Joe Milan Jr.’s debut novel, The All-American, follows Bucky Yi as he comes of age through some of the most harrowing events a teenager can witness: the poverty of his hometown, the near death of his only male role model, deportation, conscription into a foreign military, and the violence and madness resulting from isolation, paranoia, and combat.
Growing up in the poor, mostly white, town of Tibicut, Washington, Bucky has never thought much of his identity as a boy growing into a man, or as a Korean American. In his mind, all he needs to know is that he is a running back on the high school football team. Though not the fastest, he prides himself on having the best mind for the game on his team. He believes his vision will get him recruited to play college. But when Bucky’s closest father figure runs into the law, law enforcement questions Bucky’s Americanness, resulting in his deportation to South Korea. Once there, Bucky stops being who he always thought he was. No longer a running back, he lugs beer kegs at a dive bar. Unable to speak or understand Korean, he struggles to navigate South Korean bureaucracy and society. When he’s drafted into the army, he’s even stripped of his name, given a number, and eventually only known as Beyonghak, his birth name. In his struggle to find his way home, Bucky learns what it means to be American, to be Korean, to be a man. He also learns that these definitions are made by people with power over him.
I spoke with Joe about the similarities of poor, rural spaces across countries, the trap of toxic masculinity, the importance of identity, and the hope that springs from seemingly hopeless places.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Content Warning: Discussion of Suicide and Sexual Assault
This book was a trip. I latched onto a lot of familiar hallmarks of working-class literature: living life heavily in debt, mental health issues brought on by economic strife, substance abuse, and the feeling that you are never in control of your own life, despite your best efforts. Beyonghak deals with all of this while simultaneously dealing with his citizenship status and coming of age. Can you talk a little bit about how a novel with all these conflicts piled onto a young protagonist came to be?
Joe Milan Jr.
I had a writing teacher who said, “All books are based on characters with want, and you know the book is done when the want is either fulfilled or it ends in tragedy.” I thought, “What happens to the character after the end?” The oldest part of the book is him getting conscripted into the army, where the outside world intervenes on him trying to go back home after this false revelation that going to Korea would somehow change his life. I wrote that, and my writing teacher told me it wasn’t very good. He said, “That was a nice little thing you were trying to do there. But I’m not sure if this is a sports narrative, an army narrative, an immigrant narrative. Let’s just put this aside, and maybe someday you can return to it.”
I didn’t touch it for a really long time. I was living in Korea then, and things kept popping up, and it seemed to match Beyonghak’s character. One example was: I found out some Korean Americans were getting pulled off planes and put into the Korean army because there was some sort of scandal with K-Pop stars and rich kids who were draft-dodging. There was public outcry that Korea needed to enforce conscription laws. So, anybody who was registered as a Korean citizen, and did not surrender their citizenship by 18, was available for a conscription. That included Korean Americans. I thought that might be worth writing about.
Then, I started traveling around Korea, and I noticed working-class places that were basically ghost towns. It was the same thing as in the US where entire industries were just gone. I started noticing the same sort of stuff, like a refrigerator on the front lawn next to a broken-down car with a dog on a chain around back barking.
You’re explaining my neck of the woods.
Joe Milan Jr.
Yeah! I grew up near all that. I thought it looks exactly the same in the US as it does in Korea. It just blew me away because, when I was growing up, I was always told how different the rest of the world was. When you travel, you realize there are more things in common than different. Desperate people, whether in rural America or rural Korea, deal with a lot of the same problems. They had pride, they had jobs. Then it was stripped away from them, and they’re left without any alternatives other than to live in the ghost town or move.
I was teaching an American Culture class at a university in Korea and using a text issued by the State Department in the 1980s: L. Robert Kohls’s The Values Americans Live By. One of the values is “Future Orientation;” we, as Americans, always believe that we can shape our future, and that our individuality is what dictates our possibilities. We also believe in this idea of merit. My students laughed at this, saying, “Yeah, but you have to rip somebody off for that control.” I told them: no, Americans really believe this. It made me think about how ludicrous it is, especially as a young man, that one of the things we’re told is: work hard enough, and good things will happen. But if you’ve ever played sports, you know that’s not true.
I only knew of one Korean American football player: Heinz Ward. I kept thinking, “What if I tracked a character who really bought into this American idea, the Korean American kid who just believes if he does all the American things right, if he grinds it out enough, works his ass off, he can achieve great heights? He could get out of the trailer park.” The book is all about the dichotomy between the control we have over our own identity, and what the rest of the world tells us we are. Learning to negotiate that is when you come of age and when you figure out a lot of this is just the accident of birth. I’m born here and not there.
One thing that struck me with Beyonghak’s journey is that he’s presented with moments that are “the same, but different.” A line that stuck out to me was that he traveled across the world to Giwon and found another Tibicut, saying, “it feels like you could go over the hill and be right on top of Lion Mountain.” Can you discuss these parallels a bit more?
Joe Milan Jr.
