Click To Tweet
You don’t shy away from the Chung’s restaurant issues and their financial struggles. I appreciate middle-grade authors who explore economic difficulty in their stories. One of my favorites is Jennifer Torres. Is there a reason why you were open to including these struggles in a fair amount of detail?
Financial strain was something that was very common for most families in my community. Most of my friends’ parents immigrated in the 1970s and had to start over when they came to the States. Since their previous skills weren’t usually transferable, most of them worked blue collar jobs. My father trained as a pharmacist at Seoul National University but came here to run a produce store. My mom worked at a dry cleaners and my father-in-law worked as a commercial painter. These circumstances were baked into our identities. While our parents weren’t able to live their dreams out completely, they reinvested those dreams back into their children. Which is so sacrificial and loving but also can be burdensome and limiting. It’s complicated. Which is why I had to write about it.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I’m usually hanging out with my kids. We are big Disneyland fans. I also like to hike, travel, take pictures of flowers, and keep up with my friends as much as I can. These days, I’m scheming to get tickets to the upcoming BTS tour. If you have any tips on how to best do this, please share.
Do you still teach or have a full-time job? What’s your typical writing routine?
No, I stopped teaching when my kids were young. These days, I’ve been getting my writing in during the school hours while my kids are away. I get the quiet house to myself and it’s the perfect time to write. When I’m on deadline I’ll write through the night and on weekends but usually I like to make time to live and write. It’s important to do that.
What’s next after YUMI CHUNG? I’m looking forward to whatever you write next.
Thank you so much! I’m working on another middle grade novel right now. I can’t say much about it yet, so stay tuned for more!
Thanks so much for your time, Jessica!
About Jessica Kim
Jessica Kim writes about Asian American girls finding their way in the world. Before she was an author, Jessica studied education at UC Berkeley and spent ten years teaching third, fourth, and fifth grades in public schools.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung is Out March 17, 2020