Finding a Literary Inheritance
I’ve recently had the sense that the subset of America I occupy—Korean America or whatever you want to call it—is having its moment. The crest of a wave of immigration that started in the 1960s (which my parents were part of) seemed to converge with South Korea’s emergence as a pop culture powerhouse. But the “peak” of any phenomenon also portends its end. Today I can already see how my generation is fading and assimilating, and how future generations of Korean Americans may be quite different. Though the number of Americans of Korean descent continues to grow, the proportion of those who identify as immigrants, or the children of immigrants, is likely to decline.
With the onset of the pandemic, I started reading. My goal was to read all of Korean American literature, the entire time wondering if I was seeing its fullest expression, the moment just before it might begin to fade. To convene the conversation that follows, which will be archived in Yale’s Beinecke Library, I reached out to some of the Korean American writers I admire most, in the hopes of creating a record of our presence before time scrubs us away. Alexander Chee is a novelist whose works include the groundbreaking Edinburgh and a collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Susan Choi’s many novels include Trust Exercise, which won the National Book Award for fiction. And Cathy Park Hong is a Guggenheim Fellowship–winning poet who just published the essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. What follows is an edited version of an hour-and-a-half Zoom conversation, by turns casual and serious, that we had about ancestry and family history, identity and language, with each of us, Gen-Xers all, connecting from our various (dis)locations.
Julia Cho I’ll start with thanking everyone for being here. One of the frameworks for the conversation was being an author of Korean descent and trying to figure out what that term even means. But the biggest framework is just creating a snapshot of where we are now five months after the first lockdown in the US. So I thought perhaps you could talk about that alternate reality of a normal 2020: where you were supposed to be right now, and where you actually are instead. I’m in Berkeley, California.
Cathy Park Hong I’m in Vermont. Alex, are you in Vermont too?
Alexander Chee Yes!
Susan Choi Wait, that’s so weird, because I was just in Vermont. How come I didn’t get the message? What if we were all in Vermont at the same time?
JC I don’t understand, it’s a tiny place. Why are you all there?
CPH Well, it has a very low COVID rate.
AC Where are you, Cathy?
CPH I’m in Winhall, which is southern Vermont, near Manchester. Where are you?
AC I am in central-eastern Vermont, near Dartmouth, where I work. I bought a house last fall, my first house.
CPH And Susan, you were in Vermont.
SC Yeah, I was in Vermont until two weeks ago. I was up in Ripton, which is where Bread Loaf is. It’s twelve miles east of Middlebury. I teach in the Bread Loaf School of English every summer—which didn’t happen this summer, obviously. It happened online, like everything. But because I’ve been up there for the past four summers, I was like, I’m just going to go, and so I went anyway and taught the program online. I didn’t really think it through, because I got up there and there was no WiFi where I was staying. So, I drove to the campus and I had to sit in a beach chair outside these locked buildings, siphoning the Middlebury WiFi so I could teach the classes that I was supposed to be teaching. But it was great. Because I feel like we don’t have physical space anymore; all of the different parts of my life are constantly intruding into each other and overlapping on top of each other. Everything is kind of always happening at once.
CPH Yeah, I didn’t mean to be in Vermont this summer. It’s my first time here for an extended stay. I was planning on traveling a lot in 2020, partly for the book [Minor Feelings, published in February], but also I wanted to go to Asia for the summer, to Korea. I haven’t been there since I went in 2008 to visit my relatives, who are getting old; they have never met my daughter. But we came to Vermont instead. We were in Brooklyn, and I was just going a little crazy. I felt like not only was I quarantined in my apartment, I was quarantined in my bedroom, because my husband and daughter were in the common space also, working, homeschooling, everything. So now we’re renting a house, and it’s very bucolic. I go swimming every day, and I finally have a room of my own. I am trying to get work done, and my daughter is even at camp. At least for me, it’s an ideal situation, though terribly temporary because we’ll be returning to New York. I’m a little afraid of what’s going to happen in the fall.
