“Shine” is about being true to yourself, your dreams, and the people important to you. Reading into the book for dirt on the K-pop industry or Jung’s past is ultimately a disservice to her as a writer and the book she wrote.
Last summer, poet and author Ocean Vuong came to speak at the Harvard Book Store about his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. During his talk he spoke about the trap of autobiographical fiction, the thing that happens when an author writes a book heavily based off their life experiences, but the story and actual events may or may not be true. Even though it’s a fictional story and characters, because it so closely resembles the author’s real life readers will automatically use the story to make assumptions about the author. This was the case for many Asian American writers including Vuong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and I expect will repeat itself for Jessica Jung, former K-pop idol and debut young adult author of Shine.
Initially I was like everyone else when I heard Jung was writing a YA romance about a teen training to be an idol in Seoul: OMG, this is going to be some tea! I spent all spring asking for an advanced readers copy of the book, and when one finally opened up for booksellers, I snatched it and started reading within the hour. I was only four pages into the book when I realized I was reading it the exact way Vuong had talked about: I was looking for dirt on the K-pop industry, analyzing every character for their real-world counterpart, and completely ignoring the story Jung was telling. So let’s take a breath and step back.
Shine follows Rachel Kim, a 17 year-old Korean American teenager living in Seoul and training at one of the top music agencies to become the next hit K-pop star. Her entire family moved from New York City for her to pursue her dream overseas, a fact that stays with her everyday and motivates for her to succeed, aka debut as an official idol. Life as a trainee is brutal on Rachel, between constant practices honing her singing, dancing, and media presence (interviews, acting, etc.) alongside her school life during the week. Not to mention the culture shock as an American teen living in Seoul, the vindictive competition between trainees, and the constant pressure to be “perfect.” But becoming a K-pop star is her ultimate dream, so she stays the course. Until, of course, she has a K-drama meet-cute with Jason Lee, idol dream boy extraordinaire and the face of their company. As the two are drawn together and the company gets closer to announcing its new girl group, Rachel begins to seriously question her dream, her sacrifices, and what’s important to her.
Rachel’s story isn’t a soap opera and Jung doesn’t add any over the top elements; Shine feels like a normal YA rom-com about two teens trying to become celebrities in a difficult industry. Rachel has to deal with fumbling dance practices, balancing school and work, making time for her friends, and miscommunication in her family. I liked Rachel’s earnestness and dedication to her passion, she came across as a believable teen that’s trying to make it in K-pop in Seoul. Readers follow Rachel when she goes on a school field trip, flirts with a cute boy, and begins to understand the real world that surrounds her dream. At no point does the book lose its light feeling but it doesn’t shy away from serious issues either: the strict rules from her company, sexist double standards, and feeling like a constant outsider. Rachel is hopeful without being naive, focused without being narrow minded. On its own as a regular YA novel, Shine is simple and cute and “perfect for any K-pop fan.” However, because of who wrote it, I doubt it’ll ever get the chance to be a regular book.
Reading Shine is tricky even for people unfamiliar with Jung’s past because there’s still a lot in the story that fits into the preconceived narrative of K-pop held in the West. There’s talk of plastic surgery, dating bans, and a scene of two girls participating in their regular company weight check. While all of those things are true parts of the K-pop industry, for the uninitiated these aspects only work as confirmation bias of the “dark side of K-pop.” Is it great? No, but it’s the facts and Rachel’s daily life. Reading the way Jung portrays each part, and the way Rachel experiences them, it’s all just part of the job and doesn’t stand out as a bullet meant to “take down the K-pop industry.” But Shine still voices its criticisms: a former female idol warns Rachel about the toxic standards women face after they debut, a manager picks favorites, and one word from the CEO can end a teen’s whole career. Given Jung’s experience and history, any time a moment like this happens feels honest and raw, her voice speaking up instead of “spilling the tea.”
One caveat I’ll say to all of this is that there are characters, scenes, or story points that will set off a little ping! for anyone familiar with Jung’s past. While I refuse to speculate about the real-world counterpart for Jason Lee, the flags are in the finer details. The most obvious example: nine members in the new girl group. There’s also a highly specific rant about music labels that seems to draw parallels to a real major entertainment company in Seoul. And there’s also a small bit at the end, when Rachel’s with her new members, and she talks about the facade the group puts on in front of the camera. I tell myself I’m reading too much into the details, to let Jung tell this story as she wants, but there are enough flags that I can’t help but wonder if entirely detaching Jung’s past from Shine is another form of disservice to her.
Rachel went through some intense sacrifices to get what she wanted, and in the end she doesn’t regret it; Shine’s overall theme is coming out stronger through life’s trials and what it means to flourish against adversity. One of my favorite parts about Rachel was when she reflected back on hearing a K-pop song for the first time, after she’d been teased at school for being Korean, and that feeling of being proud of your heritage for the first time. That feeling or pride and joy carried Rachel through difficult times and anchored her as she pursued her dream. As a K-pop fan, I relate to that indescribable happiness a certain song can spark. Music speaks to people, which Rachel felt and I’m sure Jung knows. If I could ask the author one question, it would be “Why do you like K-pop?” I don’t mean it in a harsh or judgmental way, asking why as in for what reason or purpose; I mean why as in a reason or explanation, “What does K-pop mean to you?” I think Shine is her way of answering.