I don’t know what it is about hard-up rural places. There is always rust on things. In Korea, some people used old panels from shipping containers as sheds. When you’re in towns like that, you could tell that at one point, the people were trying hard to build it into something. Some towns had old train stations and that meant there were quite a few people living there making money doing agricultural work. Then it just disappeared.
I live in Iowa now. I’ll drive around and see some old family farm that for some reason hasn’t gotten bought up by a conglomerate. It’s shocking to me that a rusted-out tractor or combine is left there to die with the farm. When you’ve seen one broken-down farm, you’ve seen them all. In Korea, I saw the exact same thing. I saw these marks of desperation where people were using shards of flower pots to help keep up a retaining wall in a corner of a rice paddy. Every ravine is a junkyard. But the urban centers are so clean in comparison to what we have in America or in other countries. Then you go into the countryside, and it was all built up poorly after the war. Everything’s broken-down and sagging. I see the same things in rural America. As Americans, we tell each other how developed our country is, and yet our poverty looks similar everywhere I’ve been.
Identity and the importance of names play a major role throughout this novel. Your protagonist is Bucky when he’s in Tibicut, Hulk when first arrives in South Korea, he’s even called a racial slur for white people, before he uses Beyonghak, his birth name. Similarly, his one-time high school crush, Chantal, becomes Bora when she goes to college. Beyonghak’s closest ally at basic training, Sa—whose real name is Junho—gives great insight: “Korean names always mean something. Girls: precious, pretty things. Man, everything else.” I feel this line encapsulates the layers your novel has in terms of masculinity and identity. I’d love for you to expand on that.
Joe Milan Jr.
My name actually reads well in Korea: it’s Jo Mi-lan, a woman’s name. I’ve always had issues with my name and the pronunciation, and no matter how many times I tell people it’s Joe My-lin, not Mih-Lahn, I have to reinforce a different pronunciation to how it’s read for an entire world. This made me think, “What is a name for?” We’re in a culture that says our name is this very personal thing. It’s usually used to honor someone who has passed or someone else who is attached to our family, but often we view it as this very personal thing. I feel names, like many parts of our identity, are forced upon us. Like a lot of things happening in our cultures today, we’re trying hard to rectify this power dynamic where the entire world tells you what you’re going to be, but you’re asking yourself, “Who am I?” Unless you deliberately change your name, it’s someone else naming you, and usually naming you for someone else.
That simple fact about who controls the name that you have is something that always pissed me off because my name was always changing. In South Korea, they didn’t know what to do with my name, because it sounded so Korean. But if I taught a class, the students would be weirded out by the idea that there was this man with a woman’s name teaching them. In rural America, it’s much like the military town where I grew up. You are raised with a certain expectation of what it is to be a man. It’s clear what a man does and doesn’t do. That goes for everything, from the kind of name, to the kind of actions, to the kind of sports a man plays. It’s a rigid protocol that is absolutely poisonous. It’s killing men; these old ideas and masculinity are killing us. Feminism has the solution.
When I write about Bucky, he is doing everything right according to that masculine code. But he is so fantastically miserable, and he doesn’t even know it, because this is not how it’s supposed to work. For example, the scene when he finally gets sex. He doesn’t realize he’s being raped. He doesn’t know how to process that, because of that masculine code he’s bought into. I think it’s horrible for men like Bucky, because the world’s changing, a lot of it for the better. Men are killing each other—and killing themselves—with these expectations that none of us wanted in the first place.
Part of the reason why Beyonghak’s names are always changing is signifying these outside forces constantly dictating to him a new identity that he doesn’t really want. But he has no choice. He doesn’t want to be called Bucky, but that’s the only name that sounds right, because of the environment he’s living in. He doesn’t really want to be called Hulk, because he’s just being used for his strength. He’s denigrated to a number when he’s in the military and when he’s held in the immigration detention center. In the end he, the narrator, doesn’t have a name, really.
Beyonghak’s still in this no man’s land between boyhood and manhood, a time that can be devastating to a young man’s mental and emotional health. Layered onto that, he’s dealing with issues of class, heritage, citizenship status, and an overall sense of not belonging. He’s even unsure if he’s seventeen or nineteen. Can you speak a bit about his journey from boyhood to manhood?
Joe Milan Jr.
I didn’t intend to write a criticism of masculinity, or a feminist book, but toxic masculinity doesn’t give you a solution other than this false sense of control. One thing Americans do in coming-of-age novels is, we think becoming an adult only happens in the separation from the parents and from the family, like Huck Finn. The reality that comes with adulthood is, you’re not guaranteed the payout you thought you would get just because you followed your passion. This idea that you have control over your life in toto is not a reality. You live in a society, and that society has a huge influence on what you can and cannot do.
I wanted to make the book as close to that traditional expectation of manhood and show how it didn’t work out for Beyonghak. I threw him into the army because I was a military brat and we’re told you’re not really a man until you’ve held a gun, shot a gun, learned how to take a life, and served your country or died protecting it. It’s pretty toxic. Similarly, the Korean Army is well known for being incredibly toxic. They have a lot of suicide because of that, and they’re only recently trying to make it less brutal. When you’re raised with this ideology that your demonstration of power over another is a defining part of what it means to be a man, it leads to a lot of abuse. I was trying to show that journey from what you’ve been told and raised to believe in those sorts of settings. Then, at the most important moment, it finally clicks for Beyonghak, how brutal and toxic this is and he thinks, “Oh, my God! Look at what we’re about to do!”
