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Emily Swanson remembers vividly the first time she laid eyes on Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s book, “Finding my Voice.”
It was the mid-’90s, and her mom had brought it home from the Korean culture camp she and her sisters attended to connect with other Korean adoptees.
It was one of the first times she’d ever seen a Korean American teen— just like her—on the cover of a book.
“That was pretty big for me,” she said. “I remember the book had a pretty large picture of the author on the back and I just thought that was the coolest thing. I think it was really cool that my mom got that book for us. It was definitely pretty one-of-a-kind.”
The book, a coming-of-age novel written by Hibbing native Marie Myung-Ok Lee, is about Ellen Sung, a Korean American high school senior who lives in rural Minnesota.
She’s a teenager navigating two worlds: Her immigrant parents don’t understand why she wants to focus on gymnastics and friends, thinking she should focus instead on college applications. Her classmates—most of whom are white—don’t understand her parents’ strict rules.
And in the middle, Ellen tries, as the title suggests, to find her own voice as a Korean daughter and an American teen.
“I could definitely relate to the feeling, ‘Hey, I don’t belong here,'” Swanson said. “And it’s going to take some sort of change to make that feeling go away, to feel more like a part of something.”
When “Finding My Voice” was published in 1992, it was credited as one of the first contemporary young adult books to center on an Asian American protagonist. Now, 30 years later, it’s getting into the hands of a new generation of readers, with a third printing—and a reminder, once again, of the power of seeing a glimmer of oneself on the pages.
In Ellen’s life, Swanson saw echoes of her own: Trying to find her own community, and friends who could relate to her experiences as an adoptee and as a person of color. The book offered, in some ways, comfort.
“The book was a really important reminder [that] this is where you came from; there’s people who are in that same boat,” she said. “It did feel very real, even though it’s a fiction book.”
Nearly three decades after the book was published, Lee is still hearing from readers about how much it has meant to them to see Asian American stories—and to giving voice to their experiences with discrimination, prejudice and identity.
And the book continues to touch a nerve.
“The more voices we have, the more rounded out the complex vision we have as us as human beings,” she said. “And I’m sorry to say, especially given the last four years, having to humanize ourselves is kind of an ongoing task.”
But while she’s grateful that readers continue to identify with her work, Lee said she has mixed feelings about its continued relevance, at a time in which COVID-19 has raised specters of anti-Asian rhetoric and xenophobia.
Sarah Park Dahlen, a professor at St. Catherine University, said one of the reasons why the book continues to maintain a grip on readers is because it gives their experiences a voice, even now.
“It was deeply uncomfortable for me to read the racist parts of ‘Finding My Voice,’ because I know how real that situation is,” said Park, who specializes in children’s literature, storytelling and social justice. “It’s really what happens to us and so I think that’s one of the reasons why this book has lasted, [is] because Marie Lee is telling the truth about what we go through.”
Lee said it was important to her to portray the breadth of what Asian Americans experience, from model minority stereotyping to racism and bullying. She remembers how it felt being among the few people of color in Hibbing. The book allowed her to give voice to those experiences.
“I don’t feel that the themes are ever really going to go away, particularly things like racism,” Lee added. “Kids today are so much better informed and more self aware.”
“Finding My Voice” navigates its teenage protagonist’s exploration of identity, but it also explores the acts of prejudice, discrimination, and racism she experiences—from microaggressions to physical violence.
“Anti-Asian racism also includes violence,” Lee said. “That is definitely something that I wanted to include as this whole experience for this person.”
And while the book is not autobiographical, Lee said it draws on some of the experiences she had, growing up on the Iron Range.
One reader, stunned after first reading the book, felt those themes sting.
Melanie Hooper, 57, graduated from Hibbing High School with Lee in 1982. She said she recalled the book being well-received by most community members when it came out a decade later. But for Hooper, a white woman, it was a bittersweet lesson to learn that one of her classmates had experienced such hate and prejudice while living there.
Hooper said she wished she had known about it, at the time.
“I think people need to know what has transpired and what has happened, and maybe they’d have a different understanding and appreciation for other ethnic backgrounds,” she said. “Hate is not something you’re born with. Hate is something that’s taught.”
Since moving back to Hibbing in the 1990s, Hooper said she hasn’t seen too much change in her hometown. But she still has hope. A group she’s a part of, Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness of Northern Minnesota, has been advocating for racial equity in places within the Iron Range.
“We have got to stop this teaching of not loving one another, no matter who you are,” Hooper said. “I really think that people need to understand that it happened here, too. This book will show you how it affected this young woman.”
And now, “Finding My Voice” is now making its way into the hands of a new generation, part of a growing canon of works for young readers written by authors of color.
That includes children’s books like Joanna Ho’s “Eyes That Kiss the Corners,” which celebrates the physical appearance of Asian eye shapes. And historical novels like Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko,” which tells a Korean family’s generational story, from early 20th century Korea to modern-day Japan.
Literary experts say stories like these matter, particularly for kids growing up in small towns—just like the main character, Ellen, the only Korean American student in her rural Minnesota high school.
“Especially if you are growing up in a small community where you are the only person—that there is no one to talk to about how to find your own voice and being able to speak out or even turn inward, to use your own voice to imagine how to navigate white supremacy,” said Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, a St. Olaf College creative writing professor and director of the college’s Race and Ethnic Studies program.
“Books are absolutely crucial when you don’t have communities where you can have those kinds of conversations.”
Emily Swanson was thankful to have a book like “Finding My Voice” when she was growing up. With more choices available on bookshelves, she said, she’s excited to see what comes next.
And she’s looking forward to eventually buying a copy for her 5-year-old niece.
“I definitely would like to get the book when she gets old enough to read something like that,” Swanson said. “I just think it’s really good. It’s a really opportune time.”
In the meantime, she said, she plans on dusting off the book and giving it another read.