What it really means to be all-American

a man and a book cover side by side
Joe Milan Jr.'s debut novel revolves around questions of identity. Can you be American without the paperwork to prove it?
Photo credit Taufik Bonaedy; book cover courtesy of W.W. Norton.

Joe Milan Jr.’s debut novel, “The All-American,” is about immigration — but it’s not a story about what it means to leave a foreign land and start over in America. Instead, it’s about what it means to leave America, unwillingly, and start over in a foreign land.

Milan’s protagonist, 17-year-old Bucky Yi, knows nothing about his birth country of South Korea. Raised in rural Washington, he has only one goal — to become a college football player.

But when he tangles with local law enforcement, and his adoptive mom can’t produce proof of U.S. citizenship, Bucky is deported to a country where he knows no one and can’t speak the language.

He has to tap into his inner running back to deal with situations both extreme and familiar to any young person on the cusp of adulthood. Is he Korean, or American? Is he Bucky, or Beyonghak? Is he a boy, or a man? Does he want to go home? Or has he made a new home?

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This Friday, on Big Books and Bold Ideas, Milan joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to talk about his book, his own identity conundrum, what it means to embody American values, and how football ties it all together.


  • Joe Milan Jr. is a second-generation Korean American and an assistant professor of creative writing at Waldorf University. “The All-American” is his first novel.

Use the audio player above to listen to the conversation.

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