Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon

Daniel Jae Ho Bae's older brother Charlie Jae Won Bae has just been kicked out of Harvard University. Daniel's parents who are immigrants from South Korea are disappointed and angry that their beloved first-born son who can do no wrong has failed. Charlie doesn't like Daniel and the feeling is mutual. As a little boy, Daniel looked up to his older brother but that changed when Charlie pushed him away to be with friends.

Daniel and Charlie's parents Min Soo and Dae Hyun met and married in South Korea and came to New York City to start a new life. With the help of a cousin they opened a beauty supply shop called Black Hair Care which sells hair care products to the African American residents of New York. They expect their children to be successful to be doctors. Now that Charlie has been forced to withdraw, the pressure is on Daniel to gain admission to a good school and to stick to the path chosen by his parents - becoming a doctor. But Daniel doesn't want to be a doctor. Instead he wants to be a poet.  He's refused to apply to Harvard, but has an interview today with a Yale alum.

Daniel dresses in his new gray suit and a bright red tie for the interview and takes the Westbound 7 train to Manhattan where his favourite barber is located. He has the entire day free before his interview and he decides he will "do whatever the world tells him to", that he will "blow in the direction of the wind."  Enroute the train is stopped in a tunnel just before the Times Square station by the conductor who encourages everyone to find God. From Times Square Daniel decides to walk to the barber keeping an eye for a "Sign". He stops outside a church on Thirty-Seventh Street but when it's locked his sits down to people watch. That's when Daniel sees a black girl with a huge Afro and huge pink headphones completely blissed out listening to music. Daniel recognizes that she's passionate about music and finds this attractive. He decides to follow her when she enters a music store called Second Coming Records. 

Natasha Kingsley, her nine year old brother Peter and her parents Samuel and Patricia are being deported tonight. She and her parents are undocumented, illegal immigrants from Jamaica. They were discovered when her father was charged with a DUI.  Natasha decides to try one last time to prevent their deportation by going to the offices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. On her way into the USCIS offices, Natasha has her personal effects scrutinized by Irene, one of the many security guards. She's late for her 8a.m. appointment with Karen Whitney by five minutes and she is refused. Just as she's about to be escorted out by security, a brown-skinned man by the name of Lester Barnes intervenes. Barnes tells Natasha that her family is here illegally and that she has to leave. He attempts to tell her "Everything is irie there, man" but Natasha questions him about whether or not he saw the real Jamaica on his trip. She begins to cry telling him she planned to attend college and will be returning to a country she doesn't know and hasn't lived in since she was eight. Barnes gives her the name of a lawyer, Jeremy Fitzgerald who can "fix" her situation. Natasha has an appointment at eleven a.m. and so she decides to walk to the lawyer's office and stop in at her favourite record store along the way.

Inside Second Coming, Natasha is disgusted to see her ex-boyfriend Rob and his new girlfriend, Kelly, making out and stealing records. Also watching is a stranger, a Korean boy who is astonished at what Rob and Kelly are doing.Natasha refers to him as Red Tie and together they watch as Rob and Kelly are confronted by a store employee. Daniel introduces himself and shakes hands with Natasha but she's not interested, doesn't tell him her name and tells him to have a nice life. Daniel follows Natasha out of the store and when she goes to step off the curb to cross the street, Daniel sees a BMW running the red light and pulls her out of danger. Natasha is stunned but grateful despite her headphones being broken. Daniel presses her to tell him her name which she does and he invites her to get something to eat. He learns that Natasha is from Jamaica and that she has an important appointment to keep, something that is causing her worry.

While Daniel believes he could have the life his father wants for him and be a great doctor, "something about Natasha makes me think my life could be extraordinary.." Daniel finds himself inexorably attracted to Natasha. In fact, he believes he's falling in love with her even though he knows being with a black girl will never gain his parent's approval. In the coffee shop, Natasha is not friendly towards Daniel and is dismayed to discover that Daniel is falling for her. She tells him not to fall in love with her because she has no intention of falling in love with him. In fact she doesn't believe in love because it can't be measured and is temporary.

So Daniel challenges Natasha that he can get her to fall in love with him. To do this he decides to use some of the questions from a study mentioned in the New York Times. But what Daniel doesn't realize is that time is running out for them. Are they destined to be together? Can Fate intervene?


The Sun Is Also A Star is a beautifully crafted novel that explores the way our lives are inexplicably interconnected to one another. Throughout the tapestry that is woven in this story, Nicole Yoon asks her readers to consider the role of God, Fate or chance in what often seems like random encounters in our lives.

The central characters are Jamaican born, illegal immigrant Natasha Kingsley and Korean-American Daniel Jae Ho Bae. Around them revolve a cast of smaller characters that include Natasha's father Samuel, Daniel's brother Charlie and his father, Dae Hyun Bae, Irene a security guard at USCIS, the train conductor, the BMW driver Donald Christiansen, Attorney Jeremy Fitzgerald, his assistant Hannah Winter, a Korean waitress, and the building security guard named Joe. Although Daniel and Natasha affect each others lives significantly so do the other characters and in particular one character who plays an unexpected part in bringing them back together.

