Q&A with E. Alex Jung: “That's the thing about other people's ignorance: sometimes you can use it for yourself."
This week’s interview is with Vulture senior writer E. Alex Jung, whose profile of Youn Yuh-Jung — the grandmother from the amazing “Minari” — just dropped with New York mag’s new issue today. We chatted about his journalism background, the through line in his coverage of Hollywood’s most provocative talents, and learning to trust his instincts.
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You’ve been writing for New York and Vulture since 2013! What was your path to entertainment journalism like before New York mag?
I think my path is both boring and lucky. Even though I was interested in journalism in college (I wrote a column for the school paper and started a magazine), I didn’t really know that it was something you could do as a career. I couldn’t really get a foothold in the industry (this was also the time around the recession and a print media collapse), and so I ended up living in Seoul, where I also did a Fulbright.
Afterwards I was living for cheap with a friend around Ewha and working at an SAT hagwon, which is simply to say that I had a low overhead and need for fulfillment. I was reading a lot of the stuff coming out of The Awl, the Rumpus, The Morning News, and I wanted to see if I could do something like that. (I loved Jane Hu’s piece on gerbiling , Saeed Jones’ “How Men Fight For Their Lives,” Jay Caspian Kang’s gambling essay.) I was obsessed with drop-crotch pants at the time, and that led me down a rabbit hole of fashion history that resulted in this too-long piece that I got paid $50 for. I loved it though, because I was writing for myself.
Still, the original problem remained. I didn’t know how this translated into an actual job. No one was exactly knocking on my door asking me to write about diaper pants (save for one editor, Jane Kim, who is now at the Atlantic, and to whom I feel eternally grateful). So I applied to journalism school at NYU, which led to an internship at New York Magazine. I was 28 at the time, which on the one hand made me feel like a corpse, but on the other meant I had a really strong sense of self. I had basically spent the past few years fucking up and wandering around, and now I was ready to get to work. From there the path was extremely incremental (how Asian American): intern to weekend writer to full-time blogger to features.
I read in HuffPost that you were actually Vulture's first Asian-American staff writer — what was that like?
Like everyone, I have my share of media mix-up stories. But one memory that makes me laugh happened after I had moderated an event at Vulture Festival. Someone in the senior leadership at New York came up to me to congratulate me on how well it went. He was complimenting me, but was like, Wow I didn't realize you were so outgoing. The funny thing is that was the first time we had ever spoken. Like we had never even been in a meeting where I could have sat quietly and pushed up my glasses or something. It was really a perfectly distilled TV moment where I understood what he was really saying.
There's a greater assimilating institutional force that's hard to pinpoint. Early on, no one else really cared about Asian Americans, so the onus was on me not only to care, but to convince white people in the room that it was worthy enough or that there was a readership. That's a weird dynamic. Generally speaking it felt like stories about race or queerness were put under greater scrutiny or done out of a sense of moral penance, whereas something about the white boy du jour could just be dumb and fun.
The first times I got published in the magazine happened because interviews I did with Asian Americans did well online for Vulture, and so they were later retrofitted for the magazine. This isn't how things normally work, and there was a constant feeling that I had to prove myself or the story first before they would take it.
That said, while people weren't necessarily encouraging me, they also weren't actively working against me. That was enough for me. I could do profiles of John Cho or Padma Lakshmi, because I had both the platform and the ability. Ultimately as long as I could do the work I wanted, I tried not to get too pressed about the other stuff. That's the thing about other people's ignorance: sometimes you can use it for yourself.
What I’ve really admired about your work is how you are always bringing the actors and creators who are challenging the white mainstream status quo to the foreground.
You’re either writing the definitive piece on figures at the center of the zeitgeist — like Sohla El-Waylly, Ziwe Fumudoh, Michaela Coel — as well as giving us a new, overarching treatments on industry veterans like Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, Bong Joon-ho, etc..
I’m curious about what challenges come with pitching or framing these pieces in a way that avoids the trope of like, “hey let’s discover/rediscover this BIPOC creator who’s actually been doing the work for ages, but now they’re trendy.” Has that process has changed at all in light of media’s latest diversity reckoning?
Honestly, I’m just following my own interests, and I’ve just never been that interested in white people.
Part of what I mean about having a strong sense of self is that I understand my world to be maximal. To quote Michaela Coel: "I’m not crazy, this is crazy.” Living in Korea was a really simple, but profound way of reframing myself. It gave me the backbone I needed to eventually work in media and not feel psychologically beaten down. You have to have a strong compass and a thick skin.
At first, working at Vulture was a balancing act between doing what was asked of me (like I did a lot of “Walking Dead” coverage), and then doing what I wanted. At some point the scales tipped mostly towards the latter, which meant I began to have the infrastructure of the magazine behind me. It’s about creating space for yourself as a writer first, but it’s also about institutions creating space for you. I have felt very fortunate to be in a place in the past couple of years where I’m allowed to really trust my own instincts.
Generally I’m looking to be moved, challenged, and vexed by someone’s work. That’s essentially the through line between people like Ziwe and Michaela Coel and Bong Joon Ho. I was looking back through my emails for the timeline around the Bong Joon Ho profile, and there was no real way to anticipate what “Parasite” would actually become around May of 2019. All I was thinking was that this would be a great opportunity. A master filmmaker who’s never had a good English-language profile done of him? I better not fuck this up!
How do you generally prepare for a big interview?
I try to be exhaustive even though I know that’s not really possible. I love going into the archives and reading old interviews. Sometimes they’re really bad, but that itself can be illuminating in terms of seeing how the media treated someone at a given time.
I take a lot of notes, which then turn into questions. Before the interview itself I write out every possible question I might have, and usually some key themes emerge. I try to internalize those things, and when the interview itself happens I let it go. I try to remember to hit certain topics, but otherwise, I’m ready to go wherever the conversation takes me.
How do you divide your time between all the TV/movie watching you have to do for your job vs. watching things for fun?
There is no separation. Everything is content.
Finally, this year’s Oscars got moved to April, but do you have thoughts on who will (or should) be winning big?
I’m more of a should guy, so I’d love to see “Bacurau” in all the big categories, Mads Mikkelsen for “Another Round,” and obviously Youn Yuh-jung for “Minari.”