Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Author Interview: Eugenia Kim

Yesterday I posted a review on the wonderful book The Calligrapher's Daughter. Today, I'm thrilled to be able to have a Q&A from the author, Eugenia Kim. Photobucket

A special thanks to Jason @ Henry Holt for arranging this and to Ms. Kim for being so speedy and taking time out of her schedule for us.

GJR: What happened to your parents past the end of the book? Did they eventually make it to the US together? Can you give us a quick summary of their lives? As the book ends, I felt that they would have a happy life and I’m hoping that’s true.

Eugenia Kim: My parents came to the U.S. in 1948, before the Korean War. They had six children and worked hard to raise awareness about Korea throughout their lives and for the Korean community in Washington, DC. My father was a founding pastor of a major Korean church in the area, and also worked at the Voice of America in the Korean service, a job that held particular importance during the Cold War and that still has value in combating problems with North Korea. He died fifteen years before my mother died in 2003, and she became an artist and writer after he passed. There are parts of this story that I’m deliberately not telling . . . See question 7.

GJR: What made you decide to write your mother’s story in the form of historical fiction, instead of a biography?

Eugenia Kim: It began as a biography and also as a memoir. I had no idea what I was doing, though, so I went to school to learn more about writing and about the process and difficulties that had pushed me against a wall. After receiving my MFA at Bennington College, I saw that the kind of emotional truth I sought to convey with this writing was best served with fiction. The characters had taken on a life of their own and I wanted to give them the freedom to develop into people that were not tied to my parents’ personalities. I think it’s particularly hard for an Asian-American daughter to write about her Asian parents--for me the process was fraught with the terror of getting it wrong or shaming their legacy in some way. As an example, one of my sisters had trouble reading about the marriage night, even though she knew it was fiction. It truly made her squirm! Fiction was allowed me freedom to delve into the emotional truth of fictionalized characters and the things they lived through, which were inspired by the real events that my parents experienced.

GJR: What happened to your Uncle and grandparents? Did they eventually come to the states?

Eugenia Kim: My uncle, unlike the character Ilsun in the book, was an incredibly sweet and loving man who had three daughters and a son. He just recently passed away in Seoul, Korea, and is buried next to my maternal grandparents in a beautiful mountaintop cemetery. I met my uncle when he visited D.C. in 1990, and more recently, when I visited Korea in 2005. He truly was a talented artist and calligrapher, and my grandparents lived with him in Seoul until their deaths. I never met my grandparents, but have stories still untold about these amazing people who lived through so much change and hardship.

GJR: Did writing this book give you a deeper understanding of your mom and her life journey?

Eugenia Kim: In the panoply of mother-daughter issues, it only adds to the difficulty when an immigrant mother has American-born children, especially ones who came of age in the turbulent Vietnam War era. Compounding the difficulty was a language barrier: she spoke little English and I spoke even less Korean. We misunderstood each other thoroughly. When I was young, it was through her stories that we were able to connect. It’s partly what inspired me to become a writer--her stories were so rich with culture and amazement. And so yes, I did come to a deeper understanding of my mother and her life and her culture, and hence, to a deeper understanding of myself and my Korean culture. Doing the historical research in particular helped to broaden my understanding of my heritage, and also made me see that one of the basic tenets of Confucianism was true: we can find solutions to the problems of today by studying the mores of the past.

GJR: What was your one discovery about your family in this novel that you didn’t know about before?

Eugenia Kim: There was more than one discovery, but one that comes to mind is about her imprisonment. Though I’d known my mother was imprisoned, I hadn’t known it was for 90 days and in the dead of winter. I didn’t want to ask too much about this painful period, and my mother would talk more about the Bible lessons she gave to the prison commandant than she did about her suffering, but she did say that she never forgot the unrelenting freezing wind that seemed to come up through the floorboards straight from hell.

GJR: This book is about relationships at the core, but to me the most moving ones were the ones between all the women in the book. Your women were of strong character, heart and mind; was it easier to write because they were real people? Or did that make it harder?

Eugenia Kim: It’s so gratifying to hear you say that they were real people, because though these characters are inspired by real people, they are truly fictional characters. As mentioned, I never met my grandparents, but what helped form her character was the admiration in the tone of voice my mother used whenever she spoke about her mother.

GJR: Are you working on a new novel? If so, what is the general plot?

Eugenia Kim: Yes. :-)

GJR: Who are your favorite authors to read? Why?

Eugenia Kim: Beyond the classics, which I return to repeatedly, I love a good story about complex people in difficult times or different places, one that’s written with a strong and distinctive voice. I love thoughtful writing and internal dialogues and dilemmas brought on by people’s frailties. James Baldwin is a perennial favorite for his language and the subjects he tackles in his work. Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home
) is breathtaking in the sheer wisdom embedded in her scenes and sentences.

GJR: What are you currently reading?

Eugenia Kim: Right now I’m re-reading Baldwin--both his novel, Giovanni's Room and his essays, Notes of a Native Son. Because of my own ten-year struggle with writing The Calligrapher's Daughter, I’m fascinated about what happens in both writing and reading nonfiction and fiction. I’ll be presenting a course on this at a new job with Fairfield University’s MFA Writing Program beginning this winter, something I’m really excited and pleased to be doing.

I’ve just finished reading Abraham Verghese’s CUTTING FOR STONE, a masterpiece that blends so many qualities I love in books: voice, quirks, religion, science, culture, controversy and interesting characters. And I always have a book of poetry nearby--right now it’s FACTS FOR VISITORS by Srikanth Reddy, whose reading I recently attended. There’s nothing like a poem to make one see the effectiveness of precision in writing.

Thanks so much for having me, and for the lovely and generous review!


Diane October 14, 2009 at 6:22 PM  

That for the great interview. I loved this story.

Serena October 15, 2009 at 4:11 PM  

Wonderful interview! Thanks for shedding light on this great novel and the real people behind the characters.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks October 17, 2009 at 10:28 PM  

I have to admit I skimmed the interview because I don't (yet) want to know what happened after the book ended. I'll be back after I read it (I put my name in the hat for your giveaway! :) )

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