Four Questions for Paula Yoo

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Television writer, producer, screenwriter and award-winning author Paula Yoo returns with a biography for young readers, this time geared toward a YA audience. In From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement, Yoo spotlights Vincent Chin, victim of a horrific racist crime resulting in his death, and the first-ever federal civil rights trial involving an Asian American. Yoo’s nonfiction narrative is extensive, being the first and only account to cover Chin’s case in its entirety. Yoo spoke about how her journalism background aided her book writing career, the information uncovered during her research, and her thoughts on the subject of this book given the present-day attacks on Asian Americans.

You’ve written many biographies for younger readers. How do you choose your subjects and what made you decide to write one that’s more in depth about Vincent Chin? Were there any particular challenges in presenting this subject matter for young readers?

My first children’s book biography was Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds about Sammy Lee, and that actually happened by accident. I saw a link to a story about him and I got curious so I clicked on it and I remember thinking, “This would be a great picture book biography.” So I wrote that and it won the Lee & Low New Voices competition, which was what got me started. It was really a nice marriage of my former life as a journalist, where I was used to researching, and my love of telling stories.

Vincent Chin, I realized, was not a picture book. I actually wanted to write Vincent Chin as a movie screenplay but everyone I talked to about this as a movie said, “It’s an incredible story but you’re going to have a very small audience.” So I put it on the shelf for a little bit. Later on, I had time to work on a passion project, and I think because of the increase in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in film, because of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat, and also because racism against AAPI had risen quite dramatically after the 2016 presidential election, I thought, “Now is the time.” I had a phone call with my book agent, Tricia Lawrence, and she said this should be a nonfiction narrative for young adults because of books like The 57 Bus and authors like Steve Sheinkin and Deborah Heiligman.

Although there are adult elements in the book, such as the setting of the adult entertainment nightclub and the “F” word being said in witness testimony, I didn’t censor anything. The 57 Bus helped me because Dashka Slater didn’t hold back either. I realized teenagers are very smart and very sophisticated and so I wasn’t worried about that. The amount of reporting I did for it was no different than if this was a nonfiction story for adults. I really examined everything from both sides because I realize the teenagers reading this book are learning critical thinking skills and it’s important for them to walk away drawing their own conclusions.

I think the other thing that makes not just a straight-ahead nonfiction for adults is that I got to speak with Jarod, one of the kids of Vincent’s bride-to-be, Vicki Wong. I talked about how Vincent Chin was the OG millennial. He was a young kid going to school and working part-time, no different than today’s young adults. I think teenage readers would be able to identify with Chin, but this does take place in the ’80s so there’s a bit of emotional distance between them. Having part of the story take place in the present-day with a young person not much older than the readers themselves and seeing the story unfold through his eyes gives these readers an emotional anchor so that they can live the story as opposed to just learning about it. So those were the techniques I used to gear it toward YA readers, but I think adults can still read it and get a lot out of it.

As a former journalist, did you draw on that experience in preparation for this book? How did you begin your research?

I wrote for the Seattle Times, the Detroit News, and People magazine before leaving in 2000 to pursue writing fiction full-time. I was getting my MFA in creative writing, and teaching English as an adjunct faculty instructor, and I thought, “I’ll finish my MFA, write a great American novel, and maybe teach full-time one day.” But I ended up writing for TV because a friend of mine had said that TV is basically fiction writing on a newspaper deadline. When I wrote for TV, whether for something realistic like The West Wing or sci-fi like Supergirl, my reporting never left me. I go overboard with everything because my journalism training taught me you over-report and underwrite to get to the heart of the matter. I call it due diligence but my friends joke and call it “Yoo diligence.”

To start with, I read all the books. My book is the first to cover Chin’s case from beginning to end but there are several academic books and memoirs where people involved in the case or people who are Asian American activists have written at least one chapter [on it]. One of these was Helen Zia’s memoir Asian American Dreams, where she has a beautiful chapter about her involvement in the case. I used that and newspaper articles to form a foundation of reading first. Then I made a list of all the people I wanted to interview and tracked down their contact information and where they lived. I also went to archives and museums to get all the original documentary footage that I could find, and did follow ups, so I ended up interviewing people several times to make sure I got all the information. I think I have about 100,000 written words worth of notes alone.

