A Conversation with Maurene Goo



“I really hope that readers take from this story, the importance of, like you said, empathy and understanding others’ experiences. Because that is really powerful.”
Being biracial and the daughter of an immigrant has shaped how I view myself and the world around me. When I was younger, I hesitated to identify with labels like “Asian-American” because I didn’t feel like I was “Asian enough” nor “white enough” to fit into a category. As I have grown older, though, I have found more comfort and even pride in who I am. I attribute much of this to my mom, my role model, advisor, and confidante, who immigrated to the United States from Korea before I was born. The older I become, the more I appreciate my mom’s sacrifices and kindnesses, see the richness of her stories, and want to be like her.

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to interview YA author Maurene Goo. It was a dream come true. I read Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love as a student in high school, and her books were instrumental in my personal journey of identity. When I found out that Goo was writing a short story about a Korean-American family in the recent YA anthology Come On In, a collection of immigrant stories, I knew that I wanted to take part.

Below is my interview with Maurene Goo. We talked about the importance of writing about cultural identity, immigrant family relationships, and favorite Korean sayings, among other things. A full transcript of our conversation is available underneath the podcast. 

A huge thank you to the publisher and Hear Our Voices for allowing me this opportunity! :) You can support Maurene Goo on Instagram and Twitter and the Come On In anthology at these links: 

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository | Kobo | Google

Claire: Hi everyone, my name is Claire Wyszynski, and I am a college student and book blogger at Clairefy. Today I’m with Maurene Goo, the author of several acclaimed young adult books about Korean-American teens, including Somewhere Only We Know, The Way You Make Me Feel, and I Believe in a Thing Called Love, to discuss her short story A Bigger Tent in the upcoming YA anthology Come on In. Maurene, thank you so much for joining me today!

Maurene Goo: Oh, thanks for having me!

Claire: So to start, Come On In is a YA anthology about the joys, heartbreaks, families, and stories of immigration from authors who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Can you tell us about how your experiences influenced Nari’s story in a bigger tent?

Maurene Goo: Sure. Well, the influence is pretty clear, actually. So, I am the children of immigrants. My parents immigrated here from South Korea right before I was born. So I was actually born in the US, but I wanted to tell a story of someone who was an immigrant, but she immigrated here as a baby so her experiences were more similar to mine than someone who moved here at a later age. ‘Cause I felt like I can write from that space more authentically. So the story is very much based on, you know, family dynamics that I had growing up, and the conflict and I don’t know, the challenges and conflicts that I felt as a Korean-American teen growing up in the US, how my Korean identity and how my parents -- you know, their immigrant journey -- affected my life. So, I took a lot of that stuff and brought it into this story.

Claire: I think that’s a really great segway into my next question. A Bigger Tent expires Nari’s struggle to reconcile her growing independence with the routines and desires of her family, who immigrated to the US when she was a child. How did you navigate writing about her experiences both as an Asian-American and as a teenager who was coming into her own?

Maurene Goo: Well, I write a lot about Asian-American teens. I mean, that’s actually, all my books have been about Korean-American teenage girls. So, navigating that headspace as an Asian-American character and a teenage girl was pretty natural for me. I’m used to writing in that space. But this specific story, I did mine a lot of stuff and like, a lot of my books which are very-- obviously they’re all fictional. But this one was a little more-- not autobiographical at all -- but kind of loosely based on something that happened in my childhood. Everything else was fictional, and her situation is fictional, but it was-- you know it was easy to tap into those feelings, for me, because they’re still very much a part of my memory, and kind of made me the person that I am today. So navigating those two identities were actually maybe the easiest part of writing this story.

Claire: That’s really awesome. And I just wanted to say, as also a Korean-American teenager, and somebody who read one of your first books in high school while I was navigating these identities --

Maurene Goo: Aww

C: I know it means so much other Korean-American teen girls out there who might be struggling or grappling with those same identities. So I think that’s really awesome.

Maurene Goo: Oh, thank you.

Claire: I wanted to ask to you, what is the importance of writing about these cultural identities?

