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Las Cucarachas

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Award-winning author Yongsoo Park presents a powerful coming-of-age story of a young boy on the edges of New York City.

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Interview with Yongsoo Park by Raul Deznermio

The voice of your new novel, of the protagonist Peter Kim, age 12, is unlike any other in literature. Had you developed this voice, or the character, before writing Las Cucarachas?

I didn’t set out to develop the voice of the narrator in Las Cucarachas. I did know, however, that I wanted to write a book loosely based on my childhood. So I did have the character in mind. The plot was crafted afterwards. I started only with the character. And the voice followed. Of course, I’ve always felt that what draws me into books is the voice. Similarly, the most difficult thing to teach or learn about writing a novel, for me, so far, has been voice. Plot can be crafted. Sentences can be trimmed. Voice, especially in its uniqueness, is there or it isn’t. I hope that readers will be drawn to the unique voice in LC. It is an old school voice that befits an old school book about and old school world.

Las Cucarachas features a beautiful illustration of a dead dog on the cover. In addition to appearing in your new novel, dead dogs make appearances in your first novel, Boy Genius, as well as your independent film Free Country? From where did this fascination spring?

I spent a significant part of my childhood playing in the railroad tracks. A part of this experience was idyllic, sort of like in Stand By Me, with boys being boys in the old school sense. Another part was ghetto, as in the beginning of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, where kids throw rocks and jump on mattresses. One consequence of this railroad play is that I’ve seen many dead dogs, flattened by the train, and rotting, with maggots and tiny bugs hovering. I can’t quite articulate it, but such a sight is an eye magnet. In fact, I can say without equivocation that for me, the sight of a dead dog is far more interesting than a live one. What might this mean on the subconscious level about the creative process? Who knows.

In Las Cucarachas, Peter Kim loses his Atari to a burglar. Is it a coincidence that a former Rubik’s Cube master would be so enraged by the loss of his Atari? Is there a connection between Peter’s interest in the two games?

Kids and people who are good at problem-solving can sometimes get the mistaken notion that all problems can be solved with enough cleverness. Peter, the protagonist of LC, is adept that way. So, naturally, he both knows that nothing can be done to get the Atari back and is at the same time enraged that he is faced with a problem that he cannot solve. Of course, the problem is not just the loss of an Atari but his life and his reality, particularly as it revolves around his family.

The beautiful opening sentence of your book involves a Nerf football. Are you concerned about anyone not knowing what a Nerf is? Or do you just assume most people who read the book will have been hit in the head by a Nerf before?

I’m assuming that most readers will know what a Nerf is or can figure it out. I’m also counting on that they’ll want to find out who threw it, which will keep them reading. If the first sentence does that, I’m happy. It’s also a terrific entrance for Fatty, who next to Peter is the single largest presence in the book. Fatty’s a caricature at times and of course he’s too stupid to believe, but there are kids like that. I knew many. That’s why I considered calling the book Fatty and Me before coming to the eventual title Las Cucarachas.

Is Diego’s cousin based on anyone you know or have met? If so, no need to reveal the person’s identity, but perhaps you can share a memory . . .

It’s loosely based on a legendary thug in the neighborhood where I grew up. The guy’s name was Cho-co-la-te (said in Spanish) and he was a little older than me but already a renowned thug by the age of 16 or 17. The guy inspired bonafide fear in people. He looked and carried himself the way Mike Tyson did when Tyson first came on the boxing scene. Though this was all before Tyson. But it was said that Chocolate could knock anyone unconscious with two punches.

Education Digest called your award-winning first novel, Boy Genius, “a modern-day Candide.” Where your debut was surreal, Las Cucarachas is quite lucidly based in reality. Did you have to resist the impulse to add more surreal elements to the latter?

I did have to resist the impulse to turn Las Cucarachas more surreal. But Las Cucarachas is a different book, whose content requires a different form. That said, BG and LC dissect and explore similar terrain. Both are loosely based on my childhood, but whereas BG tells the story in a style that’s closer to a Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, LC tells the story in the style of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief or Rossellini’s Stromboli. Both are two sides of the same coin, however. Indeed, even though Las Cucarachas starts out as a boys-will-be-boys prank book, the book quickly becomes a different animal halfway through and the honesty it shows in depicting the characters’ lives is so brutally raw at times that it borders on the surreal. And this fence on surreal and brutal honesty is what a childhood reality is like.

Are you concerned that anyone might find some of the dialogue between the characters to be racist?

Yes and no. Some of the dialogue is and will be uncomfortable for some readers the way that the curses in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn turn some people off. There is definitely much cursing and throwing around of racial epithets as well as brandishing of racial and ethnic stereotypes. But for me, that’s the reality of a 12-year-old’s world in 1980s NYC, where the novel takes place. A major part of unstructured play, something that’s fast disappearing from the world and totally gone from the suburbs, is name-calling and trying to make oneself recognized somehow. In such a world, kids can and often do bark louder than their bite.

Moreover, the kids in LC are poor, angry and powerless, even more powerless than the usual kid. And I know from experience that people who are poor, angry and powerless curse a lot and say mean racist things about other ethnic and racial groups. This is not to condone race supremacist concepts or serve as an apology for racist characters. Not so in any way. LC simply captures a stage in children’s lives when socialization is intense, when the social messages about race are being tried out and on by 12-year-olds trying to figure out their place in the world. Crucial decisions both conscious and subconscious are being made by these characters that will determine who they will be. That said, the way these kids talk is the way I talked back in the day. Even today, when I happen to run into a friend from the old neighborhood, instantly we’ll revert back to calling each other by ethnic epithets and making ethnic jokes about the friend’s ethnicity and my ethnicity.

To put it simply, at least among kids, genuine friendships and caring can arise even in the presence of and sometimes because of racial epithets and name-calling as long as there’s genuine sharing of proximity and real play, while on the flip side, the fact of not having racial epithets and ethnic name-calling is no guarantee of such relationships flowering and often doesn’t lead to any real human bond at all. This is best demonstrated in Chapter 16 of the book.

Of course, I’m not saying that the old school ease in terms of ethnic humor that I experienced as a child and still cherish with old school friends was some utopian state of race relations. Quite the opposite. Much of it grew out of poverty and ignorance. But the ease was a result of the reality of having different types of people share proximity. For instance, a lot of Colombian kids I knew would tell me my house and other Korean households smelled like farts ‘cuz of the weird food we ate. But then, they also knew that their houses smelled funny too, and I would call them on this. This freedom to laugh at our own expense is, of course, something far different from the usual whiners who whine about anti-PC and how political correctness censors our speech and writing. My intention is to capture the reality of an era. I hope that readers will get this and not simply tune out because the kids say the c-word, the s-word, the n-word, the f-word, the m-word, the f-word . . .

Are you working on a new book?

Yes. It will be different from BG and LC. I hope that it will be a literary equivalent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker.



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