JC And Alex, how about you? Where would you have been and how is it different?
AC I’m at home in Vermont. It’s my birthday in two days.
JC Happy birthday!
CPH You a Leo?
AC I’m a Leo.
CPH I’m a Leo too.
JC I’m a Leo, too!
SC I’m divorcing a Leo right now. Nothing personal.
JC What are you?
SC I’m an Aquarius.
CPH Is that a good combo? Aquarius and Leo? I don’t know.
SC Not in our case.
CPH I’m married to a Leo too, so a lot of Leos in my life.
JC You know, this leads into a question I had: Can we talk about superstition? I mean, we all have varying degrees of distance from and closeness to Korean culture, but it has always struck me how superstitious Koreans are. They read your face, judge whether you have lucky or unlucky ears; this idea of fortune is part of the culture. And I was curious: To what varying degrees are any of you superstitious, or do you believe in any of that?
AC I saw a mudang on Zoom just a couple months ago.
JC Is that a fortune-teller?
AC Not really—a Korean shaman. So it’s more about checking in with your ancestors. And that was really intense. When quarantine began, I started to think back to stories of my family during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. My grandfather wrote a memoir that we had translated, and I reread it during the quarantine for something I’m writing now. Alongside details I’d always known, such as the fact that after the occupation they left for Seoul on a boat, I learned new details—that there was a pregnant woman on board, that they had thought they could go back, and that by the time they got to Seoul, they realized that they couldn’t go back to Sinuiju near the border of China, where my grandfather had been stationed. He was bragging about my grandmother’s cooking even when they didn’t really have very much food, so I found myself looking at my pantry in March, basically, stressed out staring at all this food and thought of my grandmother smirking, like, What are you so worried about? And so I wanted to check in with them, through the mudang. But I don’t think of this as a superstition.
One of my favorite stories on this read-through was of my grandfather trying to decide if he should open a bookstore in Seoul. And so he and his friend decided they should test out whether they were strong enough to deliver books. They took a wheelbarrow to test their strength, and then they decided that they were no good at delivering books, and so they couldn’t open a bookstore. I just didn’t even know that that was a criterion!
SC Is it definitely?
JC We would all fail; none of us could open bookstores.
SC But it makes you wonder about the culture that’s ordering books in such quantity!
JC So then how did you find the shaman? Once you were in your pantry and you were like, Oh I want to check in with Grandma, was it clear to you how to go about finding someone?
AC I found her on Instagram. Someone had reposted one of her posts into their story and she seemed like a really cool person, so I emailed her and was like, “What are your rates? How can I schedule this?” I saw a fortune-teller back in 2014, in Seoul, and that was intense. He predicted all this stuff that came true. I was there for this Korean tradition of suing your family for your inheritance—I don’t know if you guys have had to do this, but Korean inheritance law is just set up for fights, I think. So I remember talking to our lawyer in Seoul about how I was going to see this fortune-teller, and he said, “Oh, my ex-wife wanted us to go, and let me just say, it was not for the faint-hearted.” I said, “Well, what do you mean?” and he said, “Well, she asked the fortune-teller how many children we were going to have. And the fortune-teller pointed at her and said, ‘You will have three,’ and then pointed at me and said, ‘You will have two.’” And they had two kids, and now his ex-wife has remarried and has three. But that was the fortune-teller’s way of saying, “You’re not going to stay in your relationship.”
JC This is so interesting, this really strong spiritualism. Because I kind of do believe in the shamans and things like that, but also, growing up, I was really Christian. Do the rest of you have belief systems as well, or are you atheists? Or, I’m also curious, where does writing fit into that belief system?
CPH I grew up Christian, too. My parents were not that religious. When we were in LA, they were like, We’re Christian by convenience, but then they joined a fundamentalist church for some reason, even though they were lukewarm about God. But my dad was a life insurance salesman, and he went to three different churches on Sunday to sell insurance. So for him it was more like using the church to his advantage. And my mother was Christian, but she was never—I know Koreans can be really intense about “Yesu Keuriseudo”—
JC Intense about everything, perhaps.