Maurene Goo: Well, I can personally say for me, you know I grew up reading a ton of books. I was a huge reader, probably like you and a lot of people watching this. And when I was growing up, not to date myself, but the 80s and 90s, even though I read hundreds and hundreds of books, nobody really looked like me. In fact, I don’t think I ever read a book with a Korean-American main character. I might have read Korean characters in books, but you know just so far removed from my own experience. When I set out to write my first YA novel, Since You Asked, which came out in 2013, one of the motivating factors was I never had a book like this growing up. I would love to write from the perspective of a teen experience that I understand and that felt real to me. So at the time, when I wrote it, I hadn’t read many books that fit that, you know, space for me. And so I was really excited to write these Korean-American teen characters. 

Maurene Goo: And you know I do feel-- I mean -- what this year, past few years have taught us is that empathy is really important. So there’s just a lot of division and misunderstanding and hate right now in the world, and it’s been like that for a long time. But I think it feels pretty strong right now. And I feel like books are fun and they are entertainment for the most part, fictional books. They -- they normalize stories about people that might be different from you. And that’s really important. I don’t like to put a lot of-- I’m not going to say that what I’m doing is the most important thing, and like, it’s going to change lives. But it is my way of, you know, telling stories that I feel like put my values into the world that offer perspectives that maybe not everybody has seen as my little bit to, I don’t know, close that gap and to help people foster empathy. And, you know, I think we’re all seeing that diversity in all parts of all industries is, you know, is needed. And we’re seeing the effects of when you don’t have that, how it can affect the world on a bigger level. And so I think for sure, publishing, publishing for children especially and young people, which I do, can be really impactful.

Claire: I think that the fact that you’re channeling your values into your storytelling is something that is really powerful. I recently saw a study from We Need Diverse Books. And I don’t remember the exact percentages that were measured, but it was looking at children’s books and the amount of protagonists of different races and identities in children’s books. And they found that there were more characters who were either white protagonists or protagonists that were literally animals than protagonists of color. And I think that goes to show how much work there is still to be done in the publishing industry, but for me, like, growing into kind of this changing dynamic into high school and into college, it has been really affirming to see the growing number of Asian-American authors who are coming into this landscape -- whether it was through books like yours, or Jenny Han’s books becoming popular in the mainstream on Netflix and more people wanting to read just more about the Asian-American identity and experience after the popularity of things like Crazy Rich Asians. So I really hope that readers take from this story, the importance of, like you said, empathy and understanding others’ experiences. Because that is really powerful.

Claire: I think that is a good transition into a discussion more about what is going on in the present. Recently, at the White House Conference on American History, some politicians argued that American schools should not teach the history of prejudice and discrimination that would “make students ashamed of their own history.” Immigration history in particular reflects both the beautiful stories of families that have persevered, endured, and sacrificed, and the ugly pervasiveness of prejudice against immigrants, especially immigrants of color. How do you see the importance of stories like A Bigger Tent in the broader context of America’s current reckoning with race and xenophobia?

Maurene Goo: It kind of goes-- well first of all, that statement by the White House is wrong. Not going to be nice about it, they’re just wrong. It’s very misguided to think that having-- you should, you have to learn from history and our mistakes. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be proud of your country or that you can’t enjoy or appreciate your country. There’s no country in the world that has no shameful things in their past. ‘Cause human beings are -- they’re flawed. There’s always going to be hate and division, that’s just how human beings are. And you have to reckon with that to learn from it. So, of course you should learn about it. It doesn’t mean that the purpose of teaching that stuff is not to shame you, and then just leave you and then shame. It’s to learn from it, and to foster empathy so you the injustices against certain people in this country. You know, Native Americans and Black people especially lately in public discourse and everything going on. It’s important. Because you see what happens when you don’t have that history or that knowledge. There is a gap of -- people have not been educated about what enslaved people went through and how that has affected all of their descendants to this day. And how that’s all connected to these shootings, these police shootings of Black men and Black people, and violence against people of color. It’s all tied together with this history that our country has. So, you have to face that. And then you’ll understand it, and you’ll have empathy for the struggles that people are going through -- why people are on the streets, why people are upset and sad and devastated by all of this. Otherwise, you get people saying “All Lives Matter” because they don’t get it-- they don’t have the full context of why people might be angry, why people feel like they have to march.

