Tag Archives: South Korea

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

forgotten country

One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback from Riverhead Trade.

 

 

In Forgotten Country, first-time novelist Catherine Chung skillfully weaves together memory, history, and Korean folk tales to tell us the beautiful story of a family who left Korea for the United States twenty years ago.  The father is dying of cancer while the younger sister has cut off all ties to her family.  Seeking cutting-edge cancer treatment, what is left of the family goes back to Korea.  In the country they left behind all those years ago, the whole family finally reconnects and slowly learns to forgive each other for past misdeeds.  Chung shows us that one person can be different people in different countries; one’s homeland, one’s birthplace, should never be a “forgotten country.”

Catherine Chung

Catherine Chung

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Suspenseful Family Novels

I read these books for Elle Magazine’s March 2012 Readers’ Prize.

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan (St. Martin’s)

Phan takes readers from Vietnam to Malaysia and then to France and Los Angeles in this sweeping, heart-wrenching tale. The Truong and Vo families leave their war-ravaged homeland for better lives but find themselves separated from each other both physically and emotionally. Yet Cherry’s journey to Vietnam to reconnect with her exiled brother evidences how the families are forever bound together. Phan gives readers a story rich in history, showing us that while families might be separated, familial ties remain strong.—Jaime Boler, Laurel, MS

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung (Riverhead)

In Forgotten Country, first-time novelist Chung skillfully weaves together memory, history, and Korean folk tales to tell us the beautiful story of a family who left Korea for the United States 20 years ago. The father is dying of cancer, while the younger sister has cut off all ties to her family. Seeking cutting-edge cancer treatment, what is left of the family goes back to Korea. In the country they left behind all those years ago, the whole family finally reconnects and slowly learns to forgive each other for past misdeeds. Chung shows us that one person can be different people in different countries; one’s homeland, one’s birthplace, should never be a “forgotten country.”—Jaime Boler, Laurel, MS

Other Waters by Eleni N. Gage
(St. Martin’s)

Gage’s novel is like a fictional version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. In Other Waters, Maya undergoes a life-changing journey that takes her from Manhattan to India. I love how believable the tale is and how Maya successfully navigates two cultures in creating a new identity for herself.—Jaime Boler, Laurel, MS

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We Are All Drifting Houses

Drifting House by Krys Lee (Viking Adult; 224 pages; $25.95.)

             I typically do not read short story collections.  Novels are my book of choice for a variety of reasons.  I enjoy rich, memorable characters, ones who stay with me long after I finish a book.  I love a great setting, one in which I am transported to a different time and place so unlike my own and one in which I can lose myself.  Plot is also important to me, but it has to be plausible and interesting.  I detest badly written novels; thus, a book must have good prose to capture and sustain my attention.

Most short stories tend to lack that certain something I’m seeking in a book.  Short story collections should have the above elements I have previously described, but many simply do not.  In the hands of a mediocre writer, character development, plot, and setting can suffer due to the length of a short story.  Since most are about the length of a chapter, it can be difficult to produce a great short story, especially when page numbers are an issue.

It takes a skilled writer to come up with a great short story.  I am happy to say I found a short story collection that is nothing short of magical.  I found Krys Lee’s Drifting House.

The release of Drifting House is timely considering the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  Lee’s stories matter and she cares deeply about her subjects. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee was raised in California and Washington.  She was awarded special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2012, was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006, and has published in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, California Quarterly, and Asia Weekly.

Lee’s Drifting House is a powerful, intimate, and affecting debut collection.  She writes with elegance and grace as she takes us from Korea to the United States.  What struck me most in the stories were the Korean immigrants struggling to assimilate into American culture.  At times, Drifting House is difficult to read, not because the book is poorly written but because she brings the reader into the action and into the struggles of the characters.  The reader becomes a participant in the story and has an intense reaction to what goes on.  Never have I experienced such torment and such anguish as a reader.  This is deliberate.  Lee wants us to feel this way as she takes on themes such as family, love, abandonment, and loss.

In a story entitled “A Temporary Marriage,” a mother leaves Korea after being abandoned by her husband.  Not only did he leave her but he also kidnapped their daughter.  The mother immigrates to the United States and marries a man only so she can be close to her child.  The marriage is a sham but it serves her purpose.  My favorite story is the title story, “Drifting House,” in which a young boy must make a life or death decision as he leads his siblings to freedom.  The choice he makes haunts him and made me cry.

