By Russell Leung, AsAmNews Intern
Growing up, Paula Yoo learned very little about Asian American history in school. So little, in fact, that she had to actively seek it out outside of the classroom.
“We got maybe one paragraph about the Japanese Americans being wrongly imprisoned during World War II,” Yoo says. “I was taught nothing. I actually discovered Asian American history on my own by teaching myself, going to the Asian, tiny bookshelf at Barnes and Noble.”
Now Yoo, 52, is looking to expand that bookshelf of Asian American literature. Her new nonfiction young adult book, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry, tells the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982, days before his wedding. Chin occupies a central place in Asian American history: The attack, which witnesses alleged was racially motivated, led Asian Americans to mobilize and demand justice for Chin. He also became the subject of the first federal civil rights trial concerning an Asian American.
“Up until that point, Asians were considered White,” Yoo says. “Racism was only about Black and White. And this really changed the dialogue and said, no, it also includes people of color that are not Black. And so that’s why it’s a huge story.”
Despite Vincent Chin’s importance to Asian American history, however, his case gradually faded from the mainstream by the 1990s. Yoo hopes her book will cement his legacy among the next generation of Asian Americans.
“I don’t want kids today and high school students and even college students to wait decades before they find out about Vincent Chin,” Yoo says. “They should know about it now.”
Yoo herself has waited years to share Vincent Chin’s story. A screenwriter and TV producer whose credits include The West Wing and Pretty Little Liars, she first wanted to bring his story to the screen. But she eventually decided that the written word was the best way to explain the complexities of the case.
Nevertheless, she manages to incorporate her diverse skill sets into the book. Yoo says she felt her inner screenwriter activate during the dramatic courtroom scenes, while her previous experience in novel writing helped her concoct suspenseful chapter endings. Her time as a journalist for the Detroit News was doubly useful, empowering her to research and fact-check the book while also granting her familiarity with the book’s setting. Her professional violin career might be the only interest of hers that didn’t directly influence the creation of the book.
Yoo’s book comes at a critical moment. Reports of attacks on Asian Americans have increased dramatically in the past few years, fueled in part by the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Covid-19 pandemic; the Atlanta spa shootings in March were only the most visible example.
Yoo, in her afterword, discusses how anti-Asian hate has personally affected her. In April 2020, as Covid-19 was rapidly spreading across the globe, she started having an amicable conversation with a White family that was standing outside her house. But as soon as she came out from behind her door and showed her face to them, the father ordered his family to stay away from her, and they quickly left. A few months later, she was on an elevator with a White man before he realized she and several other passengers were of Asian descent. He shrieked and frantically escaped the elevator, Yoo says, and she could do nothing but laugh.
But in spite of the violence and racism against Asian Americans, the community’s resilience inspires her. The Vincent Chin case sparked mass protests by Asian Americans across the country, which Yoo compares to today’s demonstrations against anti-Asian violence in the coronavirus era.
“I don’t think history repeats itself, because racism has never left. Racism has always existed,” Yoo says. “The protesting, this repeats itself. The fighting back. So I think we need to celebrate this more.”
To further bridge the gap between the 1980s and today, Yoo’s book adds a contemporary perspective to the historical events. She includes multiple chapters about Jarod Lew, the son of Chin’s fiancé, Vikki Wong (Lew is not Chin’s biological son). Decades after Chin’s death, Lew discovered his relationship to him and worked up the nerve to confront his mother about her former partner.
Yoo first met Lew when she hired him as a freelance photographer for her research trip to Detroit. Although she knew he had a connection to Vincent Chin, she says it was an “Err! Record scratch” moment when he told her he was Wong’s son. From there, Yoo threw out her initial introduction to the book and made Lew the “river guide” to the Vincent Chin story.
Although Lew’s chapters weren’t critical to the book’s premise, his story is both unique and relatable to young readers. The more antiquated elements of the Vincent Chin saga—Yoo highlights the usage of typewriters and telegrams to communicate—are balanced by Lew’s modern setting.
“The one thing that I think could alienate a teenage reader is: they didn’t have cell phones back then. They didn’t have iPhones, they didn’t text,” Yoo says. “If you’re seeing this story through the eyes of a young millennial, I think that can help the teenage reader really feel like they’re living what’s going on.”
Yoo admits that she felt like she relived the Vincent Chin case during the writing process. From intently examining autopsy reports to painstakingly transcribing tear-filled interviews, she dove deeply into the most brutal and heartbreaking aspects of the story.
Her exhaustive and exhausting research made an emotional impact on her, she says. As a result of enduring the “secondary trauma,” as Yoo refers to it, she was often in a dark mood while developing the book. Even on her good days, she would find herself unintentionally yelling at her husband.
But ultimately, the book provided as much wisdom as it did pain. Writing From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry helped Yoo cope with her fury at Vincent Chin’s killers, and it even deepened her understanding of herself.
“It made me realize for the first time that compassion, anger and justice are not mutually exclusive,” Yoo says. “You can have compassion for people without having it cloud your judgment as to what is right and what is wrong. And compassion doesn’t necessarily deflate your anger; if anything, I think compassion helps give purpose to your anger. And so those are valuable life lessons that I learned that I have to thank Vincent for.”
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