Building upon the success of her debut adult literary novel Re Jane, Brooklyn-based author and Novel Incubator alum Patricia Park has taken a turn toward Young Adult with her latest release, Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim.
Patricia’s protagonist Alejandra doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. At her wealthy Manhattan high school, her súper-Spanish name and súper-Korean face do not compute to her mostly white “woke” classmates and teachers. In her Queens neighborhood, she’s not Latinx enough. And things at home have only gotten worse since Papi’s body was discovered on the subway tracks. Ale wants nothing more than to escape the city for the wide-open spaces of the prestigious Whyder College. But when a microagression at school thrusts Ale into the spotlight–and into a discussion she didn’t ask for–Ale must discover what it means to carve out a space for yourself to belong.
Her New England launch will take place on Saturday, March 4 at 5:00 pm at Porter Square Books in Cambridge (25 White Street, Cambridge, MA).
Patricia took out time from her busy launch schedule to speak with Dead Darlings about her new novel.
Both of your novels, “Re Jane” and now “Imposter Syndrome,” are centered on themes of identity and belonging. Can you talk about how you’ve explored those themes in your latest release?
I write about minorities within minorities. With both my novels, I’ve taken the “study group” of Koreans from Queens, and I’m looking at the marginalized experiences within. There’s a tension when, say, mainstream America is like, Oh, you’re Korean American; you should perform this one way! We’ve seen that first-gen American story. But there’s an added layer of tension when people in your supposed in-group are like: Yeah, nope, you don’t act like one of us. It’s so lonely when you feel you don’t belong to either world. I’m interested in characters, like Jane Re, like Alejandra Kim, who are caught in that no-woman’s-land in between, set in the unglamorous backdrop of Queens.
What drew you to YA? What has gone according to plan, and what has been the biggest surprise?
What drew me to YA is how refreshing and no BS the voice is! I love the immediacy and rawness of the experiences unfolding, in real time, for the character(s). A lot of people mistakenly think that when you’re writing a teen voice, you’re writing YA. Nope. The voice and tone are different from adult fiction, and much is tied to that immediacy.
Biggest surprise: The use of texting has been a revelation to me. As someone who was taught to never add technology to one’s fiction, I’ve found it an amazing craft tool—a shortcut for getting two characters “talking” in scene.
Alejandra’s best friend at Quaker Oats, Laurel Greenblatt-Watkins, is a multi-layered character, and her relationship with Alejandra is also complex. Can you talk about where Laurel came from, and her role in the book?
Thank you for saying that, Marc. It means a lot to me to get Laurel right. We’ve all been an Ale at one point, and we’ve all been a Laurel.
Laurel’s character echoes a lot of the anxiety I hear from my (white) colleagues about their place in the world. What’s the roadmap for being an ally right now? This might sound weird, but I’ve had white sensitivity readers read for Laurel! As writers, we have an obligation to get all our characters right.
Same goes for another anchor character in Imposter Syndrome, Billy Diaz, who represents Ale’s home life in Jackson Heights. Can you discuss Billy’s role, and where he fits in the social tapestry of Queens?
Ale has two best friends: Laurel Greenblatt-Watkins at Quaker Oats; and Billy Diaz in Jackson Heights. Billy forces Ale to “keep it real”—cut the PC BS, stop acting fake. And the farther away Ale moves from Jackson Heights, and Billy, the more of a struggle it is for her to remember who she is and where she came from. If you notice, Ale’s constantly code-switching between Laurel and Billy.
You attended Bronx Science but have chosen to situate Imposter Syndrome at a Quaker private school (Anne Austere Preparatory School, a.k.a. “Quaker Oats” – hilarious!) Can you talk about that choice, and what it took to project yourself and your characters into that environment?
I may have gone to Bronx Science, but I went to a Quaker SLAC called Swarthmore College! Quaker Oats, as well as the fictional Whyder College, were inspired by Swat. I felt like a space alien when I arrived on Swarthmore’s campus. People talked differently. They thought differently. I basically had imposter syndrome from the first day I arrived, sigh.
After you launched Re Jane, you mentioned that you were planning to do some in-person research on your Korean/Argentinian heritage. What did that research entail, and what did you learn?
I did a ton of research on Argentine history and specifically the Korean diasporic history in Argentina, because I was working on the character of Juan Kim: aka the stock boy from Re Jane, as well as Papi from Imposter Syndrome. He’ll get his own tale, in due time.
A marvelous and layered scene occurs half-way through the book, in which Alejandra and her mom spend the day with Ale’s aunt, Tia Yoona. During their time together they switch in and out of English, Spanish, and Korean. You introduce a lot of subtleties on how long various family members spent in Argentina, after emigrating there from Korea, before settling in the U.S. Can you help us unpack that scene?
I love this question—and am AMAZED by your careful reading of the text! Tía Yoona’s particularly tricky because she has lived on three different continents—and her mastery of the 3 languages—and her knowledge gaps—reflect that tri-migration. I wrote and rewrote this scene, playing with all the languages. Thank you so much for picking up on that.
You teach a MFA-level YA course at American U. Who are some of the YA writers on your syllabus, and what craft lessons can we learn from them?
Books like The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas), All American Boys (Brendan Kiely & Jason Reynolds), and Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Jennifer De Leon) teach us how sharply and urgently YA fiction can engage with issues of social justice. I loved the humor and heartache of the narrators’ coming of age in novels like David Yoon’s Frankly In Love, as well as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Robin Ha’s graphic memoir, Almost American Girl, uses this wonderful visual device of flashback as represented by sepia-toned comic panels. Genius. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Book I, is a master class on symmetrical three-act structure. Also, at its heart it’s a girl’s coming of age—which I think we forget with all the killing, starvation, and suchlike.
First-person present–standard in YA fiction, but still. Super-fun, fun, or not so fun?
I love it. There is such immediacy and rawness with first-person present. It comes at the expense of retrospection, reflection, and time/distance needed to interpret past events. But I love this challenge, because it allows the writer (me) to include occasional moments of dramatic irony where the teenage Ale is reporting an event she doesn’t know how to interpret, yet the adult reader can understand completely. I cribbed this technique from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
I have another YA coming out next year called, What’s Eating Jackie Oh? It’s about an aspiring teen chef, from Queens, who grapples with our climate of anti-Asian hate. Hint hint: Jackie has a cameo in Imposter Syndrome.
It’s all part of my Queens Multiverse, mwaha.
Patricia Park is a professor of creative writing at American University, a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Arts, a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, and the author of the acclaimed adult novel Re Jane. The Korean American reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was named Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review; the winner of an American Library Association award; an O, The Oprah Magazine pick; and an NPR “Fresh Air” pick, among other honors. Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim is inspired by the author’s own struggles to overcome feeling like an imposter at school, at work, and in life.
Patricia’s writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, the Guardian, Salon, and others. She was born and raised in Queens and lives in Brooklyn, New York.