by Nicola Yoon, 2016
I’ve long said that it doesn’t matter what a book is about – if it’s written well, I’ll love it. Nicola Yoon proves just that within the pages of a one-day teenage romance. With a plot that I’m typically inclined to hate, she offers astute commentary on immigration, interracial relationships, nationality, and what it means to be an American. Oh, and she flips gender stereotypes on their heads. (Hooray for not all girls being helpless romantics!) I adore Yoon for showing what great work can be done inside this usually fluffy genre.
On the day of her deportation, high school senior Natasha Kingsley crosses paths with Daniel Bae, the American-born second son of Korean immigrants. Natasha is on a last-ditch effort to visit an immigration officer and convince them to reverse her family’s deportation order. Daniel, who has grown up in the shadow of his older brother, is on his way to a Yale interview, where he is expected to go school and become a doctor and fulfill his parents’ vision of the American dream. The two meet in a way that can only be described as “cute,” and they end up spending the rest of the day together, Natasha knowing all the while that their love cannot be. The story is told from both of their perspectives, switching back and forth and occasionally shifting to peripheral characters.
Now, yes, I would normally make some sort of vomiting noise in the general direction of this plot, but Yoon so brilliantly uses this to explore what it means to be an ethnic minority in the US today. Daniel is at odds with his identity as a Korean American. While his older brother has worked to shun any ties to their parents’ homeland – he refuses to speak Korean, he won’t eat the food, he only dates blonde-haired and blue-eyed girls – Daniel is doing his best to figure out what it means to belong to both worlds. Having been born in the US, he knows he is 100% American, but he also knows that answer is not sufficient for anyone who prods him on where he’s “from.”
On the other hand, the US is Natasha’s adopted home. Having come to the country illegally when she was eight, it’s essentially all she’s known and she is distraught at the idea of being forced to leave so close to graduation. I applauded her excoriation of the immigration official’s response that she would be fine in Jamaica – after all, he had vacationed there and everything would be “irie” (all right). She prods him on whether he ever left the hotel grounds, saying:
But your wife didn’t want to because she was scared, right? The guidebook said it was best to stay on resort grounds….Was she concerned about her safety? Or maybe she just didn’t want to ruin her vacation mood by seeing how poor everyone really is…You listened to Bob Marley, and a bartender got you some pot, and someone told you what irie means, and you think you know something. You saw a tiki bar and a beach and your hotel room. That is not a country. That is a resort.
Because this is what many people do – they visit the heavily touristed areas of a foreign country and extrapolate their experience to the rest of the population. I can tell you personally that I’ve on occasion had to dispel the notion that my mother being from Mexico meant her life was one big spring break in Cancún.
This is what I so loved about this book. As a person of ambiguous ethnicity, I have been on the receiving of the “No, where are you really from?” questions. I know what it’s like to have to wonder if your partner’s parents will approve of you being a different race. I know how it feels to have others assume you should be a certain way, speak a certain way, classify yourself a certain way based on their snap judgments of a culture they do not know. Everything that Yoon writes about here rings so vibrantly true.
It is fantastic that we are finally adding the richness of the immigrant experience to young adult literature. While The Sun Is Also a Star is, at its heart, a love story, it’s one that reflects the reality that many of us share. It is not subversive – it is simply true. I look forward to what Yoon will offer us in the future. Even as a thirty-something adult, her words speak to me.