CPH —and she never was, but because they joined this fundamentalist church, I got sucked in. When my dad stopped going, I told him every time he didn’t go to church that he was going to hell. So I believed a lot of that stuff until I turned twelve or thirteen, maybe around the same time that I discovered Depeche Mode, and then I stopped being into religion. Ever since, I’ve been more an atheist/agnostic. I think because I had such an intense experience with it as a kid, I tend to be wary of religion. Spiritualism, though—I’m scared of fortune-tellers; I never would visit a fortune-teller. I would rather not know what the future is like, I’d rather just be surprised, if it’s dark. So I do think that there are spirits, I do think that there are ghosts, and I do believe that there’s validity to shamans; my sister really believes in shamans and fortune-tellers. She almost treats fortune-tellers like they’re her therapist, and I’m like, “Go to a real therapist; why do you go to a fortune-teller?”
SC I am really superstitious, too. Like you, Cathy, I don’t want to go to a fortune-teller because I’m afraid of learning what I don’t want to know. I don’t know where I got my superstitions from. I don’t remember my parents being like this. But I do have all of these really reflexive beliefs in intangible and unknown forces. I believe in ghosts and things that we can’t see. You know how we are not supposed to rub our eyes anymore, ever, because of COVID? I still do—and every time I rub my eyes and I get a lash, I wish on my lash and I blow it, and I have this belief that if I don’t wish on it mindfully, something bad might happen.
CPH I do that.
SC I can’t lose an eyelash without following this ritual; I’ll feel really nervous and unsettled. I didn’t grow up with any organized religion, though. Both my parents were breakers from convention. My mom’s Jewish, so marrying my dad, who’s Korean, was already a bold move for her. That wasn’t really happening a lot in the early 1960s. My dad was Korean, so marrying this Jewish woman was kind of out of the norm for him. And their attitude toward organized religion seemed kind of indecisive and ad hoc to me. I don’t even know if either of them is an atheist or an agnostic. They just seemed fairly undecided and uninterested in the whole thing. My father is a mathematician, and my mother once said to me that if she hadn’t been a woman, she could’ve fulfilled her dream of being an auto mechanic—
AC Her dream!
SC Her dream.
JC Her dream. That is not the way I thought that sentence would end.
CPH I mean, she could have; it’s not that crazy.
SC Maybe she was effing around with me. I don’t know. I guess, point being, neither of them is a particularly spiritual person, at least not in the way they’ve ever spoken to me.
JC I love this idea that we might have absorbed things from our parents that weren’t literally told to us. This is almost tangential, but when I really think about where superstition comes from, I think it’s particularly fervent in people who have been traumatized. Because there’s some way in which the rational things did not work out, and any one of us has had family who went through unimaginable things, right? Just with the legacy of the country of Korea. And so, superstition and faith step into that breach of, “I don’t know why all this terrible stuff happened, and I hope there’s some higher power—like, maybe if I blow this eyelash, it will protect me from something bad happening.” So superstition, trauma, these undercurrents that we write about—I don’t really have a question, but I’m throwing that out as a subject. Because I’ve been thinking a lot more about trauma during this time. Are there currents happening with this pandemic and sheltering, where you find yourself in a new place?
CPH I think that’s a fascinating idea, that magical thinking is a response to trauma. I am prone to those thoughts and rituals, like wishing on the eyelash or not stepping on the crack in the sidewalk or I won’t have a good day and so forth; I thought it was just me being neurotic. That thinking does offer a kind of protection or reassurance: it helps with this fear of the future, the desire for some kind of order or control. My husband thinks I’m getting really woo-woo because I feel like I’ve had ghost experiences. I’m a skeptic about that kind of stuff—was a skeptic about that kind of stuff—but I’ve been thinking about spirits and unsolved mysteries and about UFOs. There’s a lot that we don’t know, and when we can’t explain it with science, we often assume that it’s not real. I’m not going to get too into all of that weirdness, but I do think that trauma is why a lot of people turn to God, and why so many Koreans have turned to Christianity as well.
