Despite the rise in diversity in Young Adult literature, not least stories by Asian writers, there’s still a dearth of stories starring strong Asian males, perhaps due to the fact that most YA authors are women.
So it comes as something of a relief that Suzanne Park’s debut YA novel, The Perfect Escape, provides readers an entertaining story with an Asian male teen as the leading protagonist. The story, furthermore, isn’t specifically Asian; although Nate Kim happens to be Korean-American, his story isn’t centered on the immigrant experience or cultural differences between generations, but is instead universal to readers of all backgrounds.
Nate and his co-worker Kate Anderson are teens at different Seattle high schools. They meet at their place of part-time employment, an escape room in which participants need to flee from staff members dressed as zombies. Nate excels in track, archery, and Krav Maga. He’s also an Eagle scout and one of the top students in his class. His only duty to his parents is to do well at school, but he’s not set on becoming a doctor or lawyer, and his parents don’t seem to be too involved in his career goals. When Kate asks him to be her partner in a survivalist competition involving robotized zombies, Nate jumps at the chance.
All these activities were for college applications, but they turned out to be the perfect training for zombie survival. With this victory under my belt, it would add credibility when I jump-start my dream as CEO of a doomsday survival company, and maybe, just maybe, I could catch the eye of investors…
Kate is a promising actress and feels trapped by her father’s plans for her future, which center around joining his security company. Part of these plans include a gap year to study Mandarin in China and learn about the inner workings of the company’s Asian offices. She wants no part of his business or his money, and hopes to win this survivalist competition so she’ll be able to start a new life as an actress in New York. (Asian readers might smile at non-Asian Kate being subjected to many of the pressures typically faced by Asian characters in other YA novels.)
It’s pretty evident from the beginning that Nate and Kate have feelings for one another. But it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without a relationship conflict, so enter Annie, one of Nate’s classmates. This is, by contemporary YA standards, an unusual and refreshing love triangle: a male Asian male playing the romantic lead with non-Asian female characters.
Nate’s Korean background comes up sporadically, mostly in food and his parents’ rule that their children can never question them. But what defines Nate the most, compared to the other characters in the story, is that he’s a scholarship student at an elite private school where most students drive luxury cars and vacation in five-star resorts around the world. Nate’s parents are in jeopardy of losing their home and are behind in paying other bills. The survivalist competition could put an end to those worries if Nate and Kate succeed.
The Perfect Escape is, according to the publisher, the first in a YA series by Park. (She is also the author of two forthcoming adult novels.) With more books like The Perfect Escape, diverse characters will become the norm and old stereotypes may finally be put to rest.