Can you talk about the role of men and masculinity in Beyonghak’s life? Also, can you talk about his insecurities about whether he’s American or Korean enough?
Joe Milan Jr.
The traditional idea of masculinity is a trap. It doesn’t make you a better father, and it doesn’t make you a better provider. It doesn’t make your heart sing. It doesn’t make you deal with all the hardship that it takes to grow up. Bucky doesn’t have any examples of masculinity where it works out. His bedrock version of masculinity is Uncle Rick, who tries to commit suicide. The belief that through violence and power one becomes a man is flawed, but Bucky doesn’t realize this. Early in the book, he witnesses Uncle Rick demonstrate an incredible, violent, power over another person in order to be heard. Bucky meets this type of man time and time again. Lieutenant Father is the same. The person who punishes Lieutenant Father is the same. Sarge, on Love Island, is a whole bag of madness. They show what happens when this toxic masculinity is taken to its endpoint. It takes Bucky a lot to figure out that everything is screwed if you get to that endpoint.
As far as him being American or Korean enough, my objective was: I wanted to make the most American dude possible. I wanted to exploit all those biases we have of our own American masculine narrative: dude, raised poor, bootstraps himself into stardom. The American masculine wet dream. For Bucky going through this, he thinks he’s ultimately American, but America disagrees. So, he gets deported. Then the Koreans don’t know what he is, but he is not Korean as far as they are concerned.
This reflects something that I’ve always felt personally where, being an Asian American, especially in our particular moment, there’s a lot more racism than I remember when I was growing up because of COVID-19, and all this exploitation of jingoism and all that kind of bullshit. I’ve been asked, “Where are you really from?” and my own personal story is pretty complicated. I was born in Japan, but I’m not Japanese. I was born on a naval base. I was born American. I’ve had Homeland Security give me grief because they’ve asked me, “When did you get naturalized?” I say I was born an American. Once, the person interviewing me started threatening me because he could not conceive of an American, born abroad, not looking like what he expected an American to look like. When you’re raised this way, and you’re told that you’re mostly American, but not fully, there’s the implied idea that if you go “home,” meaning the country of your parents’ origin, you’re going to find this blossoming moment where you go back to this country you’ve never lived, and you’re going to feel like you belong. You return to your roots, you eat kimchi jjigae, and suddenly all this explosion of memory and genetic alignment with the place you’re supposed to be is supposed to happen, and you’re in touch with your soul. But then you realize there’s more opportunity in America, and your life’s better in America, because America is better, or whatever a “real” American is supposed to think. And so eventually, you say, “This is good, but I need to go home,” which means: America; work hard; be a man; bootstraps. I think that’s just absolutely bananas. I lived in Korea for ten years, and at no point did they think I was Korean. On the other hand, here in America, so many other people get to decide whether you’re American or not. It was always other people telling me that I was Korean or I was American. In the same way, Beyonghak experiences that.
Jin-wook, the spy character, challenges Beyonghak’s idea of freedom, saying that it’s a myth and that he’s merely given “packaged decisions” disguised as freedom “by those with money and power.” Throughout this novel, Beyonghak fights against being told what to do or who to be. Without giving away the end of the novel, do you think Beyonghak comes to terms with the constraints put on his life?
Joe Milan Jr.
I think he does. Definitely. He gets some wants filled, but has a knowledge of his limitations. There’s then an even greater want that he’s going to pursue doggedly. That’s the only thing he knows how to do. I put him through horrible things, but I gave him some idea of freedom. If you don’t do that for your characters, then the work becomes a tragedy. I can be, and sometimes am, angry about these things we’ve discussed because I am hopeful. Society misconstrues angry people as being negative. I think angry people, when fighting for the belief that things can get better, are angry because they are hopeful, but still realize how bad things are currently. I’m so angry about the things that happen to Beyonghak. I know of enough instances where the things that happen to him have happened in real life, to countless people. Unjust deportation and forced conscription, and rape, and the brutalities of a toxic masculine culture. So, yeah, the book has to end hopefully, because I do have hope that people and societies can get better.
Joe Milan Jr.
W. W. Norton & Company
Published April 4, 2023
RS Deeren’s debut collection of stories, Enough to Lose, is forthcoming September 2023 from Wayne State University Press. He earned his MFA from Columbia College Chicago and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he is the fiction editor of Zone 3 Press. Before pursuing writing, he worked in the rural Thumb Region of Michigan as a line cook, a landscaper, a bank teller, and a lumberjack. Find him at www.rsdeeren.com and on Twitter @RSDeeren.
Kept wanting to stop reading because I have something to do, but could not. Thanks for this great interview. Looking forward to reading The All-American!