AC I’ve seen three UFOs in my life, so—we can talk about “superstition” if you want, but it’s just my reality. I was in a coven in high school. I was possessed by a ghost during one of our rituals, which involved me speaking in tongues. But I have a visual display for us, too. This soap dish is something that—when I moved into my apartment in Brooklyn in 1996, I started having this image in my head of a soap dish, and so I thought I wanted an antique soap dish. So I started looking for one. I went to Fishs Eddy, I went to all these vintage stores, I tried to find a vintage ceramic soap dish, couldn’t find it. Then, one day, I was moving a rose in the garden, in Brooklyn, and—dig dig dig chink—I just reached right down and even before I touched it, I knew that it was the soap dish. So this an example of the psychic powers that I have. But I will never rule the world with them.
JC Because it’s not, Buy this stock; it’s You’re going to find a soap dish.
AC Yeah, and I did, I found the soap dish! I have also had visitations: my grandmother visited me spiritually the night that she died. I was in Iowa, in graduate school, and the next day my grandfather called me to tell me that she was dead. And I had guessed that that was why she was there. My parents brought me up as lackadaisical Methodists; my dad went to church on holidays only. He would play golf while we were at church. And so we would arrive to the golf club—where he was the first nonwhite member, in Maine—and he’d be on the eighteenth hole at 11:45. You couldn’t serve booze in Maine until noon on a Sunday, and my mom would order her Manhattan on the rocks. At the time I didn’t know, but now I know, that’s quite a drink to be having at noon.
SC Right at noon.
AC Right at noon! And at 11:59 the drink would go up on the bar and the waiter would walk it over and then my dad would come in off the green and we would have brunch and that was our—it wasn’t particularly spiritual. But the first time I went to Korea and went to my family’s ancestral shrine and participated in Korean ancestor worship, it made sense to me. It was probably the first time I had anything resembling a spiritual experience with an organized religion.
SC I’ve never seen a UFO, and it’s one of those things that I burn to see. I can’t believe you’ve gotten to see three. Is it because I’m a halfie, because I’m hapa?
AC I’m hapa.
SC Just bad luck, I guess. Wait, Alex, going back, I had two questions. So you knew your grandparents before they passed, right? You had a relationship with them?
AC That’s right.
SC Can you talk at all about what it was like when you went to the shaman to touch base with them?
AC Sure. So, my grandmother showed up first, and my grandfather showed up second. She told me that my ancestors are well cared for—which is not always true—that they feel looked after. But she also said that they approve of me, which—as a gay Korean American who’s also suing his other relatives for his inheritance—was a huge thing to experience.
CPH I want to go down that rabbit hole of shamans and UFOs, but also the inheritance. Is that somehow a Korean thing? Because I’ve been doing these interviews, and I was interviewing a really good childhood friend of mine—and she’s Korean American—and she was telling me that when her father started having dementia, his brother, her uncle, sued her to be the executor of the father’s estate. But his reason was that she was adopted, which she didn’t find out until she was thirty-six years old, looking at the court documents. The uncle’s reason for suing was that she was adopted in Korea, and I guess there’s a family registry that you sign up for, and her father never did that. So because of that, her uncle was like, She’s not part of the family, she doesn’t exist. And it was total bullshit, he was just trying to take her inheritance. But you’re saying this is a common occurrence among Korean families…
AC Yeah, when my father died, my aunt sued for custody of my brother and sister and me, to try to take us away from our mom. Because she wanted control of my future inheritance. So each descendant has what’s called a share, basically, and if they die then their descendants divide that share between them, as well as their surviving spouse. She was trying to get control over that share in advance of our grandfather’s death, which was still a little over fifteen years away at that point. It’s really ruthless stuff.
SC So this estate still exists, Alex? Is it assets or is it a place?
