Interview: Jessica Kim, Author of ‘Stand Up, Yumi Chung!’, Tells Us About Her Journey As An Asian American Woman

If you don’t know Yumi Chung, you’re about to!

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! is the debut novel from author Jessica Kim. Yumi aspires to be a stand-up comedian, but straddles the traditions of her family’s culture and the untamed world around her. Kim writes about Asian American girls finding their way in the world.

K-Ci Williams spoke with Kim about her journey as an Asian American woman and how it lead to Yumi’s story.

Meet Yumi Chung: the star of the novel and your typical middle school kid. “She’s kind of shy, a bit awkward, funnier in her head than in real life, struggles to make friends and yearns to be a better version of herself,” Kim says. She’s also an avid comedian. “Part of the draw is it allows her to slip into another persona, someone who is confident and comfortable in her own skin. It allows her to access the parts of herself that rarely make it out of her own head.” Do both author and protagonist share this attraction? “I do enjoy comedy, but I’m not as hardcore of a fan as Yumi is. I prefer to just watch it rather than perform it.” What they do share is their ‘want’ to pursue their passion but holding off out of fear. Asked to summarise the novel in five words, Kim says: “Yumi longs to be heard.”

Kim never thought she would be an author. It wasn’t something somebody like her would accomplish. “No one in my community had ever written a book,” she says. “In my mind that was what white people did. It wasn’t until I was thirty-five years old and my kids had started school that it crossed my mind.” Things were changing in Kim’s family; the children were growing more self-sufficient, she wanted to return to work, but also wrote a list of things she had always wanted to do. Lists are a hallmark of an author. And the first thing on the list? Write a book for kids. “It was super scary and I wasn’t sure if I had what it took, but I knew that I’d always regret it if I didn’t try. I took a few classes and joined a critique group which helped me plug into the writing community which was key. A year and a half later, I wrote a YA that I queried but it never got picked up by an agent. Sick of rejection, I quit writing. But I didn’t last too long because I missed writing.” Kim kept re-imagining her story as a middle grade novel, and thus Stand Up, Yumi Chung! was born. 

Kim used to work as a teacher long before having intentions to publish a novel. “You could say that I have been groomed to be a middle grade writer for a while,” she says. “Having spent ten years with tweens in the classroom, I’ve become familiar with the issues that young people face during that age. It’s a challenging time of lots of changes: puberty, middle school friend drama, parents on your back etc. But it’s also an intense time of self-discovery and imagination. Kids at this age are so passionate and eager to jump into the things they’re into. Yet they’re still tender and need lots of love and forgiveness. It was the perfect age group to explore some of the themes that I wanted to write about.” 

Yumi’s story feels like a culmination of Kim’s experiences; all her love and light channeled into a novel. “This book contains many dimensions of me,” she says. “Yumi kept her comedy a secret from her friends and family. When I first started writing, I too didn’t really tell people much about what I was up to, out of fear of failure.” It stands to reason that the intersection of being a person of colour and a woman is an added layer to her experience in writing the novel. “Many of the emotions in this book were very real reflections of how I was feeling about my own identity as a creative person in Asian America.” For Kim, her Korean culture as a child of immigrants has informed her journey in every way. “My culture is a mix of my upbringing by Korean parents and what I picked up from growing up in America. In a sense, this book is a journey of Yumi coming to accept her parents’ culture and herself. Learning to love both parts of her identity.” 

Speaking on the inspiration for Yumi’s story, Kim explains that she’s often asked if she wrote the book for her daughters. She did not. “My kids have two American-born, English speaking parents who were educated in America. They don’t know what it’s like to walk the right rope of being a second generation American, having to toggle between two cultures, sometimes two cultures that are at odds. They never had to translate for their parents or help out at their small business to make ends meet.” It’s personal to Kim but also an inherently shared experience for people who grew up like her. “This book is for me,” she says. “The child me. And all the other kids who are like me. Kids who struggle to piece together both sides of their identity. I think that’s a really important message. That you are enough, just as you are.” 

Kim is a self-professed ARMY — which means she’ll also be fighting us for BTS tour tickets in a couple of weeks. ‘Mikrokosmos’, ‘Spring Day’, ‘Love Maze’, and ‘Idol’ are her favourite songs, and she is Namjoon-biased. Yumi on the other hand? “Yumi is totally ARMY,” she says. Her bias is Jungkook, and her friend Ginny is J-Hope biased. “BTS is mentioned five times in the book,” (hint: the first mention is on page 2). 

Authors can become published at any time of their lives; some of the most rich and layered works are from authors published later in life. Kim offers wisdom to these writers: “You aren’t old. You just have more story in you. All those things you’ve seen and experienced give you more to draw on. It’s a good thing. It’s not a race.” Kim also speaks to those who aren’t accustomed to seeing themselves reflected in the media. “Maybe you can create something and put it out into the world. We need you.” 

Speaking to the child in herself and the persona of Yumi, Kim has a lifetime of knowledge to impart. “Yooms, it’s okay if you mess up. It’s part of the process. How can you know what works unless you know what doesn’t work? Also, you are special and loved and seen just as you are. You do not need to be anyone, except who you already are.” 

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! is released officially on March 17, 2020. You can pre-order at your local indie book retailer or any major bookstore.