On Sunday, author Rainbow Rowell shared some big news with her audience: Eleanor & Park, her acclaimed 2012 young adult fiction book (blockbuster YA author John Green gave it a glowing review in the Times, ooh, aah!) now has a director attached to its feature film adaptation, moving the production process another step forward. The book, according to a description from Rowell’s website, is about “two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.” Why so star-crossed? Partially because Park, the male love interest, is a biracial teenager with a Korean mother and a white American father, an aberration in the book’s Midwestern, mid-80s setting.
“Of all my characters, I always feel most protective of Park and Eleanor,” Rowell, who is white, tweeted following the announcement. “They feel vulnerable to me. Like, their hearts are just right there, exposed.” The author also said she was “EXTREMELY DELIGHTED” by the movie news.
Asian American book critics and YA lit fans do not share her enthusiasm. Since the movie deal was announced, dissenters have taken to Twitter to denounce Rowell’s Cho-Chang–ass naming choices (Park is an extremely popular Korean surname, not first name, something Rowell acknowledged in an FAQ); the choice to hire a Japanese director to tell a Korean American story; her descriptions of Park as feminine; her description of another Asian boy's "just barely almondy" eyes; dialogue between the two main characters where Park says “Asian girls are different. White guys think they’re exotic… Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls”; descriptions of Park’s mother comparing her to a China doll that further solidify the misogynistic “exotic” stereotype; the fact that Park literally does kung fu against a bully at one point… the list goes on! And on! (Rowell and production company Picturestart did not respond to a request for comment.)
Cards on the table: I haven’t read Eleanor & Park. I stopped reading young adult fiction when I figured out, at the age of 12, that Stephen King’s short stories have sex in them. But unless the context of every single quote pulled by critics is that, a paragraph later, someone tells the white teenager considering her crush’s brother’s “almondy” eyes or drawing comparisons between a Korean mother and a porcelain doll is definitely racist (and that's absolutely not the context), I don’t need to read it to understand what’s going on. What’s going on here is a white author trafficking in well-established harmful stereotypes about Asian people, and receiving critical praise and a movie deal anyway.
The critiques of this book are not new; Asian Americans writers (and readers) have been vocal about the racism in Eleanor & Park since its publication. In a 2014 review on her since-deleted blog Angry Girl Comics, comic artist Wendy Xu compared Park’s characterization to a certain famous vampire. “Who else was described as ‘godlike’ ‘angelic’ and all that crap? Vampire boy Edward Cullen,” Xu wrote. “But when you use those kinds of descriptors for a character who is very visibly POC and then give them an uncommon feature like
green eyes, do they not become a kind of mythical creature... the stuff of exotic fantasy? Do they then become dehumanized and not real, only the kind of boyfriend a girl can aspire to get? The answer, of course, is yes.”
Rowell herself has admitted she rooted the book in the realm of fantasy: She says her father was deployed to Korea at age 17 during an Army stint and apparently fell in love with a Korean woman while overseas… but they didn’t stay together. “What if fate and circumstance and the U.S. government had come together to deliver my father across the continents to his soulmate – and he just left her there,” Rowell wrote in a Goodreads blog post in 2013. “He could have stayed, I thought. He could have brought her back. Omaha is a military town; people bring wives and husbands back from all over… So … in Eleanor & Park, Park’s dad gets sent to Korea because his brother has died in combat in Vietnam. He meets his soulmate there. And he brings her home.”
The Asian American experience of racism is tough to parse because of deep divisions along class and ethnic lines. While people of South and East Asian descent often find themselves decrying the “model minority” stereotype (see: pushback against Andrew Yang’s call for Asian Americans to get more enthusiastic about the flag) or vying for more visibility in media, centering cultural critiques can obscure the poverty and disproportionate rates of incarceration more likely to plague Southeast Asian communities.
But as books like Eleanor & Park continue to find success, the representation conversation will churn on with depressing regularity. It hurts to see that not only has a white author, catering to young people, has sailed along without reckoning with her racism, her fetishization and her lazy caricatures; she’s been rewarded with even more success. It’s hard to blame Asian Americans for focusing on the things that make us feel invisible, even if these debates may muffle the least visible among us.
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