I had the opportunity to interview Lee and am very happy with the results.  I think you will be, too.  Lee and Drifting House deserve your attention.

Interview with Krys Lee,

Author of Drifting House

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House! Drifting House is a short story collection.  What made you want to write short stories?

Krys Lee: I started writing poetry long ago but found that the stories that were beginning to well up in me and wanted to be told no longer fit in a poem. That’s when I began considering another form. Stories appealed to me at the time because the shapes of what I was trying to write seemed appropriate for the length of a story.

JB: Did you always want to be an author?

KL: Yes. I’ve had my nose buried in a book since I can remember. All my books were smudged with toothpaste and stained with beef jerky because I read in nearly every waking moment. Books were an escape and respite from a fairly grim reality, and, like many who love to read, this desire traveled to writing itself. But I wrote primarily poetry until I began this collection.

JB: My favorite stories in your collection are the title story, “Drifting House,” and “The Goose Father.”  Do you have a favorite?

KL: My favorite story is probably “A Temporary Marriage.”  I felt so much sadness for Mrs. Shin and Mr. Rhee while writing it, and the story’s evolution surprised and shocked me. It was one of those moments when you realize how powerful the subconscious can be.

JB: What gave you the ideas for your stories?

KL: Each story was inspired by something personal, though they’re generally not autobiographical. I love South Korea, and I’m personally invested in its problems, which is evident in stories such as “The Salaryman” that arose after seeing a man I dated devoured by the Hyundai conglomerate. The story “Drifting House” also arose from my friendships with the activist and North Korean defector community in Seoul; the more you know, the more outraged you become at the tyranny of North Korea.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Drifting House?  And what would you say was the most rewarding?

KL: The most difficult part was facing my own lack of faith, but still returning to the writing. I told myself constantly that I wouldn’t be able to sell Drifting House but quitting was like carrying a baby in the womb but not undergoing labor. It was my baby, and I was going to give birth to it. The most rewarding and difficult aspect of writing is seeing more of yourself in the work than you’d ever wished to expose—all my obsessions, fears, and wounds arose in the stories, though I’d persisted in avoiding directly autobiographical stories. But to create from the personal something larger than the self was a process I value, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JB: When did you begin working on Drifting House?

KL: My first story began over five years before Drifting House was bought at auction, but that doesn’t mean I was writing for those entire five years. I took several months off at the time from the book, both for personal reasons as well as out of a fear of commitment. I was afraid of failure, a fear that many writers experience when starting out.

JB: What is your favorite book?  Which authors do you consider your favorites?

KL: The list is exhaustive, but a few constants are The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Beloved by Toni Morrison; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, W.S.Merwin, and John Ashberry; The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov; the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh, and Martin Crimp, and the short stories of Charles D’Ambrosio and Lorrie Moore.

JB: Please tell me a little about your writing style.  Do you write in long-hand first or do you simply go to your computer or laptop and begin writing?  Do you go somewhere in particular to write?  Do you listen to music or do you prefer silence?

KL: I write anywhere it happens for me, from a campground, a subway, to a library. I’m a restless person, so as long as I’m writing most days of the week, I accept my irregular patterns rather than fight them. Depending on the scene I’m working on, music or silence will accompany my writing.

JB: If you were not writing, what would you most likely be doing?

KL: I’d be a human rights activist or a park ranger. Activists inspire me for acting on what they believe is right, and for their courage and sacrifice. A park ranger is attractive to me because I like the unpretentious nature and daily beauty and drudgery of their lives. There’s a restlessness for meaning that keeps my mind moving, and both professions, in different ways, is a search for meaning.

JB: Time plays a significant role throughout your stories.  Can you tell us about that?

KL: I’m obsessed with time. My parents died young, so time has haunted me since I was in my early twenties. I questioned what it meant to live on this earth, and what actually mattered to me in my finite amount of time here. Historical time and geographical time also interest me tremendously, as I’m but a moment on this planet.

JB: Things that really stood out for me while reading your stories were identity, home, and the immigrant experience.  What do you want readers to take with them after reading Drifting House?

KL: My characters happen to be of Korean ethnicity because I understand that culture best, but their stories are universal. I think of all of us as a kind of drifting house, especially readers and writers. The force of society and our personal circumstances acts on all of us in different ways, and people are never quite at ease with their surroundings as they seem. Like my characters in “The Goose Father” or “A Small Sorrow”, in the end, we all seek a place of belonging.

