Korean divide, both personal and national
Your story follows two Korean-American sisters, one ever dutiful, the other a sensitive maverick, as they take different paths in America. Is this an allegory of the North and South Korean divide?
In some ways I was trying to talk about the division between North and South Korea, and I did want the estrangement within the family in Forgotten Country to echo the larger break between the two countries. But I also wanted to talk about the aftermath: how ruptures within families come about and are enforced and linger, and can be so difficult to heal.
When did you first start thinking about this story? Is it in any way autobiographical?
I've always been interested in sisters because relationships between women are so fertile and fraughtand complex and intense, and relationships between sisters seem to amplify all that. It's a great set-up for exploring deep and personal issues. That said, I don't have a sister, and the book - while about so many things I care about - isn't autobiographical in that the events of the book and the experiences of the characters are fictional.
With the recent media storm around debut books such as yours and Krys Lee's Drifting House, Korean-diaspora literature seems to be red hot these days. Why do you think that is?
Now is definitely a good time for us. There have been such amazing Korean-American writers who have been laying the groundwork for years now - like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi and Alexander Chee - and I feel they paved the way while creating a hunger for more. It's lucky for us newcomers, because there's still a lot of room in which to write and discover and strike out in new directions.
How did you become a writer? Is this a lifelong goal?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old and wrote my first haiku. When I was growing up, we spoke Korean at home, and I didn't learn English until I started school. There was something about learning to write poems and stories in English - to be able to control language and communicate in this different way - that was immediately and profoundly important. Writing has been the one constant thing in my life ever since. I made some choices that probably look like detours: I studied math at the University of Chicago, but I was writing stories and poems the whole time, and then I worked at a think tank doing economics and statistics before I went to Cornell to get my MFA. The cool thing as a writer is that everything is relevant: you end up using everything, all your experiences come into play somehow, even if it doesn't seem obvious that they will at the time.
Korean folktales and family stories feature in your book. Do you recall the first important folktale you were ever told and how it shaped your life?
My parents told me so many, night after night, as I was growing up. That's how they got me to sleep, though it didn't always work - I always wanted more. My mother told me stories from all over - Greek myths and European fairy tales - and my father had stories about cunning, sneaky tigers with a taste for dried persimmons and misbehaving children. A lot of my childhood memories centre around stories, and the wonderful safe feeling of being told them by my parents in our house. The Disney fairy tales I grew up watching taught my generation of girls to want to be princesses: to wait for Prince Charming, to beware the wolf, and hope a man will rescue you if you're ever in trouble. Interestingly, I learned later that the folk (oral) versions of these tales are often very different, that in those, the girl often outwits the wolf and rescues herself. It's worth noting the folk versions were usually told by women and the fairy tales were written down by men. As I learned more about folk and fairy tales, I started thinking about the Korean folktales I grew up with, which also had hidden messages about loyalty and sacrifice and the value of familial love.
In at least one way, your book is autobiographical. You have an aunt you never knew existed until 40 years after she was kidnapped in Seoul and taken to live in North Korea. What happened to your aunt?
I hesitate to say that part of my book is autobiographical because the experiences of the characters around that event are actually so unlike my family's. I know almost nothing about what happened to my aunt and how her disappearance affected anyone, because so little was said about her. It was dangerous to talk about when it happened - for the family left behind, and also - perhaps - for her on the other side. I think there are other families harbouring this kind of secret or loss, and that takes my breath away. That's partly why I was interested in constructing a narrative around the idea of an invisible absence or disappearance: it gave me access to something that is otherwise elusive.
In Forgotten Country, you explore the experience of a Korean immigrant family in America, and their challenges in adapting to a new culture. Do you think the Korean experience is unique?
Absolutely, but I also think it's more complicated than that. It has a unique history and culture, but the immigrant experience is also universally about struggle and adapting, change and loss, growth and hope and becoming.
How much time have you spent in Korea? How do you feel about the country when you return?
I love Korea, and will always love Korea. My grandmother and almost my entire extended family lives there, and going back is like going anywhere you have ever really loved and longed for: familiar and changed at the same time, happy and sad both.
What's your next project?
I'm working on a new novel, and can't say too much about it except that it's about women and math and science in the first half of the 20th century, and that it's been really fun so far. It's such a wonderful feeling to dive back into a new world.