Maurene Goo: That said, yes, so my story A Bigger Tent is a small, tiny piece of -- again going back to what I can do with my job, which I enjoy and it’s very fulfilling and fun for me, writing fun books about teeneragers. This story is a story about an immigrant family, and if you’re not from an immigrant family, or you’re not from a Korean-American one, it’s a little slice, a look into some of the struggles and some of the joys of the immigrant experience. And so that if you’re somebody living in a city, the US, that doesn’t have many immigrants, and maybe you don’t have anybody, you don’t have people of color in your life as friends or acquintances, maybe you’ll read a book. And maybe you’ll be like, “oh, okay, this is one story that I can now be familiar with.” I don’t know -- that’s kind of a high goal, to think that Oh, someone reads my story and understands immigrants. But it’s just a way of going back to telling a fun story. I’m not really tring to teach anyone in my stories. To me, books should be -- stories like mine, that I write, are first and foremost fun and enjoyable. Something you want to keep reading. But I think you inadvertently, um, you put your ideas and your values out there-- like I said earlier-- in my work. So I’m hoping that if you get any kind of insight into the immigrant experience through reading my story, I would feel really grateful and lucky that somebody was able to get that from my story. And I hope that it’s fun for them, that they can look at it and be like “Oh, maybe I understand the why a Korean-American girl might have a weird or a strained relationship with their parents,” or they’ve got all this baggage that I don’t understand. Like why are their parents are so “strict.”You know, all those kind of stuff that made me, if you don’t know, if you don’t have any people in your life going through it, then you can read this story and be like oh I get it. The whole collection of stories is about a billion different experiences for immigrants and, you know, this anthology came out of, right after the 2016 election is not a coincidence because when there’s all these travel bans and all this stuff being done by our current government, um, that was you know, sending out a message of “you’re not wanted here.” And we wrote these stories to say that’s not true.

Claire: I think that’s a really powerful message, and I hope that it does resonate with readers who have the opportunity to read it. To touch on one of your earlier points, I think that empathy is key and something that really comes from education and history, which is why it’s so important that our curriculum in public schools and in higher education reflect not only the stories of a few but the stories of all including those of immigrants and people of color who have experienced discrimination over time. In regards to things like the travel ban, I’ve been really fascinated and also frustrated the more I learn about American history. I remember hearing about the travel ban at first and thinking, this is such a terrible thing, but this seems like something that is a new precedent, something that I haven’t seen before, at least in my lifetime. But then as I did more reading about the history of immigration legislation act, I saw things like the Asiatic Barred Zone act, which prevented immigration to the United States from all Asian immigrants and just casted them as people that we don’t want. So I Think that stories like this are important, and even if they don’t explicitly say, “Oh this is the law that changed immigration” or “oh this is the law or the reform that we need”, it does make a difference to hear the stories of people that went through those things, and hopefully will compel people to change. 

Maurene Goo: Yeah, I completely agree.

Claire: I want to switch gears a little bit. Earlier you mentioned that hopefully empathy will bring readers to understand why Nari’s family acted a certain way or why she did different things. And as a Korean-American reader, I found so many of her family’s quirks, like the “Korean mom scan” or jumping into eating banchan, or even bringing a cordless vacuum to clean the camping site incredibly relatable. And I was wondering if you could talk more about the significance of family in this story?