JB: One thing that captured my attention in your stories was the acts of violence in almost every one. What made you use this in your storytelling?

KL: Violence shaped the person I am, and it has clearly affected my sensibility. I thought this was in my past, but the past becomes a part of you and I carried that violence into my fiction, to my surprise. But as Harriett Gilbert from BBC’s The Strand noted, my aesthetic is informed by humor, fantasy, and violence. Darkness is balanced by light, just as in life.

JB: When will your book be released?  Will there be a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

KL: Drifting House will be released on Feb 2, 2012. The book tour will take me to New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and literary festivals in Tempe, Arizona, and Dallas. There will also be an additional event in Honolulu, which will be fun.

JB: What was it like when you saw the cover of your book for the first time?

KL: I realized how lucky I was to have a publishing team that worked so hard on my behalf. My experience with Viking/Penguin has been collaborative, from the editing to the selection of the front cover, thanks to a group of editors, publicists, and designers who love reading as much as I do. The excitement and the faith of this enormous publishing house for a story collection—reportedly an uncommon phenomenon these days—culminated in the moment I received a finished copy of Drifting House.

JB: What’s next for Krys Lee?  Is there a novel in your future?

KL: I actually finished a novel draft last year and am in the middle of revisions. The novel as a form gives you a lot of room to explore, which I’ve enjoyed. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing it soon!

JB: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House, and I know readers will be, too.

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Spring Fiction from Catherine Chung and Aimee Phan

I know it’s cold outside, but never fear.  Warmer weather is just around the corner.  The holidays will be over before you know it.  Soon, 2012 will be upon us.  The Spring and Spring fiction are not far behind.

We’re lucky to have some great reads scheduled for release in March.  Here are two I especially love.

In Forgotten Country, first-time novelist Catherine Chung skillfully weaves together memory, history, and Korean folk tales to tell us the beautiful story of a family who left Korea for the United States twenty years ago.  The father is dying of cancer while the younger sister has cut off all ties to her family.  Seeking cutting-edge cancer treatment, what is left of the family goes back to Korea.  In the country they left behind all those years ago, the whole family finally reconnects and slowly learns to forgive each other for past misdeeds.  Chung shows us that one person can be different people in different countries; one’s homeland, one’s birthplace, should never be a “forgotten country.”

Aimee Phan, author of the short story collection We Should Never Meet, brings us The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, her debut novel.  Phan takes readers from Vietnam to Malaysia to France to Los Angeles in this sweeping, heart-wrenching tale.  The Truong and Vo families leave their war-ravaged homeland for better lives but find themselves separated from each other, both physically and emotionally.  Yet, they are all forever bound together, and Cherry journeys to Vietnam to reconnect with her brother, exiled over a family secret.  Phan gives readers a story rich in history and shows us while families might be separated, familial ties remain strong.

Both books were Advanced Readers Copies.

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Samuel Park is One to Watch

Some of my favorite literary characters are Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Pi Patel (Life of Pi), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), and Annie Fang (The Family Fang).  Now, I can add another character to the list: Soo-Ja Choi, the heroine of Samuel Park’s debut novel This Burns My Heart.  Employing such themes as tradition, love, and sacrifice, Park captivated and transported me to a different time and place.  I never wanted to return from the vivid world of his creation.

South Korea in the early 1960s is a country slowly recovering from the ravages of war.  Tradition is of utmost importance.  Soo-Ja, a young woman, yearns to become a diplomat, even though her father forbids it.  Marriage to a man she can bend to her will is the answer, Soo-Ja thinks.  If she marries Min, then she can fulfill her dream.  The two become engaged after a brief courtship.  Before their marriage, she meets a young, handsome medical student named Yul.  Sparks fly.  She must sense that she and Yul could experience a deeper love, a love that would overpower her ambition, and this scares Soo-Ja.  Even if she wanted to run away with Yul, she cannot do it; she has already given her word.

Out of obligation, then, Soo-Ja marries Min.  She soon learns that she does not really know the man she married.  Min was never captivated by her beauty or wit, he did not enjoy spending time with her, and he indulged her talk of going to Seoul.  He tricked her, seeking her out only at the urging of his own father.  Familial ties and tradition win out over Soo-Ja’s dreams.  Her marriage is something she will have to endure.  Later, Soo-Ja stays with Min because of their daughter, Hana.  Over and over again, though, Yul turns up in her life.  He is always a looming shadow even when he is not present in her life.  The best parts of the novel are the soulful, yearning-filled scenes between Soo-Ja and Yul.  Will she ever leave Min for Yul?  That is a question you must find out yourself.

