Now, three years later after I’ve read the book and have grown into a much different person than I was then, I can confidently say that the most notable feature of that book is not the light reading experience that it gives, but its narrative of the immigration experience.
There are two storylines that the book follows — both of immigration. One follows the story of Natasha, an undocumented Jamaican immigrant who is on the verge of being deported back to her home country. The other follows Daniel, a Korean American immigrant who is on the verge of a pivotal cornerstone in his life.
I myself am a Korean American immigrant and I wanted to speak to Daniel’s experience in the book, which is in fact quite riveting.
I found myself being surprised at how incredibly, for lack of a better word, accurate the storyline was. Daniel is the second son of a first-generation Korean immigrant family, himself being in the second generation. While he believes in love and destiny, his parents are set much more on the concrete, hard results in life — namely, his future college and career. His older brother, who is portrayed as somewhat self-righteous, isn’t really helping him in his situation. The day that the story is set in, Daniel has a college interview for Yale.
Sounding stereotypical? Maybe. I think that if I heard just that part of the story I’d agree.
But here’s the thing. Yoon doesn’t just end there. She doesn’t stop at Daniel. She goes on to so much more than that. She dives into precisely why Daniel’s parents are so adamant about his future, which speaks to their own history.
“They don’t know that poverty is a sharp knife carving away at you… Those crabs [talking about his own past in the crab business] never gave up. They fought until they died. They would’ve done anything to escape” (Yoon, 238-239)
“What he knows is this: America is the land of opportunity. His children will have more than he once did” (Yoon, 146)
In bringing in narratives of Daniel’s father and his past poverty in Korea, Yoon breathes life into the Asian American immigration experience. Rather than relying on the stereotypical college-driven family, she gives reasoning and complexity to that reality: the anguish of a cold reality and brutal society in past memories.
And that factors so much into the common conflict between first-generation parents and second-generation children, as seen by Daniel and his father. I think the way Yoon portrayed that in such a poetic, yet real way is what made this storyline so captivating. I myself can speak to the actualities presented in this book. As I read on, I found myself understanding Daniel in his own journey to find his identity. Yet, I also felt a pang in my heart every time his parents appeared as their painful pasts lingering behind them was so obviously present. I felt both sides of my own self being activated in different chapters and as someone who never really grew up with any real immigrant stories, this book was genuinely a tender read for me.
This is why, to be quite honest, I was surprised at the fact that the author wasn’t a Korean American.
The debate about authors writing about stories that they may not have experienced first-hand, especially in terms of identity and labels, is one that has been ongoing for quite some time now. There have been several occasions where I’ve seen and heard opposition to authors belonging to certain groups — whether that’s race, gender, socioeconomic class, etc. — writing and thus marginalizing other groups by writing inaccurately about their experiences.
I think on the surface and honestly, most of the time whenever this debate is brought up, that’s true. Precisely because those authors didn’t live through what the groups did, their communication of it is often incorrect and wrong to write about in many cases.
However, I think “The Sun is Also a Star” is proof of that being wrong.
I think it’s the first piece of writing that I’ve read that’s been proof of that, in fact. Yes, Nicola Yoon is Jamaican-American and therefore (most likely) has no personal-level entry to the Korean American experience. But I cannot deny how perfectly poignant and, in my opinion, accurate and well-thought-out her narrative of Daniel is.
I think it makes more sense once you look at her personal life and see that her husband is Korean American and actually quite some parts of the story reflect her actual background. She even alludes to the parallel between Natasha and Daniel, along with herself and her husband, and the overall real-life aspects of the novel. Therefore, I would say that a lot of Daniel’s story is probably based on what she has been in contact with herself.
And I think that’s one of the things that makes this book so remarkable, the fact that she was able to delve into this immigrant experience in such a meaningful and thoughtful way as a show of how the literary world can be enhanced with unique experiences written by external voices.
However, that is never, ever to say that anyone should just go on ahead and start writing anything they want, including other minorities’ experiences. That is absolutely not what I’m saying. I mean that Nicola Yoon has done it successfully and provided a model of thoughtfully approaching the act with first-hand contact and reflection, which is another reason why “The Sun is Also a Star” is so notable.