AC Yeah, a lot has been peeled off, but there’s a remaining place that’s significant.
SC It’s really interesting to have this conversation, because for myself, my connection to Korea seems so totally abstract. When my father and his siblings came out of Korea, they came with nothing except these kind of mythic stories of the past. They had come from very well-to-do backgrounds on both sides: my paternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather both apparently came from landed families. But all of their land was in the North, and so there’s this kind of snap of the fingers where at a certain point in geopolitical history everything that might have tied you to the past just disappears. I’ve always really felt sorry for my father, because he’s lived in the past in so many ways. He really hates Korea, actually, and before he became quite demented, you could hear him rail on at hair-raising length about Korea—I wouldn’t take him outside when he was in one of these moods, because he would say appalling things. But he also had this childhood world he talked about that to me is heartbreakingly vivid, but also completely absent. And the idea that any trace of that world could still exist is fascinating to me, the idea that you have this third-generation tie back to any piece of that land—it literally didn’t occur to me until this moment that that might be possible for anyone. Because my father would tell me these childhood stories about walking through the fruit orchards with his grandma, about the home where they used to live, where they would put hot coals under the floor in the winter to make it cozy. But these stories are like the fairy tales I grew up with.
CPH By “in the North,” you mean North Korea?
SC Yeah, both sides of my father’s families, my father’s mother’s family and his father’s father’s family were both from the region around Haeju and owned estates. They were landowning aristocrats who had fruit orchards and rice fields and, you know, oppressed peasants.
CPH It’s similar to my family background. My mother’s side is also from North Korea. They weren’t that far from South Korea, and they had to escape during the war as well. They walked. I’ve been talking to my family; it’s interesting, when you sit down and talk to your family formally, how much they will reveal. They were saying that my grandfather took my mother’s older siblings first, and then my grandmother crossed over with my mom, my mother’s sister, and a guy they hired who carried my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine on an A-frame while they walked for weeks and weeks.
SC That’s heavy.
AC A sewing machine!
SC When did they walk out of the North? Was it during the Korean War or during the Second World War?
CPH No, it was during the Korean War; it was during the summer, monsoon season. The grandfather left first with the older siblings because the North Korean army was conscripting everyone who was over the age of ten. So he was afraid that the older siblings would be conscripted as child soldiers. They buried all of their valuables under a persimmon tree, thinking that they would return, and they never did. In fact, my grandmother was considering leaving my aunt and mother and then returning for them, because she thought they were too young for the travel. Luckily, she didn’t. I’ve been thinking about North Korea a lot, and how it’s just absolutely inaccessible. It’s lost, it’s gone; I always sort of take it for granted that when my grandmother crossed over, that whole history was gone for good. She could never talk to her mother, father, siblings, or see that land again. It is like a fairy tale, like an imaginary homeland at its most extreme.
SC Yeah, it’s such a weird sense of total dispossession. My dad has really succumbed to dementia this year, and since the pandemic—I haven’t seen him in seven months—his condition has accelerated quickly. You never know what the questions were that you didn’t ask until suddenly you can’t ask them. And it hit me—actually just now, I mean—that my father is, I think, the only one of his siblings who ever had a relationship to this land that his grandparents owned. My father grew up in Seoul, he was the oldest son; there were many children, and his story is that his brother was born so soon after his own birth that his mother was just exhausted, and so his parents sent my father to the country to live with his grandmother. And I remember the first time he told me that story, I said, “How long did you stay there?” and he said, “Oh, I don’t know, until I was like six or seven.” And I was like, “Six or seven!” He was sent to his grandmother’s when he was an infant, and he was like, “Yeah, I thought my grandma was my mom.” These were some of the most formative years of his life, and the stories that he tells me—I’ve realized none of his siblings have those stories, because none of them was sent to live in the country.
