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In 2015, while writing my first novel, I was also teaching academic-essay writing to socioeconomically disadvantaged high-school students, many of whom were hoping to be the first in their family to go to college. While guiding my students through the college-application process, what I noticed most was their pervasive fear that despite their stellar grades, accomplishments, and all the obstacles they had overcome, they didn’t belong in higher education. One day in October, my student Cherise sent me this note: Ms. Kim, Do I want to go to college? Am I even good enough? Is this even worth it? What in the world? I feel like I am never going to make it because I am just not that good enough.
Cherise’s note devastated me. Her questions showed that despite how brilliant, compassionate, and accomplished my students were, they couldn’t resist this nagging uncertainty. I understood them; I knew this uncertainty myself. When it came to my writing, I often felt unsure about my own place in the literary world. As I wrote about Haemi, a young Korean refugee who flees her home at the outbreak of the Korean War, a small yet firm voice asked: Will anyone want to read about a rural, uneducated female protagonist in a wartime narrative? Will anyone care about my all-Korean cast of characters set during “the Forgotten War”?
Due to my own experiences, when my students asked me if they were good enough, I understood the weight and taste of their fears, though our circumstances were different. My students are disenfranchised, marginalized, and often told in direct and indirect ways that they will not make it. From the South Side of Chicago to rural Georgia to border towns in Texas, my students are from all over the U.S. Systemic racial, economic, and gender oppression has reiterated that college for teens like them is unlikely at best. At the most basic level, they do not see people who look like them go to college.
I quickly learned that one of my most important jobs as their teacher was to show that I believed in them. We discussed imposter syndrome and the lack of representation in the educational and professional fields they aspired to join. Then we discussed how that lack of representation was precisely why they needed to be the ones to break those boundaries.
As I saw my students’ confidence grow, a change occurred within me, too. Just as a lack of representation had instilled a fear of inauthenticity in my students, the lack of diversity in publishing had planted doubt in me as well. I had grown up reading strong female characters—Anne Shirley, Jo March, Dicey Tillerman, to name a few—but these characters and their authors did not share my background, race, or culture. I did not read a book written by an Asian American author until college—not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t know where to find them. Once I realized where my doubt was coming from, my determination grew. Instead of being daunted by the idea of diversifying literature, I became excited. I returned to my manuscript renewed, my mentality changed. I deepened my knowledge through research and committed to writing a complex, rich novel that delved into questions about the female body, motherhood, the Korean War, and family. I found literary heroes I could turn to for inspiration, and most important, I returned to the page.
In August 2018, my debut novel was published. In what felt like an immeasurably lucky windfall, If You Leave Me shared the shelves with a slew of other Asian American writers’ books, from Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised to Nicole Chung’s All We Can Ever Know. What a summer of astonishing debuts! As I eagerly read these books, I noticed how distinctive our narratives were. Yes, I thought. Look at this diversity, even within the category of Asian American literature. We are broadening and pushing these boundaries.
Now, as we enter 2019, I hope that together we will show readers of all backgrounds that our world is large and expansive, that we may learn from each other, always.
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is a Booklist Editors’ Choice title and was named as a best book of 2018 by the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Cosmopolitan, and others. It was also longlisted for the Center for Fiction Novel Prize, and Kim was a PEN 2017 American Dau Short Story Prize winner. She is currently Director of Writing Instruction for Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and a contributing editor at Apogee Journal.
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