by Terry Hong
Recent Korean history seems to be getting quite the literal spotlight from both sides of the globe—by native Korean and Korean American writers alike. In Human Acts—Han Kang’s follow-up to her Man Booker International Prize-winning The Vegetarian—Kang fictionalizes events of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. The political tumult of the 1970s is the backdrop of several recent novels-in-translation, including Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There and The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, and in English, Korean American Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us, which she sets wholly in Korea.
Jimin Han, whose family immigrated to the U.S. in 1970 when she was 4, makes her fiction debut on May 1 with A Small Revolution, a novel inspired—in part—by the 1980s political turmoil in her birth country. In a Pennsylvania college dorm, five teens are trapped in a life-and-death situation. The quintet’s point of connection is allegedly dead—a Korean American student, Jaesung, who reportedly died in a mysterious car fire in Seoul.
Yoona, in whose room the terror plays out, was Jaesung’s lover. Her three classmates serve as bargaining chips. Lloyd, armed with deadly weapons, claims both Jaesung and Yoona as intimate friends since sharing a cultural study-abroad program the previous summer in Seoul. Convinced that Jaesung is the victim of a cover-up by a violent, corrupt regime controlling South Korea, Lloyd is determined to rescue Jaesung by any means necessary. Desperate enough to hope that Jaesung still lives, Yoona recounts the events that led to such a menacing outcome.
Entwining personal and political histories on either side of the globe—“THE SMALL REVOLUTIONS MAKE THE WAY FOR THE BIG ONES,” Lloyd begs—Han‘s novel exudes a universal immediacy about what can happen when safety, and sanity, are repeatedly threatened. Although marked by events three decades past, Revolution proves to be a resonating parable for today’s volatile, fearful times.
Terry Hong: Being the child of immigrants and NOT being a lawyer or doctor or engineer—was that difficult for your parents to accept? And did any of those Korean parental expectations have anything to do with why you didn’t publish your first book until your 40s?
Jimin Han: So happy to be mistaken for being in my 40s! I’m 51! And yeah, my mom died last year and my older daughter goes to college this fall. Not a coincidence. It’s been busy. Both my parents were physicians. My mother gave up her practice when we moved to the States so it was hard not to make up for that somehow. She loved being a doctor. We have a lot of doctors in the family—both my brothers are docs, my cousins, etc. So, yes, they did expect me to be a doctor and my father even said he wouldn’t pay for undergrad [at Cornell University] unless I was pre-med or pre-law.
TH: Besides writing—I noticed you’ve written and published quite a few short stories—what else did you do before writing A Small Revolution?
JH: I feel like I’ve published so little really. I struggled with setting aside the time necessary to really write what I wanted. I worked in a bunch of different places—publishing electrical engineering books, publishing supplements to Channel 13 programs—until getting my MFA when I was 30.
TH: You have two daughters. The elder is about the age of your protagonist, Yoona. Has she read the book? Were you concerned about scaring her since she’s about to go off to college in the fall?
JH: Okay, so yeah, it’s really bizarre that [my older daughter is] practically Yoona’s age. The idea for the book began years ago, and then I really worked on it these last 12 years, then I spent two years changing the structure of it. My daughter is more worried about college overall [since] seeing the documentary “The Hunting Ground” and reading about the incidences of rape on college campuses. I’ll have to see what she thinks about the book after she’s been in college for a while.
TH: Scary stuff for a 17-year-old to have to worry about. And mothers, too! What about reactions from the rest of your family, especially your doctor father and doctor brothers?
JH: My father hasn’t seen the book. He lives in South Korea. My brothers are supportive. My older brother has a blog about sailing. He gave me Joan Didion’s White Album when I was in high school and that changed my life. My younger brother has an MFA in poetry and is quite a good poet. He made a joke at my mother’s funeral about how we’re all frustrated writers except for me. Everyone laughed but I’m proud of all of them. When they share with me what they’ve written, I’m really in awe.
TH: Since you’re no longer frustrated, thanks to Revolution, can we talk about how the story came about? Did you go back to Korea at all to do the research?
JH: I was in Korea in 1985 and didn’t understand what was going on—my Korean wasn’t good enough to understand the news or what people were saying. My relatives kept me pretty sheltered from the [anti-government] demonstrations, but I caught a glimpse a few times and that memory stayed with me. My cousin was secretly dating a political dissident and that made a big impression on me. I thought it was really romantic.
Back in the States, when I talked to people here, they seemed to feel South Korea was a backward place—politically and economically—and I wondered about that. I followed [the events in Korea] as things changed, with Kim Dae-jung becoming President [1998-2003], and how people started talking about how technologically advanced Korea is. I found that in recent years, there’s been a lot of new information about what was actually happening in the ‘80s in South Korea. There was one article in particular about a South Korean activist who went to North Korea and realized that he had been wrong in his political stance back in the ‘80s. I’d already written my book many times over by then, but I felt like that article about him confirmed what I’d written into my characters.
TH: Korea—both North with its nukes and South with its corrupt government (we Americans are SHOCKED since we know nothing of such things, ahem!)—has been in the news quite a bit. Does all that media ever make you feel more Korean? [I admit to a misplaced sense of shame when the news isn’t so good!]
JH: My cousin’s wife grew up in Korea and was a history major in college. She married my cousin when she was 23 and moved here. She read my book and felt it didn’t show enough of the positive things about Korea—so I revised a few scenes to reflect her experience. I’ve been proud recently of the news about the impeachment of President [Geun-hye] Park and the way the Korean people protested. That’s been inspiring. I’ve got friends on my social media feeds saying how Americans should follow their lead—protest in massive numbers consistently and demand action until it happens.
