Korean American novelist Jung Yun on what inspired Shelter, her stunning debut

One of the most talked about novels of 2016, Shelter is set in recession-hit America in 2008. Yun talks about the home invasions and home foreclosures that sparked her to write the book, and what she’s working on now

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 2016, 8:01am

It seems as though every year a novel – and its author – appears out of nowhere and gets readers everywhere talking. This year that book is Shelter, by Korean American writer Jung Yun.

Her debut work, Shelter is set during the American housing crisis and financial crisis of 2008, and explores the American psyche, which has taken a beating from the Great Recession. Shelter opens with a harrowing scene – Kyung Cho, a Korean-American biology professor, sees an older woman, naked and limping through the fields behind his house. That woman turns out to be his estranged mother, who has managed to escape a scene of unbelievable violence at her home a few miles away – two drug addicts had taken over the stately home where she and her husband, Kyung’s father, live.

In Shelter, Yun explores our deep attachment to real estate and strips away the comforting associations of home. Here, she talks to Alison Singh Gee about her fascination with “house invasions”, growing up in one of the few Asian families in Fargo, in the US state of North Dakota, and how she spends her days as a writer.

The start of your novel focuses on a harrowing home invasion. How did you first become interested in this type of crime? How did that spark the idea for your book?

I didn’t really know it at the time, but I started writing the first scene of this book in 2004. I had imagined a man standing at his kitchen window, watching his elderly mother walk toward his house naked. As a writer, one of my greatest joys and challenges is coming up with something random like this and trying to piece together what happened before and after. But like a lot of ideas, I didn’t quite know what to do with this one, so I put it away and moved on to other things.

Three years later – in 2007 – there was a home invasion in Cheshire, Connecticut, about 90 minutes south of my home. Two men took a family of four hostage, and when the police began closing in on them, they set the house on fire and fled. The only person who survived that night was the father.

I became obsessed with this case, and perhaps a little obsessed with the father because I didn’t understand how he’d move on with his life, losing his wife and daughters that way. The one thing that gave me hope was that every time I saw this man on the news, or read about him in the papers, he seemed to be surrounded by a very loving, supportive family.

By the time both men responsible for this crime were convicted and sentenced in 2010, the question was fully formed in my mind: what if a similar act of violence happened to a different kind of family, one that wasn’t so loving or supportive, one that was actually quite dysfunctional from the start? Once I understood the question I wanted to answer, I didn’t look up again for 3½ years until I’d finished writing.

Your novel’s opening scene is not only brutal, it is brutalising. How do you feel about inflicting violence on your readers?

I tend not to think about readers when I write. I’m more concerned about narrative momentum and narrative honesty. In order for Shelter to move forward, Kyung needed to know what happened to his parents. But because his relationship with them was so strained, there were really no circumstances under which he’d hear about the details of the home invasion directly from his mother or father. That would have been too much for Mae or Jin to talk about, so Kyung had to learn what happened to them secondhand. It’s a brutal scene, yes. But it’s less brutal than it could have been because the information was relayed to Kyung through another person, so there’s an intentional quality of reportage to it.

Your story also draws from the anxiety caused by America’s Great Recession. How did the economic downturn affect people you know? How did it affect you and your family?

My family and friends were very lucky. We didn’t feel the effects of the recession the way many other people in this country did. At the time I started writing Shelter (during the tail end of the housing market crash), my husband and I were actually trying to buy a house, and there was one we were really interested in because it was underpriced. Despite some hesitation after learning it was a foreclosure, we decided to go see it.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit my ignorance now, but it never occurred to me that people forced out of their homes usually pack up in a hurry, and they leave a lot of things behind, small clues that add up to create an image of them. When we toured this house with our realtor, I saw half-used tubes of red lipstick and a bottle of aftershave in the master bathroom.

There was a large rubber trash can in the middle of the living room filled with stuffed animals, and that was the thing that killed me
Jung Yun

There was a large rubber trash can in the middle of the living room filled with stuffed animals, and that was the thing that killed me, that made me decide never to set foot in another foreclosure again. The parents probably wanted to take their kids’ toys with them, but there wasn’t enough room in their suitcases or boxes, so they threw the stuffed animals out last. I think the decision to place Kyung and his family in this period of time happened not long after we visited that house.

Your protagonist Kyung is married to an Irish-American woman. What resonance does it bring to the story?

I thought that an Irish-American wife felt like a realistic choice for Kyung, who was disinclined to marry or have a family in the first place, much less choose a Korean woman to do these things with. At one point, he recalls being attracted to Korean women before, but always dismissed anything long-term because of the possibility of falling into traditional roles like his parents. Gillian is a nice counterbalance to him – I think they both sense that – and his awareness [of] and admiration [for] her goodness speaks to the part of Kyung that wants to be kind, steady, and strong like she is, but struggles to do so.

Korean-American writers have recently been in the literary spotlight. What do these writers have in common? How has K-A literature captured the American imagination?

I probably haven’t read enough contemporary Korean-American fiction to speak to the commonalities well. (That’s a good thing, I think - the fact that there’s now more available than I have time for. I hope this upward trajectory continues.) What I appreciate about the books I’ve read so far is the diversity of range. There are writers like Min Jin Lee and Patricia Park whose debut novels focused on characters raised in very traditional Korean-American households. Then there’s Nami Mun, who wrote a novel about a drug-addicted teenage immigrant from a less traditional family struggling with mental health issues. And then there are writers like Chang Rae Lee and Alexander Chee who have written books without an Asian-American main character.

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I think readers and critics have responded well to these writers, not because they adhered to particular things that define Korean-American literature, but because they wrote compelling literature.

You grew up in one of the few Korean-American families in Fargo, North Dakota. What brought your family to the Midwest in the first place? What were the best aspects of living in Fargo? The worst?

When my father came to the US (a year before the rest of the family did), he chose to live in the Midwest because he wanted to open a tae kwon do school in an area that didn’t have a lot of competition already. The initial plan was to settle down in Chicago, which had a large Korean immigrant community, but it was too expensive and crime-riddled. Then someone suggested Fargo, which had a population of about 60,000 at the time and felt like a big small town, so that’s where we met him a year later. Fargo was great in many ways – I went to terrific public schools, the housing was affordably priced, and it was safe and very clean. The drawback of course was that there weren’t many immigrants in the area back in the 1970s and ’80s, so we didn’t have the sense of community that we might have had in a place like Chicago.

How often do you return to Asia? How much do your Asian roots influence your writing?

I arrived in the US just shy of my fourth birthday, and believe it or not, I didn’t go back to Asia for 40 years. (I actually visited Seoul this past December, working on a freelance assignment for Town and Country magazine.) Despite being away from Korea for so long, my parents brought me up with a mix of traditions from our homeland and new American traditions. I think that shows up in Shelter, which explores some of the challenges of an intergenerational immigrant family, each generation struggling to achieve their version of success, comfort, and stability.

What’s your next project?

I’m researching two subjects that could go in very different directions right now. Both possibilities are set in North Dakota, but it’s so early in the process, I’m loath to say much more than that. Basically, I’m repeating the same thing I did with Shelter, trying to find the question I want to answer with this next book.