The Debut: Lac Su, author of I Love Yous Are for White People
Amy Cheney — School Library Journal, 12/16/2009
Lac, every year there are one or two books that I get really excited about. This year it’s your memoir, I Love Yous Are for White People. The book has everything—action, gore, humor, a good story, depth, and thoughtfulness. The intensity of the cultural divide between generations and growing up as a son of refugees from the Vietnam war makes it an excellent discussion starter on a number of topics—immigration issues, an abusive parent, and gang life, just to start. How much do you struggle with all the stereotypes that you play right into, such as Vietnamese eating dogs and capturing animals in public parks?
That’s the beauty of nonfiction and memoir writing. I can tell—I have to tell—the stories as they were without fearing the repercussions of any political and social judgment. To make this memoir work, I had to put myself or any misconception about my culture out there—raw and uncut. My goal as a memoirist is to tell stories and not worry about any social backlashes they may stir. I feel readers can appreciate honesty and authenticity. Without knowing, many of my stories explained how these stereotypes came about for me, in my life.
How irritated are you by the classification of your book in libraries and the media as an immigrant’s story? My primarily African-American and Latino youth all relate to your story even though they aren’t immigrants.
I’m not irritated at all. America is so fascinated by immigrant stories—for good reasons. We have rich and compelling stories to tell. But once readers start to read the book, they will see, really, it’s a story about a human being’s quest to find love and his voice. Universally, aren’t we all looking for the same in some form or another?
In your memoir, you write about arriving in this country as a five year old boy and the alienation you felt, your father’s increasingly violent outbursts and the pressure you felt to align yourself with local gangs as you grew older. Growing up in such a brutal environment, how were you able to stay in tune with your own thoughts and feelings?
I think genetically, I possess my mother’s kind, altruistic, and loving heart. Behaviorally, I’ve learned from my father the devastating force of anger and violence. I always walked on both sides of this fence growing up. The troubles I’ve been in with my peers were about me trying to prove to myself that I was as tough as my father. But deep inside, I knew I was doing wrong—it was not in my character to do such things. I just knew this. The way I kept in tune was to believe that I was a good person in spite of it all.
When you came to the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center in California and spoke to the incarcerated kids, they were hanging on your every word. I think the most poignant story you told was of your father coming into a reading. Can you share that story?
I don’t want to give too much of this story away because I plan on including it in some form in my sequel. Briefly, my father made a surprise visit to one of my book signings to hear me talk. On that night, some 30 years later from where I began in I Love Yous Are for White People, I heard the words “I love you… too” from my father—for the very first time.
You immediately hooked the kids when you talked about watching The Bill Cosby Show and Leave It to Beaver and your bafflement that your own home life wasn’t like that, and, somehow, you thought it was your fault.
The idea was for me to tell them all the back stories about the hardships I’ve been through to try to explain the reasons why I got into trouble. There have to be reasons why we hurt others, why we violate and break rules. It’s a cry for love. I knew my stories resonated with them. The room was dead silent, and I saw hands rise in anticipation to ask me questions. Some even shared their own experiences with me—perhaps for the very first time. It was a victorious and fulfilling moment. All the tears I’ve shed writing my book were wiped away when I connected with these young men.
Did you consider any other titles for your book? Whenever I booktalk it, kids laugh about the title—I Love Yous Are for White People—and immediately start a conversation and debate it.
I toyed with several potential titles. This Much Is True, Learning to Fish, The Son Has Yet to Rise, and The Crippled Walk. We ended up using I Love Yous Are for White People because, according to my editor, it was an edgy and provocative title—one that would catch people’s attention. It was already a chapter title before we decided to make it the book title.
Glad to know this was the final choice—so much better than the others!
See also: The SLJ review of I Love Yous Are for White People (Nov 09)
Amy Cheney is a recognized expert on books, literacy, and programs for underserved youth. Her Write to Read program at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center won a 2006 award from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. In 2006, she was named a Library Journal Mover and Shaker, and in 2008, won the New York Times “I Love My Librarian” award.