Maurene Goo: So when I was kind of given this theme of the anthology, I thought okay, there’s some things that the immigrant experience is about, right. But when I think of the immigrant experience, I think the number one thing that comes to mind is family, because a lot of the cultural conflict that you might have with your parents because the divide from coming from one country to another, that’s a big deal-- especially if you’re a teen. And, for me, that was the big, kind of-- I grew up in a very diverse suburb in Los Angeles, and I had a ton of Asian-American friends, specifically I had a ton of Korean-American friends. I didn’t have like, um, the conflict and the challenges for me weren’t really about my Korean-American identity. I felt very, like I have, a community and I never felt like an outsider. Where I had a conflict and where I felt like an outsider was with my family oftentimes. And I also think that family is so complicated, so there’s a lot to unpack in talking about immigrant families. There’s so much baggage, literal baggage, literal and not literal baggage, but I feel like um, you know, I just gravitated towards that because that’s my own experience. And I think it’s just something that’s a big part of immigrant people’s lives. There’s so much focus on family and the sacrifices of family. So it was kind of a no-brainer for me to write a family story rather than, you know, something that focused on any other type of thing that I’m not familiar with.

Claire: There’s a Korean saying that starts out the chapter of A Bigger Tent, and it’s “if you laugh while crying, a hair will grow out of your butt.” And I had to laugh when I saw that, because my mom has told me the same thing in so many conversations. I just wanted to ask, do you have a favorite Korean saying?

Maurene Goo: Well, that’s definitely one of them. And it’s so crazy to me, I think it’s so funny that, um, I think Koreans in general feel very comfortable talking about like, butts, and farting and poops. You know stuff that like, other people are like “ughh that’s so distasteful,” like oh, we talk about that stuff all the time it’s not that weird. That’s definitely one, because it’s also just a funny saying. Like they just don’t want you to laugh and cry, like why, why not. How often does that happen, that someone had to make a saying about it? I really wanted to open this story up with something like that just to show how certain things can feel normal to you and then you realize it’s actually super unique to your family or your culture. Other Korean sayings-- gosh, there’s so many. There’s also, I think, I just like how things are described. Like how things are described as the size of a nostril, like to describe something small, like a small room is the size of a nostril. Which always cracks me up, like ahh that’s so random. I also just love Korean superstitions. That’s something that I always think about. You think that they’re silly, and then I realize that they’re kind of ingrained in me. Like Koreans never sleep with the fan on in the room, they think you’re gonna literally die. And my parents would turn off the fan and to this day, like, I sleep with the fan on now ‘cause I’m like -- that’s not backed by science, that’s just not real. But I still feel like, a little bit of ‘eeuuhhh’, like a little bit of discomfort. In the back of my mind, I hear my parents, you know, there voices are like “Never sleep with the fan on.” Gosh, I’m sure there are a ton of Korean sayings I just don’t even think of them because they’re just a part of my life. But yeah, the hair out of the butt is-- that’s a very special one.

Claire: That’s an iconic one for sure. My mom has so many of those that I feel like she just drops randomly into conversation. And I didn’t even realize but over time, even though I’m not living at home anymore, they’ve just kind of become integrated into my lifestyle. Whenever I make a mistake or mess up on something now, I can’t do it without hearing my mom say “Oh even the monkeys fall from trees!” She’s living in there.

Maurene Goo: Oh! I never heard that again.

Claire: I think that’s her favorite. And, I just, yeah. I hear it all the time.

Maurene Goo: Oh, one that my dad always says is, like, if a business isn’t open for whatever reason like on a Monday, they’re taking a day off. My dad always says “Oh they must not be hungry, they must be really full.” You know, just kind of like, they’re just living large, they don’t have to have their business open on Saturday. It’s nice that they don’t have to open on a Saturday! But my dad always kind of saw it like “oohhh”, like they must not be hungry. And that was a common saying that I always heard. It’s not always whimsical. I feel like my parents didn’t do like the cute whimsical sayings, but like, the pragmatic, kind of grumpy ones.

Claire: I’ve heard a similar one that’s like, “If you’re driving by a restaurant, and you see that the parking lot is empty, you should never go there because that means that people don’t like it.” If the restaurant is a good restaurant, you should see that it at least have a mid-sized crowd in the restaurant.

