Actor John Cho’s film career has spanned two decades, including iconic roles in the Harold and Kumar and Star Trek series. Cho pivots his talents to writing with his debut middle grade novel, troublemakerwhich follows Jordan, a Korean American boy, who makes a dangerous trek to help protect his father during the LA riots of 1992. We spoke with Cho about the book’s historical Korean influences, the communal connections that inspired the protagonist, and using books to help children understand complex truths about the world around them.
What was the starting point for troublemaker?
It was really the events of 2020 that gave birth to the idea in this book. We were locked inside the house from Covid. Watching the protests over George Floyd’s murder and observing the anti-Asian violence that was starting to happen. And I changed course. I was supposed to write a different book for the same audience. but I was thinking of a lighter book, maybe a mystery novel. And then I started thinking about my parents’ lives, my life, my children’s lives, and the direction of the country. My thoughts went back to 1992. And I started thinking so much about it, I was like, “I don’t know if I can write that other book.” This story kind of came to me during that time.
Even though troublemaker takes place during the ’90s, how do you think it reflects similar fears and concerns for safety that Asians and Asian Americans are facing right now?
I was shocked at how little had changed since 1992. I was thinking about how my kids are understanding this. And that’s when I thought, what if there was a boy of a similar age who was trying to understand the events in 1992? I was thinking about Rodney King, and how it was happening that George Holliday, a motorist who happened to have a Handycam, recorded those events. I thought, “They got it on video. That’s open and shut.” But it didn’t turn out to be. And in the ensuing years, cops started wearing bodycams, and then everyone had cell phones in their pockets with cameras. And I thought, “That ought to solve that.” And again, and again, it was proved wrong. And so looking at George Floyd’s murder, and seeing [police officer] Derek Chauvin seemingly looks down the barrel of the camera as he knelt on Floyd’s neck got me to think: are we becoming a better country or not?
In your research for this book, was there anything you learned that surprised you or changed your perspective and altered the direction you were taking the story?
I talked to Richard Choi who was a broadcaster at Radio Korea, which is the Korean-language radio station mentioned in the book. It was really delightful to hear about this radio station, which was an early Google for Koreans in LA, People would call the radio station, and these were new immigrants, so they didn’t know who to go to for answers. So they would call and ask things like, “Do you recommend a dentist in the area?” or “Where’s a good SAT prep school?” That was really beautiful to recount.
His summation of the events of 1992 became my book’s thesis in a lot of ways. I asked, “In your opinion, how did the Korean American community change from then on?” And he said, “I think prior to April 29, we Koreans, that generation, thought of ourselves as sojourners to America. Maybe we were going to go back to Korea. We didn’t know. We were here just to get our kids educated [or] start a business But we didn’t really lay our roots down. But after going through that trauma, we realized, we’re Americans.”
Your protagonist Jordan is very determined and clever. Where did the character come from?
I was just pulling from people I knew and grew up with. So it’s a blend. But I always knew that I wanted to make Jordan a bit of a troublemaker and someone who was not perfect. And I think that was a little bit of a resistance to what our parents did. There are many Asians who also believed in the model minority myth that we were “good,” and that was perpetuated by our parents. My friends and I all resented that our parents would tell us about a mythical Peter Kim in Cerritos who got a 1600 on [the] SAT, and they would tell us we were supposed to be like Peter Kim. And we all felt like screw-ups in comparison. And so I definitely wanted Jordan to be very imperfect and start there. And I was very sympathetic to that kid.
A lot of kids want to rise to the occasion for their parents, but is it different for a child of immigrants?
Even though he’s very young, Jordan understands that his parents have gone through a lot, and they’re doing a lot for him. I wanted to understand a bit more about Jordan and that pressure of trying to be great, while also trying to be a kid. This is something I hear from a lot of immigrants. It’s a really benevolent phrase, but so heavy because, I’ve heard from my parents and lots of other parents, “We came here for you.” But to bear the weight of your parents lives’ on your shoulders is extra hard. So there is an extra expectation, and in Jordan’s case, it went awry. Others may rise to the occasion, but a lot of kids buckle under that pressure and Jordan was one of them.
Another interesting thing about this book is that it considers gun violence, which is a prevalent issue in the US, with recent shootings. How did you approach thinking about including a gun in this book?
I was careful, but I was scared to do it. I was working backward thinking what do people remember of Koreans [during that event], and it was the image of the shopkeepers on their rooftops with the rifles. And then I thought, we really had to illustrate what [the shopkeeper’s] home life is. And that’s where I wanted to go. But still, the gun was there. I guess the gun became a proxy for so many things. The dreams of America, of American independence, of freedom. For Jordan, it was adulthood, and responsibility. But he is told in no uncertain terms by his father that the gun is a machine that’s used to kill and so there’s a certain responsibility and weight with that. I do believe that there are responsible ways to use a gun, but there are many irresponsible ways to use a gun. I say in the author’s note that I felt it was an abdication of my duty as a parent if I didn’t talk about these things that my kids are already living. They’re going through active shooter drills at school so it seemed like an opportunity to open a window of discussion.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, you say that as a child you “would have liked a book that spoke to you honestly about adult events.” What truths do you wish you’d been told when you were growing up? And what truths do you hope young readers will take away from troublemaker?
I think Jordan is really unaware of the events of both African American history [in the country] and African American history in his own city that led to that moment, and he is not very aware of the Korean history that led to that moment. A lot of that is the immigrant mentality as it relates to Korean Americans; I think many immigrants are leaving behind their country, or maybe it might be more particular to my generation of immigrants. And they’re like, “We’re leaving that behind. You don’t need to know that.” And also, it’s painful. But as painful as it is, very often it’s necessary to understand the past moving forward, so that you don’t repeat things. And there we were in 2020; it was the ultimate moment of repetition. So I wish that I had been more educated at that age. And hopefully my children are more educated moving forward.
troublemaker by John Cho. Little, Brown $16.99 Mar. 22 ISBN 978-0-7595-5447-4