Growing up Korean in suburban Oregon, I often felt misunderstood, excluded from the majority white communities surrounding me. And while I loved reading and writing, finding them both outlets for my loneliness, I soon came to realize that an overwhelming number of the YA novels I read centered entirely around white main characters, and even the characters in my own rudimentary stories had blond hair or green eyes and called their parents Mom and Dad, not Umma and Appa.
This realization, which occurred around the time I began high school, marked a sudden swerve in my literary trajectory. From that point on, I began actively seeking out literature by authors who weren’t white, particularly authors with similar experiences as queer, first-generation children of immigrants. Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities immediately comes to mind, or Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Discovering these texts, I felt inspired to write my own experiences for the first time.
My first forays into personal experiences of race and sexuality were simplistic, hesitant to raise any red flags with readers by entering the full complexity of my experience. These sorts of works being reductive and easy to swallow, they were palatable to the predominantly white audiences that received them, and were often rewarded with praise. However, as my writing evolved and I grew bolder, I noticed a striking change in the way peers, teachers, and literary magazines reacted to my work.
As I allowed myself to be frustrated and demanding in my work, or write stories that didn’t explicitly unpack my Koreanness and queerness, I was turned away. “Not Korean enough” was a comment I never explicitly heard but was the obvious implication when readers asked me why my stories didn’t mention slanted eyes, or the smell of kimchi. And of course, when I criticized the overt racism of (well-intentioned though oblivious) teachers at my high school, those stories never went over well with the administration. People wanted to hear feel-good stories about how I hated my Koreanness then grew to embrace it, or stories featuring comforting classic Asian stereotypes like being forced to play piano as a child (which I admittedly was, but I’ve never cared to write about it). I despaired, wondering if this was my only way to succeed in the literary world: by creating a caricature of myself and of queer Koreanness I didn’t believe in whatsoever.
But since then, I’ve gained hope. I declared an English major in college and eagerly took every course I could in literature written by historically marginalized voices, trying to surround myself with the comforting presence of people who dared to challenge, to subvert, to be radically, fiercely honest. I think especially fondly of required reading such as Percival Everett’s Erasure, which reminded me (with many good laughs along the way) of the need to actively resist harmful stereotypes in literature. I saw that instead of trying to force myself into the problematic prescriptions of the existing literary world, I could work to create a better, more inclusive one.
I’m thrilled to be working with Sundress, then, following their mission of uplifting traditionally underrepresented voices. With them, I hope to create a place for every story, like and unlike my own.
Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal’s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.