Park has a gift for language, and his use of beautiful prose will leave you breathless.  His rich and memorable characters lingered on in my mind long after I finished the novel.   Park proves himself to be a master at storytelling.  This Burns My Heart will surely steal your heart, just as it did mine.

 

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An Interview with Samuel Park, author of This Burns My Heart

Here is my interview with the wonderful Samuel Park, author of the novel THIS BURNS MY HEART.

Thanks, Sam, for doing this!

Jaime Boler: What was it like growing up Korean in Brazil?

Samuel Park: Hi Jaime, just wanted to start by saying what a delight it is to be featured in your blog. I hope I can do justice to the wonderful questions you came up with. So, to answer the first question, growing up Korean in Brazil was really fun–there were a lot of other Asian students in my middle school, so I never really felt that “different.” There’s a surprisingly large Asian population in South America!

JB: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

SP: When I was eight years old–as soon as I could read, I wanted to write. I’d watch American movies from the 50s every afternoon and then I’d write my “little novels” in my notebooks–which were just my kid versions of those fantasy and adventure stories.

JB: I see you are a Jane Austen fan. I read that after I finished the novel, and I suddenly saw Soo-Ja as a Korean Dashwood sister. How has Austen influenced your writing?

SP: Soo-Ja is very much like Elinor in that she’s too principled to try to steal Edward back from Lucy Steele. And just because she doesn’t say it out loud, doesn’t mean her heart isn’t in terrific pain. I suppose my intense love for Austen has influenced my writing in the sense that it very much shaped my awareness of the different and complex ways we can love–in Soo-Ja and Elinor’s case, silently, honorably, but not at all less passionately and intensely as Marianne. I also have a lot of admiration for Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She’s really strong and bold, but prone to making mistakes and has one particularly big flaw–her prejudice; Soo-Ja too is held back by an enormous blind spot early on in her love life.

JB: You say this is your mother’s story. How so?

SP: It is and it isn’t. It was inspired by her experience as a woman living in a Confucian-dominated society as that society moved from very traditional to more modern. But the novel is a work of fiction, with made up characters and situations.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the book? If so, who and why?

SP: You know, I actually *love* Eun-Mee, the villain. She was unbelievably fun to write, because she says all these outrageous things. To continue the Austen analogy, Eun-Mee is a mixture of Darcy’s haughty aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh and Lizzie’s frivolous sister Lydia. Villains are fun to write because often times, they drive the story, and can be very charming.

JB: Did you, like Hana, dream of coming to the United States?

SP: I did! I think the United States attracts dreamers, and Hana is definitely a dreamer.

JB: Is any character based on you? If so, which character? Did you find it difficult to write for that particular character?

SP: None of the characters are directly based on me, but I’ve felt or am able to imagine feeling everything that the characters feel. Emotion-wise, the characters take after me–I went through an emotional journey with them, and tried to make their emotions as truthful as possible by thinking of times that I was in a similar situation, or feeling the same way about someone.

JB: I have to tell you that my favorite scene in the book is the drawing scene with Yul and Soo-Ja. It was so beautiful that I read and re-read it. Do you have a favorite part? If so, please do tell us about it!

SP: I’m so glad you liked that scene! It’s a pivotal scene in the book, and I rewrote it many, many times. The first time, they weren’t even drawing! But early on, I realized that these two people would never vocalize their feelings–they had to use their gestures to express their love. Neither Soo-Ja nor Yul are allowed to say what they feel, because it goes against their customs. But they’re in absolute sync–in spirit and mind–and their drawing together allows you to see that.

JB: Do you have a favorite line from the book? If so, will you share it with us?

SP: The first line is my favorite line: “You tricked me.” How do you make a life with someone who deceived you? And yet, so many of us do, or have to.

JB: Some themes that stood out for me while reading the book were family obligations versus true love and communal needs versus those of the individual. What do you want readers to take from This Burns My Heart?

SP: I guess I want people to consider what it means to live a life of duty, where you can’t just undo a mistake. That’s the way it was for women of that generation, women who could not get divorces–you were stuck, but you made the best of it. I hope I show in my novel what it’s actually like to be in that kind of situation. Maybe that’s the question I want readers to take away: “Would you turn away true love if it came knocking a second (and possibly last) time?”

JB: I noticed the importance of both saving “face” and losing “face” in your novel. Can you tell us more about that concept?