And now, in a sense, his memories of it are gone, and so the place is gone; there’s no way to even figure out where it was. I don’t know how you would even find the piece of paper, if there ever was one, that said this was the land that belonged to these people. I think about this a lot too, Cathy, and it’s complicated, because it’s very uncomfortable as an American to brood over your lost aristocratic past, to be, “Oh, our lost landholdings.” But I think there’s more to it: it’s not really for me about capital or property so much as this sense of being rooted in a homeland that simply doesn’t exist in any way anymore. My father has suffered a lot in his life for that loss and has not ever been particularly interested in talking about it. But the stories he used to tell me were his way of signaling that this was a really big deal for him, this place.
JC Cathy, you used the phrase “imaginary homeland,” which really resonated. I wonder, Do any of you feel like you have a home? I’ll just say, I don’t. And the second question I have is: How much of the inaccessibility is not only geographic but also linguistic? I’m saying that as somebody who does not speak Korean, so I do not have access to any of my family stories. My hundred-year-old grandmother just died, and I have no words to even glean what her past was. How much of a loss is loss of language, not just loss of a place?
AC Something that I just discovered recently is that at the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, many Koreans didn’t write or read Korean because of the occupation. So when it ended, there was a massive reeducation project that had to be undertaken to re-teach the language. My grandfather was born into occupation; my father was born into occupation. Learning that has made me feel weirdly closer to them. All this time, I have felt that separation of language, because my father didn’t want us to speak Korean. He would joke, “If you can’t understand your grandfather, you can’t obey him.” He felt my grandfather had ruined the lives of his siblings by trying to control them, and he was like, “Live free.” Learning Korean felt like disobeying him. So I still haven’t done it yet.
I bought this house in Vermont where I kind of feel at home, but in other ways America feels like it’s just not working out. I’ve been really missing Seoul and wishing that I could be there. E-reading this memoir that my grandfather wrote, I’ve been using Google to look at the places he describes: looking up the oyster farm where he was first assigned to work after he graduated from Hokkaido University, to the place in Sinuiju up near China where my father was born. So I don’t know what’s going to happen.
I wanted to add quickly that the place where our family’s ancestral shrine is, where my grandfather grew up—it’s this tiny island off the coast of Goheung, off the southern coast of Korea. And one of the things that he’s described—and I wonder if it still exists—is that he used to fish and then sell fish on the open water at a floating fish market, where all these fishing boats would meet up and sell their fish on the water. I have these longings to see this stuff now. And I don’t know if America is home. We’ll see. I love this house that I bought, there’s some land attached to it, we’re growing a farm. But I want to live in a country that takes coronavirus seriously. I don’t know if America’s going to be that country for a while. Even just thinking about making it to January 2021 with Trump in office sounds like an impossible, unendurable feat.
CPH The question of not feeling like I have a home: I’m not as afflicted by that question. I do think this country is my home. My home is not one place; it’s LA, where I grew up, it’s also New York—although I want to leave New York, like everyone else. Becoming a mom made me feel more affixed to a demographic. And also, it was James Baldwin, I think, who said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” There’s just a lot at stake. And I remember in 2016, everyone I knew was saying, Well, we’re going to go move to Canada if Trump gets elected. But I never thought that. I was, Well, we have to stay and we have to fight. There’s something about that anger that makes me feel more rooted in this country, because it makes me feel like I’m part of this country, and I want it to change structurally. I also don’t think Korea is my home; I wasn’t born there.
But I grew up speaking Korean, and I do think that language is a home. You know, there’s this Korean word, jeong, which means connection or intimacy. And I feel that jeong when I speak Korean with my family or my relatives—or even when I hear it on the street. There’s just so much meaning and nuance when I hear a word in Korean that gets lost when it’s translated. At the same time, I associate a lot of pain that with the Korean language too. And it’s funny you were saying that, Alex, about your father not wanting you to learn Korean, because I don’t have any interest in teaching Korean to my daughter. And my husband is always asking me why; why not send her to Korean school? I’m like, Why saddle her with that baggage? I just feel there’s something with the Korean language, where there’s a lot of emotional baggage to it.