Were you struck by anything in particular during the research process?

There were two things that shocked me. The first was that, like a lot of people, I had a very simplified, and actually, inaccurate idea of what happened. A lot of people say it was two white, laid-off workers who killed Chin because they were angry about Japanese competition with the American auto industry. But actually, Ronald Ebens was not unemployed. He was a manager at Chrysler, and [Michael Nitz] was laid off but was collecting unemployment and going to college. And they weren’t mad about anything when they first entered the nightclub. But here’s the thing: what happened to Vincent Chin happened at the height of increased anti-Japanese sentiment and rising xenophobia against Asians. I thought there would be an evil racist villain and a superhero good person, but it turns out there was also toxic masculinity and too much drinking on both sides. Ebens wasn’t completely evil and Chin was just a regular person, not some exalted superhero.

The second thing was, and I don’t know if I’m correct about this, but I may be the only writer to have met with Ronald Ebens in person since Michael Moore in the late 1980s. I can’t talk about what we [discussed] because it was an off the record visit, but I will say I’m grateful he allowed me into his home. The most shocking thing was learning that compassion and justice are not mutually exclusive. Although I ultimately felt compassion for both sides in this tragic case, I was still angry that justice was not done for Vincent. You can conclude how I feel about the case in the afterword of this book. I felt I earned the right to be a bit more editorial there, since I’ve been so impartial throughout.

It was also interesting interviewing Jarod. It was a very emotional time for him because he didn’t realize his connection to Chin was this close. For example, he had one of his birthday parties at the restaurant where Chin used to work and had no idea. It was this almost spiritual journey. We felt Vincent was reaching out to us saying, “You’re on the right path, keep going.” When I interviewed people in person and on the phone, I realized this was one of the most horrifying things to happen in their young lives, and it had lifelong PTSD effects on them. That’s what haunted me doing research for Vincent Chin. I had to separate emotions from the logical, journalist part of me. But I realized in order to really get the humanity of the story across, I could have an emotional reaction and still be fair in reporting this story.

What is your hope for this book in light of the current climate of anti-Asian American violence and civil unrest?

There was a statistic that came out saying one in four AAPI teens reported being victims of bullying and harassment because of Covid. As a Gen X woman, I’m furious kids are going through what I went through in the ’80s. So I’m really glad I wrote this [as a YA]. I hope this book teaches them you can fight back, and not alone. I hope this book is read by non-Asian teens to make them realize we have to be allies, we have to stand in solidarity, and more importantly, we need friendships. The people who banded together for Chin weren’t just AAPI. It was churches, synagogues, Black communities who all marched in solidarity for Chin’s justice. It’s important for teens to learn, especially since we see things today like #AsiansForBlackLives and Black teen activists fighting against what happened in Atlanta. I hope this book teaches kids to do more for their community.

I also go into detail about a lot of other Asian American historical milestones such as the Chinese laborers, one of whom was Chin’s great-great-great grandfather, who did railroad work. This is sort of like a primer to encourage young readers to find out more about these events. I’m hoping teachers and students get interested.

I’m honored by the attention this book is getting, but I’m heartbroken because I didn’t want this book to go viral in the past couple of weeks because of the shooting in Atlanta. This is not about selling books for me. This is about raising awareness and keeping Chin’s name alive. I often say I fight back by writing back, and if I can write a book to educate and humanize Asian American contributions, it’s the least I can do. Writing this book had a profound personal effect on how I view racism, trauma, and violence in the country. That’s Vincent’s legacy. He helped me become a more aware and proactive person when it comes to fighting against hate in this country.

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Paula Yoo. Norton Young Readers, $19.95 Apr. 20 ISBN 978-1-324-00287-1

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