A new YA novel about teens, racism and rape culture finds resonance amid pandemic

"I really want the story ... to not only help teenagers better understand the world, but to change it,” author Kelly Yang said of her book “Parachutes.”
"Parachutes," which will be released May 26, explores the story of a Chinese high school exchange student.
"Parachutes," which will be released May 26, explores the story of a Chinese high school exchange student.HarperCollins

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By Lakshmi Gandhi

The impact of injustice and bullying have always been themes of bestselling children’s and young adult author Kelly Yang’s work. But the author said she was still shocked when she experienced two coronavirus-related hate incidents this spring.

A longtime educator, Yang was conducting an online writing workshop over Instagram Live in late March when the class was bombarded with bigoted comments. “In case there was any doubt that racism is happening against Asian Am, here it is,” she tweeted afterward.

A month later, another troubling moment occurred while Yang was visiting a dog park near her Bay Area home. She later tweeted a video that appeared to show two adults heckling her with anti-Asian slurs. The video received thousands of views.

It is not lost on Yang that the vitriol she experienced during both of these incidents is similar to the anti-Chinese xenophobic bullying experienced by the main character in her new young adult novel “Parachutes,” which was released Tuesday, May 26. The book explores the story of Chinese exchange student Claire Wang after she heads to the United States to finish high school. While Claire revels in her newfound freedom, she and her Filipino American host sister, Dani De La Cruz, both experience a traumatic moment that almost derails their futures.

We spoke to Yang about “Parachutes,” parenting in the age of COVID-19 and what can be done to support teen survivors of sexual assault.

Author Kelly Yang.Harold de Puymorin

NBC Asian America: You have had a rough spring with two public incidences of coronavirus-related racism. You are also a mom of three kids under 13. How have you been talking to them about what’s been happening?

Kelly Yang: With what happened at the dog park, two of them were with me, so there was no way I could hide it from them. They had heard it and they had seen it. But they were confused because we hadn’t taught them the term ‘oriental.’ We hadn’t taught them that people say ‘go back to where you came from’ — they thought she meant go back to our house.

One good thing was that we were able to have these long conversations about racism and the history of Asian Americans in the United States and why people might be feeling frustrated right now. Of course, there is never a just reason for racism, but it is important to talk about what is happening.

NBC Asian America: There was also an incident that occurred while you were teaching one of your online workshops. You later learned the person who called you a slur was a teen themselves.

Yang: There was an incident in the class where a couple of teenagers started putting really disturbing words up. They called me a Chinese virus several times. I saw it flash on my phone during the class and I thought “Oh my god, what do I do?”

The next class I had a serious discussion on corona racism and what we can all do to step up.

NBC Asian America: How should parents talk to their kids about what to do when they witness something like this?

Yang: First, we have to understand that teenagers are learning and growing. But as parents, we have to start having that awkward conversation with our kids and say: "This happened to an author. What would you have done if you were in that class?"

You’d be surprised at what kids will tell you — it happens more often than we think.

NBC Asian America: Many readers may not be familiar with the parachute student phenomenon — which is when teens from China and other parts of Asia come to the United States for high school. Why did you want to write about these students?

Yang: I was living in Hong Kong for the last 15 years and I taught writing there. A lot of kids I taught ended up becoming parachutes. It was fascinating to understand their unique struggles and also the common struggles they shared with other immigrants.

What happens when there is something that is totally unjust that happens to you? What do you do? It is just harder because you are on your own.

NBC Asian America: You’ve mentioned that this book took 17 years to write because it brought up a lot of painful memories. What was it like dealing with those emotions?

Yang: That was really challenging. I was sexually assaulted when I was in Harvard Law School. I was only 17 when it happened and I didn’t want to talk about it afterward because the whole experience — not only of getting sexually assaulted but also then navigating the process of getting any sort of justice from the school — was just so traumatizing to me.

I went to college when I was 13 and then I was one of the youngest women to ever go to law school. I never expected that this would happen to me. So going from that and making my way to this amazing institution, you just don’t think this will happen to you there.

It was so traumatizing that No. 1, I didn’t want to become a lawyer and No. 2, I didn’t want to revisit what happened for a long, long time. It wasn’t until 2014, when the Department of Education found that Harvard Law School had violated Title XI and also later following the Harvey Weinstein case and seeing the women who came forward, that I got the courage [to write about what happened].

NBC Asian America: You’ve said that this is the book you wished you had as a teen. What do you hope young survivors take from “Parachutes”?

Yang: I really want the story of Dani and Claire to not only help teenagers better understand the world, but to change it. And we can also shine a light on people in power and the roles they play in rape culture, simply by the decisions they make every day.

I also want them to know how much power they have because when something happens, you feel really powerless to speak up. The things for me that really turned things around was seeing the power of women standing together and speaking our truth together. It was a critical moment during the Harvey Weinstein investigation and it was a critical thing with Harvard Law School, because I always thought I was the only one.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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