Breaking the Cycle

Actor and author John Cho on pushing past trauma and telling stories of connection and love

June 25, 2022

John Cho
John Cho speaks at ALA's Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C., on June 25. Photo: EPNAC

When actor John Cho was writing his debut middle-grade novel, Troublemaker, he wanted to capture three generational perspectives through the story of Jordan, the book’s protagonist, and Jordan’s father and grandfather. During his June 25 session at the American Library Association’s 2022 Annual Conference and Exhibition, he shared the Korean word han: “The pain that you carry from one generation to the next.”

Cho used the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a backdrop for exploring Jordan’s family dynamic. “The boy [Jordan] sees the LA riots and it’s a personal problem,” he said. “It endangers his father … The father sees it as a livelihood issuethey’re threatening my store, perhaps, and the store is our college fund, it’s food, it’s the mortgage, the car payment, everything—and it must be protected at all costs. For the grandfather, it’s almost a generational birthright to experience trauma.”

“I feel like your book shines such a light on so many things in Asian American families,” said moderator and award-winning children’s author Grace Lin.

Cho said the relationship between Jordan and his father in Troublemaker is reflective of his experiences in his own life, citing the book’s resolution. “It took me decades to reach that kind of conclusion with my father, but I compressed it into a night between Jordan and his dad, maybe in hopes that there’s more for them to go.”

It was important for Cho to bring out the loving relationship between Jordan and his dad. “Especially in cinema, I’ve found that a lot of Asian characters tend to have to escape their culture to find love. I’m keen on telling stories of connection and love, so this book was an excuse to do that.”

Cho also commended librarians for their work, recounting a time during the pandemic when his family headed to the library to access the internet for remote schooling. “When I was writing my book, the visual I kept having was not of my book at a bookstore—it was in the clear jacket at the library, and I imagined a kid walking in and discovering it. Because when I found the right book, it was like a light coming to me; it was a safe light.”


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