Like the string art on the novel's front cover, Yoon weaves a set of colourful, imaginative narratives together that portray the desperation of a girl to stay in America while demonstrating the threads that connect us all. The Sun Is Also A Star brilliantly demonstrates how we are all interconnected and asks us to consider the origin of the meetings that happen between people. Are these encounters coincidence, random acts that happen in the universe or do they happen due to Fate, destiny or God? Of course the main encounter in the novel is that of Daniel and Natasha. Were they destined to meet and fall in love or was it just random chance?

The two main characters view life very differently and thus approach this question very differently. Natasha is intelligent and practical. Like most people today, she doesn't "like temporary, nonprovable things, and romantic love is both temporary and nonprovable." While her mother believes everything happens for a reason, and her father prefers to see the hand of God in things, Natasha believes "that life is just a random series of good and bad things that happen until one day you die. There is no fate, no destiny, no meant-to-be." Natasha believes she's a realist: "It's better to see life as it is, not as you wish it to be. Things don't happen for a reason. They just happen." Natasha intends to be a data scientist but she feels this choice is not destiny. "I chose this career. It didn't choose me. I'm not fated to be a data scientist...I did research on growing fields in the sciences...No fate."

Practical Natasha believes the "poetic heart, the heart of love songs and fickle and will lead you astray. It will tell you that all you need is love and dreams." Despite this, Natasha's "fickle, nonpractical, non-future-considering, nonsensical heart wants Daniel. I know there's no such thing as meant-to-be and yet here I am wondering if maybe I've been wrong." This sets up an intense conflict within Natasha who believes that "love is just chemicals and coincidence."  Natasha believes in "determinism -- cause and effect. One action leads to another leads to another. Your actions determine your fate." She views the actions of one individual human as inconsequential compared to the forces at work in the vast universe. 

In contrast, Daniel, an aspiring poet  challenges Natasha's practical, less passionate outlook on life. "We are capable of big lives...Why choose the practical thing, the mundane thing? We are born to dream and make the things we dream about." Unlike Natasha, Daniel believes in love and shortly after meeting her, he's certain he's going to fall in love with her. Daniel believes in Fate or destiny - their meeting might have been by chance but once it happened, falling in love was inevitable. When Natasha reveals that she is hours from being deported, Daniel is deeply hurt. He struggles and wonders if "Life is just a series of dumb decisions and indecisions and coincidences that we choose to ascribe meaning to."  He considers what Natasha told him that he's looking for someone to rescue him from his life because then the decisions about his future will be out of his control. "It won't be me defying my parents. It will be Fate." 

But Daniel's faith that something else is at work in their lives is rekindled when he and Natasha find each other a second time that day - he returns to the building where she had the interview while she goes back to his house hoping to meet him there. Perhaps it is destiny or Fate that intervenes but Daniel's brother does the only good thing he will do for his brother in his life, he gives Daniel's phone number to Natasha. They discover yet another coincidence - Daniel's interview is in the same building as Natasha's lawyer and that the interview is with her lawyer, a Yale alumnus.While Daniel believes in God and that the connection people share with one another represents God, Natasha believes only in science to explain that connection. When it becomes apparent that Natasha will have to leave, Daniel has succeeded in his quest but while he hopes there will be "something else that could lead them back to each other" someday. For Natasha, maybe meant to be isn't forever.

 Themes and ideas from Natasha's narratives are explored further in separate chapters. For example, when Natasha meets with Lester Barnes at the Immigration office he makes reference to the Jamaican term "irie". He tells Natasha of his limited Jamaican experience, "I had a nice time. Everything is irie there. You'll be all right." But in the chapter titled "irie. An etymological history" Natasha explores the meaning of irie, but also how words can mean one thing to one person -like Barnes, but a totally different thing to another person. Barnes really doesn't know or understand the Jamaican concept of irie in the same way that Natasha might. "A word can start off meaning one thing and end up meaning another. Is it from overuse and oversimplification, like the way irie is taught to tourists at Jamaican resorts? Is it from misuse, like the way Natasha's father's been using it lately?"

Yoon also shows her readers how the slightest of our actions can influence another person in ways we might not know. Irene who is the security guard at USCIS loves her job because it is the sole source of connection with other people in her life. She slows down each bin she needs to search, forcing people to "look up and meet her eyes." Irene decides that she will kill herself, something she's been contemplating for some time. However, Natasha, believing that Attorney Fitzgerald can save her family from deportation, decides to phone Lester Barnes asking him to thank Irene. Her delaying Natasha getting through security resulted in the chain of events that led her to meeting Daniel. Barnes call to Irene ultimately saves her life, leads her to start on a new path and results in her, years later helping to reunite Daniel and Natasha.

The Sun Is Also A Star is another brilliant, beautiful novel by Nicole Yoon. Her stories are engaging, thoughtful and remarkably well crafted. Nicole Yoon grew up in Jamaica and also in Brooklyn New York. Her second novel makes her a force to be reckoned with in young adult literature.

Book Details:

The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicole Yoon
Canada: Doubleday Canada    2016
344 pp.

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