Maurene Goo: Yeah, there’s so many parameters and rules. Now that I have a baby, there’s all sorts of things with my baby that my mom is like: always thinks the baby’s cold, it’s gotta have a blanket. I’m like, “Mom, blankets are dangerous now, you’re not supposed to have those.” She’s just like “That is crazy! It’s going to freeze to death.” I’m like “We live in LA, we just had a week that was 120 degrees. I think we’re fine.” But if there’s a draft on him from the air conditioning she’s like “Oh my god!” There’s just a lot of ingrained, you know, but also, my mom made me eat seaweed soup everyday for like the first month, because there’s like a thing for new moms that you’re supposed to have seaweed soup to -- seaweed has a lot of iron, so it’s good for you, and it’s good to have liquids in your postpartum. But it was like you have to eat seaweed soup, and I was like what’s going to happen if I don’t? Nothing’s going to happen.

Claire: Kind of a similar thing, my mom always brings up that you’re supposed to eat seaweed soup on your birthday. I don’t know if that’s an official Korean thing or if that was just my family--

Maurene Goo: No, that is a very official Korean thing. Like I have to do it every year, no matter what my mom will drop it off even if I can’t eat it. She says it goes back to an old-fashioned belief that if you don’t eat seaweed on your birthday you’re consuming that year. You won’t actually age if you don’t have that seaweed on your birthday.

Claire: Wow.

Maurene Goo: I’m like sure, I’ll skip all my birthdays from now on.

Claire: Okay, I have one final question to wrap things up since we are nearing the end of our time, but what do you hope readers overall will take from this story?

Maurene Goo: So my story, which I haven’t really talked about, I just realized-- I mentioned it but we don’t really know what it’s about. It’s about a girl named Nari who, she is, in high school. I don’t give her age I don’t think, maybe 16. And she spent her summer at a fellowship in London. And she just got home, and the experience of that trip made her realize that she wants to feel untethered from her family. And they’re like a close-knit family. A Korean-American family. And this big extended family that sees each other all the time. Her life pretty much revolves around her family but when she broke away from them, instead of feeling homesick or anything like that, she just felt really, kind of like, finally felt like herself or like an individual. Her first kind of taste of independence from her family. When she comes back, instead of having an appreciation for them, she is annoyed by them. She feels like she is outgrowing them, which I feel like all teenagers can relate to, not just immigrant kids. 

Maurene Goo: But the different thing about being an immigrant kid is that you, suddenly all of the things that felt normal to you feel very foreign. Like, you see it through other eyes, right. And you’re seeing your family not from a place of familiarity and just, love, but like, kind of more complicated and critical and you realize how different they are. I think in America, that especially happens with American kids. So, that’s what she’s going through. And I think it’s relatable to anybody who has felt like suddenly, the want to push their family away and be independent. And they felt stifled by their family even though they’re good family, they’ve never done anything bad, or, you know, there’s no huge conflict, there’s no anything abusive, or anything bad like that, it’s just suddenly you feel different. You see things differently. What does that mean? And I just wanted to tell a story where you can have that feeling and not totally resolve it, you know, because the thing with being a teenager is all your issues that you have with your family, you will not look at them clearly until you’re an adult. There’s no point when you’re a teenager when you’re like, ahh I’ve resolved this issue with my mom or my dad, or I’m okay with this now. That maybe happens in, like, TV shows about American kids, but it’s just not realistic in my opinion. And so, it’s kind of a story that offers you a glimpse into maybe having that complicate with your family, going through it, and learning to be okay with that feeling at the end of the day. You can be kind to yourself and still say “These feelings are valid because I do need to grow up and break away from my family eventually.” And that’s okay. But on the other side, it’s okay to have some perspective and know that maybe you are more tied to them and that your bond with your family is more important to them.

Claire: That was really beautiful. Thank you so much!

Maurene Goo: Thank you Claire.

Claire: Thank you so much for being here with me today. I know so many young Asian-Americans are going to read this story and hopefully feel seen by these words. Come On In will be out on shelves on October 13, 2020, so readers should definitely look out for that! And you can support the author at the social media handles that I will be linking below this video.

1 comment :

  1. What a fabulous interview, Claire! I'm sure it was really special considering the course you mentioned taking on immigration history. I'll have to check out this novel. As the child of immigrants as well, I can definitely relate to the different cultural superstitions and quirky traditions as well.