At the same time, I feel really grateful that my parents actually forced me to learn Korean and speak Korean—my grandmother lived with us, so we had to speak Korean. I lost a lot of it, I probably have a ten-year-old’s grasp of it, but it’s enough that I can still talk to my family—or when I’m in Korea, I can still communicate easily enough. Weirdly, I consider the Korean language more a home than the English language—even though I suck at Korean now. And so I want to return to Seoul because there is a kind of soulful connection particular to that place. I’ve been there a lot; I spent a year there as a journalist and Fulbright scholar interviewing North Korean defectors. I hate it, I love it, and I feel like I haven’t been back for so long and I want to return. But I don’t consider it my home; I consider it part of my history, my lineage.
JC Susan, do you have a place that feels like home?
SC You know, yes and no. I mean, yes, I feel at home in this country. I can’t imagine expatriating, even though I could never have imagined how bad it would get here. And now that we’ve seen how bad it can get, I feel like it’s getting easier every day to imagine things getting a lot worse. My imaginings have almost no limit now. I look at our house in Brooklyn and I think, What do we need to do to secure this space against armed invasion?
JC Chaos, yeah, armed invasion.
SC Seriously, armed invasion by people who want to come and kill us in particular.
And at the same time, it’s funny because home for me in my dreams is very literal. I’m always dreaming of a physical home that I’ve never found. So while I know that this country is my home, I never know where in this country is my home. I do want to move to Vermont—one of the reasons I have worked every summer at Bread Loaf for the past four years instead of taking the summer off is because it lets me pretend I live there for eight weeks a year. And then I do the math and I’m like, okay, fifty-two weeks in the year and eight of them in Vermont, the other forty-four in Brooklyn, both places I really love and that feel like home—but I still feel like there’s this literal physical home, this house, that’s eluding me.
In particular, I’m fascinated by the lost houses of my father’s childhood, these stories that he’s told me about the grandparents’ houses. My father came to this country, it would seem, without a single photo of anyone or anything. So I’ve never seen pictures of any of his homes, but I’ve imagined these places. I’ve been to Seoul a couple of times, and when I’m there, I’ll take pictures of houses where I think, Maybe this is the house? Because I’m always wanting this physical sense. I really struggle to write fiction unless I have a very literal, physical architectural sense of where things are happening. Like, What’s this room? How big is it? Which direction is it facing? What’s in the room in addition to the character? I’m always looking for that house of mine that feels like it’s where my story is supposed to be happening. And I’ve never found it.
I own my house in Brooklyn; it’s the second property I’ve ever owned. I co-own it with my soon-to-be-ex husband and we’ve been—it’s no secret—at war over the fate of this house, in part because I refuse to sell it, like a completely irrational person. I just refuse. All of our wealth—our “wealth”—is in the form of this house that can’t be divided in half, and I recognize it’s an irrational position that I’ve taken. Because this house doesn’t even feel like my home. So it’s funny, Julia, I love that question too, but for me it instantly went to floors, walls, and ceiling. That’s this weird version of home I’m always looking for. And now in my mind, I’m like, Oh, when I grow up, I’ll have that house. And, guess what, Susan? You are grown up!
JC I felt like we came full circle, because Susan, you had said how in the age of coronavirus it feels like there are no physical spaces anymore. And when we talk about home, I think all of us talked about a house, and I think I’m preoccupied with wishing I could be an adult and buy a home, and what that means. But the other thing was talking about shamanism. I do think the way all of us write does make us shamans, or we conjure up something else that we channel, that moves through us. So I wanted to say how much I felt like all of you did that for me when I read your work.
The closest I’ve come to shamanism and writing touching is probably Aubergine. I was completely unprepared for my father’s death, and I wrote a play to portray, as closely as I could, what it is like to have a loved one die at home, in hospice. There’s a moment in the play when the dying father talks directly to the audience. In one production, we had a wonderful Korean American actor, Stephen Park, playing the role. He talked with me about my father, about the story his character tells. And one particular night, Stephen’s performance was so beautiful it made me weep. I had a completely different experience from everyone else in the theater that night. Everyone else was watching a play. I was seeing and hearing my father.
