David Yoon was at jury duty during the heated 10-way auction for his debut YA novel, Frankly in Love, about a Korean American teen who falls for a white girl and fake-dates a Korean American classmate to appease their respective strict parents. “My phone was blowing up, and I had to pretend to go to the bathroom,” he tells me over FaceTime. It was a day of mixed emotions: jury duty, then not getting called to duty; the auction and subsequent sale to Putnam; and a devastating call from his mother as he was leaving the courthouse and learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
Frankly in Love follows similar highs and lows: the light rom-com premise, but with serious and dramatic implications not just for the eponymous protagonist, Frank Li, but all those involved. When I ask about the origins of the novel, Yoon, who grew up in Orange County, California, shares that his Korean immigrant parents had strict rules about dating: “I had to hide my entire love life from my parents.” He was expected to bring home a Korean girl.
Yoon did no such thing. Like Frank, he believes you can’t choose who you fall in love with, that it’s “like getting pulled by gravity.” In 1997, while pursuing an MFA at Emerson College, he met his wife, Nicola Yoon. Nicola, who is of Jamaican descent, would become the bestselling author of the YA novels The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, for which David would do the illustrations. In their first workshop together—where, he confesses, he was trying his best to channel his inner Murakami—he admired her work and “felt like I had to step up my writing.” They remain each other’s first readers.
Was his family accepting of their union? Yoon says, “It had its really rough years. It was bad for a long time.” But eventually his parents came round, and they grew even closer as a family after the birth of his daughter. “It does have a happy ending.”
In a poignant scene in Frankly, Frank goes to a restaurant with his white girlfriend, Brit Means, and her parents. He’s suddenly foisted into the role of “Korean Food Tour Guide,” being asked to order for the table and explain each and every “foreign” dish that arrives.
Though uncomfortable, Frank grins and bears it “because I’m still expected to be the Korean expert, whether I know anything or not. In other words, I’m still expected to be Korean first, then plain old generic American second. That damn hyphen in Korean-American just won’t go away.”
The scene captures the nuances of racial and cultural expectations as well as microaggressions from even those with the best intentions. Being forced to play food tour guide, or any other cultural guide, is not uniquely a Korean American thing; it’s something many of us hyphenated Americans experience. Yoon agrees.
“The core of being an immigrant kid, especially one who doesn’t present as white, is that you’re the one who’s always listening and adapting and paying careful attention to context and code-switching when necessary. When you’re in the white majority, you have the privilege of saying, ‘What is all this? Educate me.’ It’s not a good or bad thing. It’s simply a minority/majority thing.”
In the novel, Brit comes to Frank’s defense. She calls her father out for being a quarter French but not “knowing every last detail about what goes into making a good chèvre,” and, chastened, he takes the point in stride.
It’s the kind of (teachable?) moment that will spark many conversations for readers. And perhaps viewers—Alloy Entertainment and Paramount Players, who acquired the film rights last fall, are developing Frankly in Lovefor a feature. (Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everythingwas an MGM and Alloy feature film released last year.) For Yoon, his “newfound” success—the auction, the movie deal, the rights sold in 14 territories and counting—is “a total dream come true.” But mostly he tries to keep a healthy perspective about it all, an experience he learned after that fateful day at the courthouse. “I’ve been plugging away writing for years,” he says. (Two decades, in fact.) “It’s so amazing. I try to pretend it’s not happening. It was the right place, right time, right subject material.”
Patricia Park, author of the novel Re Jane, is a professor in the MFA Program at American University and writes for the New York Times, the Guardian, and others. Frankly in Love received a starred review in the July 15, 2019, issue.