TH: Speaking of Korean pride, contemporary Korean fiction-in-translation has been rather stupendous of late. Have you read any of the recent novels by Han Kang, Shin Kyung-sook, Young-ha Kim (Krys Lee did his latest translation!), Han Yujoo, etc.? Any thoughts, reactions you’d like to share?
JH: Please Look After Mom was tough for me to read because my mother’s health was failing then. So I couldn’t get past the beginning of it, but it was all the rage in my family. My aunt gave me a copy, and I think my father talked about it. It was the first time that being a writer, in their view—well, in my father’s view—seemed like an acceptable profession. The Vegetarian is amazing. I love that we can have this range of writing. I wish I’d had that growing up, been able to read Korean writers. I was lucky to have had Japanese writers like Banana Yoshimoto and Mishima and Murakami to look to. And I did get to read Asian American writers like Jessica Hagedorn and Maxine Hong Kingston—those are the ones I grew up reading. And I was thrilled Amy Tan had the success she did.
TH: Also proliferating are hybrid titles by Korean Americans set (at least partially) in Korea—Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Yoojin Grace Wuertz Everything Belongs to Us, Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore and Snow Hunters. And now YOURS. What do you think is driving this trend-in-the-making?
JH: I haven’t read Pachinko or Everything Belongs to Us, though I have them and I’m dying to read them. I’m just in the middle of the semester right now, teaching. Krys Lee’s book I have read and I love it. I got to hear her read at AAWW [Asian American Writers’ Workshop in NYC], and I have her earlier, first book, Drifting House. Her advocacy for North Koreans—the friendships she’s made—is really remarkable. I admire it a lot.
TH: Since you mentioned teaching—you went to Sarah Lawrence for your MFA, and now you’re teaching there. What’s going from student to professor at your alma mater been like?
JH: I had great classes at Cornell with supportive, brilliant writers—Paul West, Diane Ackerman, Lamar Herrin, Michael McFee. I didn’t get to study with Ken McClane but I met him, and he made a big impression on me, especially his poems about his brother. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a major influence. He pointed me to Frank Chin and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But I left not being committed to writing. I flirted with the idea—I took journalism classes at NYU and fiction classes around the city.
I knew I wanted to think more deeply about what and how I wrote. To do that, a friend of mine and I found that the courses [at Sarah Lawrence] didn’t offer what we wanted, so we went to the dean and designed our own course called “Reading and Writing Through Race,” and they let us work with Suzanne Gardinier, who was extremely sensitive to the politics of writing. [We were able to] open the course up for enrollment, and we taught it. It was such an eye-opening experience: we got to figure out how to teach ourselves. We read essays with our students, had free-writes that addressed politics and writing specifically—like whose stories were we entitled to tell? We explored power dynamics—we’d appropriate someone else’s story and things like that.
A few years later, I was given a chance to teach in the non-credit program I’d taken while I was there. It was called the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. I taught a class on memoir with a friend, the novelist Gloria Hatrick. And then my friend Patricia Dunn asked me to teach a novel-writing workshop—the kind we wanted to be in when we were in graduate school. So again, it was an amazing opportunity to try out some things that we thought might have helped us. … Since then, Pat has become the director of The Writing Institute. It’s great to work where people are open to new ideas and flexible. Sarah Lawrence is such a creative place. I’m really lucky to work there.
TH: How are you balancing parenting, teaching, writing?
JH: I’m terrible at multi-tasking. My husband is an architect with his own practice. He’s African American and South Asian (and recently, we found out, Venezuelan). He was in Progressive Architecture’s Young Architects issue… Neither of us gets any sleep but he gets less than [I do]. … So I had to do most of the parenting. Which is why it’s taken me so long to write my book.
Teaching came second because I got paid to do it. Writing came last. I admire others who juggle all of that better. My friend Gwendolen Gross has published five novels since we graduated from Sarah Lawrence. And she has two children! Talk about discipline and confidence and talent. We had a talk a few years ago where she just looked at me and said, “So? What’s the deal? Where’s your book?” And I had to admit I hadn’t been doing enough work on it, pushing hard enough when I needed to. She really woke me up. I had to think hard about what I wanted for myself. I finished my book because I wanted my children to be proud of me. They used to say, “How’s the writing coming today?” And I had to have an answer.
TH: And are you finding the time/energy/inspiration for book 2? Any details you’d like to share?
JH: I’ve got three in the works. A literary mystery about a Korean American woman who returns to her very white upstate New York small town for the funeral of a Korean American woman she used to babysit. They’re the only two Korean families in this town. Also a sequel to A Small Revolution (shhhhh!). And finally book based on my grandmother and her sisters. She was disowned by her prominent family in Seoul when she eloped with my grandfather, a “lowly” engineer, and lived happily for a few years before the Korean War began and her husband and son were forced to flee south. The DMZ was created and she never saw him or her son again.
TH: Your novel is a ‘college’ story. Any advice you might give to those youngsters, including your daughter?
JH: Don’t think of college as a stepping stone to someplace else. Get everything you can out of the experience. Make it what you want it to be. Don’t take the class you “should” take. Take the one you want. I love that about Jaesung in the book. He goes after what he believes in. Doesn’t hold back. He can’t just be a bystander when he sees people suffering around him. We see now more than ever how important that is.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
author photo by Janice Chung