A Conversation With #WeNeedDiverseBooks Founder and YA Author Ellen Oh
2020’s film announcements have just gotten weirder and weirder.
Last month, Plan B Entertainment announced the greenlight for Rainbow Rowell’s 2012 young adult romance novel Eleanor & Park. The book quickly shot to fame, marketed as a tender love story between two teenagers, one white and one mixed Korean-American, in 1980s Nebraska. Despite the racism being evident from the get-go (the male lead’s name is Park Sheridan, his name effectively a Cho Chang moment), Eleanor & Park has been a mainstay in popular YA lists. It currently keeps a steady 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads and won various awards for literature.
I will, however, question why there continues to be ignorance, whether purposeful or not, in representation for Asian-American in the media. This industry often confuses all representation as good representation. But not all representation is created equal. It’s especially shocking that Plan B Entertainment, which has spearheaded groundbreaking inclusive movies like Moonlight, Okja and If Beale Street Could Talk, has decided to take this under its wing.
With The Half of It, Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series and Mindy Kaling’s TV series Never Have I Ever, 2020 has been a landmark year for Asian-American representation. Of course, it should be noted, many of these still skew towards East Asian representation and relegate South, Southeast and Central Asians to servants and sidekicks. We still have a long way to go, but we were heading in the right direction. At least, it looked like we were.
RM: What are your general sentiments about Eleanor & Park?
EO: I absolutely hate it.
RM: As a Korean-American, what do you think is particularly harmful about Rainbow Rowell’s representation of Korean-Americans in Eleanor and Park?
EO: Eleanor & Park is appallingly racist, not just to Asians (she literally has Eleanor talk about how small Park’s eyes are and wonders if it affects his vision) but it is also anti-Black. Specifically for me, the worst has always been its treatment of Park’s self-identity. He hates being Asian. He wishes he looked more white like his brother. This could have been handled much better if it had been written by a Korean American author or even if Rowell had taken the time to respectfully and carefully understood what it would be like to be othered in a white country. But instead, she handled this painful issue in the worst, most ham-handed, and racist manner. It is incredibly harmful.
I have had many young Korean Americans tell me how upset they were after reading this book. I’ve had them tell me of the racist things people have said to them after others have read this book. As a Korean American, it is heart-breaking that there’s a lack of books about Koreans and yet this is the award-winning, best-selling novel.
Since it is geared for teens, I am compelled to speak out against the continuing harm. Reading this book has caused some people to internalize a belief somehow that all Asians, but particularly Koreans, would rather be white, date white, and hate being Asian. This book is absolutely racist in the worst kind of ways. The fact it is still being sold and pushed as some kind of “diverse” book kills me. There are actual lists of Korean American books that include Eleanor & Park but don’t list a single one of my books- that infuriates me. But I’m not surprised. That’s how racism works in this country.
RM: What was your reaction to the news that it was being adapted into a movie?
EO: It literally broke my heart.
RM: What do you think white authors can do to ensure good and authentic representation for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in their work?
EO: All writers need to include diversity in their cast because that is the real world. But it comes with a deep moral responsibility to make those characters more than just stereotypes. They need to do the research and be respectful. The answer to more diversity is not to write bad representation. For white writers, the answer is to make their book world look like the real world with a wide and diverse cast and GET THEM RIGHT!
RM: What other YA books would you recommend for genuine representation of young Korean people?
EO: There are some amazing books being written by Korean Americans. I’m just so happy to be able to point to Jenny Han for some real Korean biracial representation in both books and film.
I recommend books by Maurene Goo, Kat Cho’s Wicked Fox, Axie Oh’s Rebel Seoul, Mary Choi’s Emergency Contact and Permanent Record, Lyla Lee’s I’ll Be the One, Jane Hur’s The Silence of Bones, and I know that they are adult and not YA but I think everyone should read Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know, and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. And there is Almost American Girl by Robin Ha, a graphic novel memoir. There’s also amazing middle grade books from some of our greatest authors like Linda Sue Park and An Na, and awesome new contemporary middle grade books by Mike Jung and Jessica Kim. I’m actually so proud of all these amazing Korean American authors writing such a broad range of brilliant stories.
You can find Ellen Oh on Twitter. Her website is ellenoh.com.
*Interview answers have been edited for conciseness and clarity.