Interview with Jessica Kim

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About the Author: 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. Like Yumi, Jessica lives with her family in Southern California and can’t get enough Hot Cheetos, stand-up comedy, and Korean barbecue. You can find more about her on her website

Social Media:

Instagram: @jesskimwrites

Twitter: @jesskimwrites

Facebook: @jesskimwrites

Thank you so much to Jessica Kim for the following interview on her debut novel, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Kokila, 2020), out now! And don’t miss our review of Yumi Chung here!

Hannah Miller: First off, congratulations on such a spectacular debut. How does it feel to have Stand Up, Yumi Chung! officially out in the world?

Jessica Kim: I have to tell you, I wasn’t quite prepared for the pleasure seeing pictures of kids holding my book. It’s been so amazing, I can hardly believe it.

HM: I have to ask; since SUYC obviously revolves around stand-up comedy, did any real-life comics inspire you during the writing process? In a similar vein, did comedy play any role in your childhood like it does in Yumi’s?

JK: Yes! Around the time I was drafting Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Ali Wong had just released her incredible Netflix special, Baby Cobra. I remember laughing so hard I was crying when I first watched her show. There was something about seeing an Asian American woman doing stand-up comedy that stuck with me long after the show was over. It was very powerful. I started to wonder what Ali was like when she was younger and about the challenges she must have faced from her family and community. It became the seed for the character that would eventually become Yumi Chung!

Another comedian that inspired me was Tiffany Haddish, who was also blowing up around the same time for her scene-stealing role in the movie, Girls’ Trip. After watching her, I became an instant fan, binge-watching all her stand-up comedy on YouTube. I remember being moved when I learned about her childhood in the foster care system.  How she was sent to comedy camp by her high school counselor and it was there that she ultimately found her healing and calling. Hearing her talk so candidly about how comedy taught her to transfer her pain into laughter and how it allowed her to spread positivity through laughter became the basis of the character Jasmine Jasper, Yumi’s comedy idol and camp teacher.

As for myself, comedy did not play a role in my childhood, the way it did for Yumi, but as an adult, I struggled with a lot of the same hang-ups with fear of rejection that my main character did, especially when I started to pursue a career in publishing. Much like Yumi, I was terrified of trying something, even though I was really passionate about it, because I wasn’t sure I could succeed at it. You could say Yumi and I were learning to take risks and put ourselves out there together.

HM: As a pretty reserved kid myself, I loved seeing similar #shygirlproblems reflected in Yumi. I particularly found it interesting how she struggles with self-confidence yet loves stand-up comedywhich is in itself performative. What inspired you to fuse these two seemingly opposing forces in Yumi’s character?

JK: I’ve actually heard a number of performers reveal that they are actually quite reserved and shy in real life, offstage. I remember Beyonce saying how her stage persona is a separate person who she even named Sasha Fierce. I loved that!

I wanted to give Yumi permission to be her true self, to say out loud all the funny things she thinks in her head. So, actually, the Kay-persona isn’t an opposing character who is completely different from Yumi. It’s just her without all her self-imposed filters of fear and self-consciousness. I thought that giving her an alter-ego would be a fun way to let her express herself in a way she hadn’t been able to do before.

HM: YouTube, or rather the internet overall, plays a large role in Yumi’s life. It’s how she first connects with rising comic, Jasmine Jasper, watches SNL videos, and hones her comedy in general. With all this in mind, how did you approach writing a story for today’s generation of digital natives? 

JK: Yes, Yumi and her entire generation consume media in a very different way than I did growing up. They have so much more access to content because of the internet. In the beginning of the story, she turns to YouTube as an escape, a reality that is just beyond the screen. Enjoyable for a time, but ultimately unattainable, and definitely not for her. It isn’t until she stumbles into comedy camp, meets in-real-life people, and forms meaningful relationships that push her to be a truer version of herself. While technology is an amazing tool that introduces Yumi to the world of comedy, in the end it’s very much a story about people and it isn’t until Yumi steps out from behind the screen and into the world that she begins to think she can actually become the person she’s always wanted to be.

HM: I also want to take a moment to talk about Yumi’s older sister, Yuri, who (spoiler alert) decides to change the course of her life completely after leaving medical school and joining the Peace Corps. What do you hope readers take away from Yuri’s choice to redefine her life path? How did you want to align or contrast her journey with Yumi’s?

JK: Yuri’s story serves as both a cautionary tale of what could happen if she doesn’t speak up for herself and also a model that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. I hope readers can see that Yuri, though she might look perfect on the outside, struggles with the same things that Yumi is struggling with. It’s easy to think certain people have it easy, but the truth is we don’t know what everyone is going through and you might have a lot in common than you think. Also, I think Yuri’s decision to follow her own path gives Yumi strength that she can do it, too.

HM: Throughout the novel, Yumi finds herself torn between who she is as Yumi Chung and who she is as Kay Nakamura. (She truly is living a double life!) Although, in the end, it seems like Yumi doesn’t necessarily have to choose one side over the other a decision I really enjoyed as a reader. How did you approach Yumi’s internal struggle and what her ultimate choice would be?

JK: Part of Yumi’s internal struggles stem from her identity as being a second generation American. Like Yumi, kids of immigrants have to toggle between two worlds and neither side feels completely like home. As a Korean, Yumi feels a deep sense of obligation to make her parents proud. This is a common burden many second generation Americans feel. Our way of making our parents’ sacrifices worth it is by our academic and career success. However, Yumi is also an American. She has been raised by her society to believe in her dreams, to pursue things that make her happy. It’s hard to reconcile these values that can sometimes be at odds. That is central to her two identities as Yumi and Kay, but by the end of her journey, Yumi realizes that she accepts that she is both and that’s okay.

HM: I read that you were a public school teacher for third, fourth, and fifth grade for ten years. How did your experience working with kids influence your writing? Specifically when crafting a whole cast of young characters in SUYC?

JK: I’m sure it played a huge role in my writing. Kids at that age, right around puberty, are going through so many changes, physically, socially, emotionally. It’s such a volatile time and the whole world can feel like it’s upside down. My time in the classroom and especially as a mom of a tween has given me a lot of insight into the psychology of this season of life. Kids who were otherwise obedient and easygoing might start to push boundaries or snap at their parents. They want autonomy and they want to be heard. But they’re often misunderstood because they lack the communication skills to articulate their feelings. It’s a time that’s rife with conflict and I couldn’t wait to get in there and play with the story. 

HM: Having now gone through the entire publishing process, if you could give any advice to the version of yourself writing the first draft of SUYC, what would it be?

JK: I would definitely tell her to get ready for a ton of revisions. Some painful and major revisions. I’d tell her not to worry so much and enjoy the ride. But honestly, it’s hard to prepare anyone for the debut experience. You just have to buckle in and learn on the job.

HM: Lastly, do you have any future projects that you can talk about? Perhaps another adventure in the life of Yumi Chung?

JK: I’m working on another middle grade novel now. It’ll also be humorous and contemporary, but it will not be a sequel. It’ll be about a best-friend break up. Stay tuned for more details soon.

PRR Writer, Hannah Miller

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