A case of literary diversity gone wrong in Eleanor & Park

One of my favorite young adult novels in high school was Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, a love story about a half-Korean boy named Park and a poor, chubby red-haired girl named Eleanor set in Nebraska in 1986. When I read it for the first time, I was excited by the idea of an Asian American male love interest who was going through some of the same struggles I was experiencing as an Asian American teenager. I liked the way Rowell captured the feeling of young love through words as well.

Unfortunately, Rowell, a white woman, failed to delve into the nuances of Park’s conflicts with his racial identity and used mentions of his Korean Americanness to push the narrative of his relationship with Eleanor. In this blog post, I will be examining why Rowell thought it was okay for her to create an Asian American male experience through her white lens and how that problematic form of aesthetic fetishization feeds into the mainstream consumption of Asian American sexuality.

The entire book is dominated by Eleanor’s fetishization of Park’s physical appearance, constantly describing his green eyes as exotic and his skin tone as “sunshine through honey (Rowell, 53). She mixes up Japanese and Chinese cultural references when trying to capture how she feels about him. On the other hand, Park’s self-loathing is evident in his passages. Exacerbated by his G.I. father’s expectations of his performance of white masculinity, Park can’t seem to accept his Korean American identity. He envies his brother for looking more white. He acknowledges out loud to Eleanor that no one thinks Asian guys are “hot.” When Park finally seems to take a step in the direction of accepting his appearance, it is through invading his mother’s makeup bag to give himself a more “dangerous, edgy” look.

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Rowell defended her decision to write Park as an Asian American character through a blog post published shortly after she began receiving questions from Asian American readers about Park’s identity. In the post, she discussed how her father had served in the Korean War. While Rowell’s father had been stationed in Korea, he fell in love with a girl there. Rowell said she was angry at him after she found out for both leaving the person he was meant to be with. She struggled to understand why he couldn’t have brought her home to Omaha, so in Eleanor & Park, Park’s father brings his soulmate home. Rowell also wrote about how there was an Asian American boy who rode her bus while she was in school, and how she had been shocked that he was popular and accepted in a majority-white neighborhood that still flew Confederate flags on their porches. The last reason she gave was that she had a Chinese-American friend in high school named Paul, who was very popular with the ladies and extremely cool.

Obviously none of those reasons are legitimate enough for her to write an Asian American male character in the irresponsible way she did, but why did she think they were? I believe that it is because white consumption of Asian American sexualities has become normalized in today’s society, which makes white people think it is also okay to produce their conceptions of Asian American sexualities. In Stephanie Hsu’s “Transsexual Empire,” she talks about a form of globalized consumption in which American consumers discard foreign cultural objects as soon as they ask how Americans can do things better. In her blog post, Rowell acknowledged that there was a lack of Asian Americans in young adult literature. She also wrote that “it was up to people like [her] to write those characters.” This statement shows Rowell’s paternalistic attitude towards diversity in literature. Instead of acknowledging work that writers of color might be doing to include more characters of color in their books, Rowell deems diversity as something she is qualified to tackle. Not only that, she fetishizes her father’s experience and paints Korean war brides, something historically problematic, as something positive without deeply considering all the negative experiences many of those women go through when they come to America.

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Rowell’s lack of true understanding of diversity comes through in passages when she writes about Park’s self-loathing. I compared this with Ben’s self-loathing behavior in Shortcomings. Instead of using Ben’s hatred for his racial identity, Tomine managed to portray the links between sexuality, race and identity through Ben’s interactions with people around him in a convincing manner, while exposing the toxic elements of Asian American masculinity at the same time. However, Park’s self-loathing does not get resolved in Eleanor & Park. Each moment he verbally brings up something he dislikes about being a Korean American boy is diffused by Eleanor’s reassurances about his physical attractiveness. In the end, Eleanor escapes an abusive situation but Park is still in the same situation of being at odds with his Korean Americanness. His self-loathing behavior is simply there to act as a foil for Eleanor’s fetishization. 

Unfortunately, Rowell’s definition of diversity seems to be a one based in consumerism of shallow normative narratives that feature a non-white face without delving into the nuances of being a person of color. While white authors do have a responsibility to create characters of color, Rowell’s decision to create a character of color without really addressing the complications of his race doesn’t actually add anything to diversity. Instead, she uses Park’s racial background to push heteronormative expectations of his relationship with Eleanor.

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