CPH There’s a history of poets who believed in the occult, from Yeats, who used a medium to contact ghosts, or Jack Spicer, who believed he was essentially taking dictation from a Martian, or James Merrill, who used a Ouija board to write his poems. When writing is truly good—truly effortless—which is perhaps 10 percent as opposed to 90 percent of me stressing, staring at the wall, checking social media, tearing my hair out because words are not coming—it does indeed feel like I’m channeling words. It’s a wonderful, buzzy sensation. I could almost taste the words, and it’s pleasurable. I don’t have to think, I just write, and that flow feels like it’s coming from outside me. I guess I go through that agony of the writing process for those few glorious moments where I’m truly channeling another voice as I’m writing.
SC Just what Cathy said. The 90 percent agony/hair-tearing/social-media-enabled procrastinating and the 10 percent being-taken-possession-of-and-not-sure-you-can-type-fast-enough-to-get-it-all-down. It very rarely happens to me, but when it does it really is this supernatural feeling of being the instrument for something beyond or outside yourself. The only reason my most recent book, Trust Exercise, even happened is because one day during the 2016 election period—almost exactly four insane years ago—I was feeling so angry, and so helpless, and had the odd thought occur to me about this project I’d actually put aside for a long time, the project that would wind up being Trust Exercise. I thought, of that project, “I wonder if there’s anybody”—I meant, any character—“in that world, that feels as totally full of rage as I feel?” And no sooner did the question take form than the answer arrived in the voice of this completely—to that point—peripheral character. Karen. And Karen was basically like, “Yeah, I am PISSED—you’d better grab your laptop.” I sat down and wrote what became the second, pivotal section of the book in a white heat in a matter of weeks, which has never happened to me before and may well never happen again. I was just told it, I didn’t have to come up with any of it. By the way, that character, Karen, is even more pissed off now that her name has become synonymous with toxic white privilege. She is not that kind of Karen, she would like you all to know.
AC I have said, of The Queen of the Night, my second novel, that it was like being haunted by someone who never lived. I do think writing is like channeling, like the way magic might feel, and certainly, for example, with my current project I keep having coincidences that lead to the next thing I need to know, which I think of as a sign that I’m heading in the right direction. I would say I believe in the Oversoul, for example, and the unconscious, and I know from experience that writers can tap into more than what we let ourselves know about ourselves, each other, and the culture at any given moment we’re writing. But the mudang traditions are such that I would hesitate before using that word for it in a direct way—it takes more than writing to reach the gods and the spirits. There’s an idea I got from Ursula K. Le Guin, back when I interviewed her for Guernica, the idea of writing as “breaking into the spell,” and that’s what it feels like to me—a different way to connect to ancestors, history, culture, my life, the lives of others, out of the present.
JC So, just really quick, I wanted to say about this little Zoom interview, the idea I had, if you guys are up for it, was maybe we could put it away and watch it again in 2030?
SC Like a time capsule.
JC Kind of, yeah! Because I’m curious how many of the fears and thoughts we were having now we might have or not have in 2030.
AC It’d be really funny if we all lived in Vermont.
JC Yes, yes, or did Cathy make it to Korea? Did Alex? Did we? I don’t know.
This conversation appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Alexander Chee is a novelist and essayist. His latest book is the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
Julia Cho, playwright, is the recipient of a Susan Smith Blackburn prize and Claire Tow award. Her book, The Language Archive and Other Plays, is now available.
Susan Choi’s most recent novel is Trust Exercise, which received the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. She teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.
Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings was published in Spring 2020. Hong is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. She is the poetry editor of The New Republic and a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University.
Images: photo of Alexander Chee by Robert Gill; Julia Cho by Jennie Warren; photo of Susan Choi by Heather Weston; photo of Cathy Park Hong by Beowulf Sheehan.