SP: Soo-Ja can’t really make her own choices because those choices deeply implicate her parents. For instance, she can’t get divorced. She just can’t. It’d bring enormous shame to her family. That’s a tremendous responsibility–to live not only for yourself, but also for those you love. They would lose “face,” and Soo-Ja cannot bear to cause pain to those she loves.

JB: At the beginning of This Burns My Heart, I saw Min as a villain. Yet, at the end of the novel, I had ceased to think of him as such. In my eyes, he was just as much a victim as Soo-Ja. He redeems himself in the end. The true villain was Min’s father. But who do you see as the “bad” guy?

SP: I’m glad you think of Min that way, since I took pains to explain why he does the things he does. Min’s father definitely comes off as the “bad” guy, but I don’t really think of him as such. I’m very forgiving and understanding of all my characters, even when they’re acting up and causing havoc in the story!

JB: Do you think, in Soo-Ja’s heart and in Yul’s, that Hana is his daughter?

SP: Oh, that’s such an intriguing question! It certainly does feel like she could be theirs, doesn’t it?

JB: It’s interesting how Soo-Ja helps Jae-Hwa escape a bad marriage; yet, she is not ready to do this herself because she does not want Min to take Hana away from her. Is Hana the only thing that keeps Soo-Ja with Min? What else keeps Soo-Ja in her loveless marriage?

SP: I guess that’s one of the mysteries of the book… But it is really ironic, isn’t it? Soo-Ja is so completely firm and sure of herself when she goes free Jae-Hwa, yet she can’t figure out how to free herself. It’s strange the bonds that keep people together, and even stranger the bonds we use on our own selves! Personally, I think her sense of honor and duty are what keep her in the marriage. In her mind, if you pick X, you have to live with the consequences of picking X. You can’t just say the next day, You know what, I think I’d like Y better so I’m gonna go with Y.

JB: Father-daughter relationships seem stronger here than mother-daughter, mother-son, or even father-son. For example, Soo-Ja and Mr. Choi have an unbreakable bond. Min is also very close to Hana. Was that deliberate?

SP: Oh, that’s a great question. I actually thought of Soo-Ja and Hana a lot as I wrote the book, but you’re absolutely right that in spite of all her sacrifices for her, ultimately Hana may like her father better. Isn’t that odd, how that happens, sometimes? I think that’s often the case in real life. We like the people who are similar to us even more so than the ones who truly love us.

JB: If Soo-Ja had gone to Seoul to become a diplomat, as was her dream, what would have happened to her then?

SP: My guess is that she probably would’ve lived for a long time in Europe or in the United States, and then returned to South Korea in her 30s. She probably loves her father too much to live apart from him out of her own volition. She also might’ve found a man who was a better match for her, in terms of her temperament and personality. Just like choosing Min had a domino effect, I feel that her being a diplomat would’ve led to very different choices and experiences.

JB: In the course of This Burns My Heart, the reader cannot fail to notice how much South Korea has grown. We first see a country recovering from a devastating war to a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower. What kind of future do you see for both North and South Korea?

SP: The germs of democracy are spreading so quickly through the world–almost like a virus–it’ll have to reach North Korea eventually. As for South Korea, I see it becoming more and more socially progressive, especially in terms of opportunities for young women. I also see it as continuing to have strong ties with America, a country that has been a deep part of its history, having fought a war together.

JB: I want to congratulate you for writing some of the best prose I’ve read in years. How long did it take you to write this novel?

SP: Thank you! What’s the emoticom for cheeks blushing and writer taking a little bow? Actually, it’s very gratifying to hear that because I decided early on not to take any shortcuts. If I thought in the back of my head that a scene could be better, I would make it better. Sometimes it’s tempting to just write something and hope that it’s “good enough,” and I’m very proud that I did not take that bait. I have a lot of respect for the reader’s time and options–I absolutely do not take it for granted. But to answer your question, it took me about nine months to write it, and then I spent another three years or so revising it.

JB: Are there any plans for a book tour? If so, which lucky cities will you be visiting?

SP: The cities I’ve been to or will be visiting during my tour include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where I live. I would love to eventually make my way to the Pacific Northwest and the South.

JB: What’s next for Samuel Park?

SP: I’m working on another novel, which is about a mother-daughter relationship, and that’s all I can say for now! Thank you again for this interview–I love all the questions you asked.

Thanks, Sam, for a great interview!

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