Eugenia Kim: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Eugenia Kim is the author of The Calligrapher's Daughter, which takes inspiration from Kim's mother's life growing up in early 20th century Korea and eventually moving to the United States. The story encompasses a enthralling personal story, the roles of gender and class, and Korea's fight for independence and struggle with modernity. This is Kim's first novel.

How did it first occur to you to write a book about your mother's life?

Like many mothers and daughters, my mother and I had our difficulties. Primary among them was the fact that she spoke little English and I spoke even less Korean. One of the ways we connected was through her stories. She was a great storyteller, very dramatic, but it was the stories themselves that captured me. In the mid 1990s, I started to write one of her stories down, just as a way to find something creative to do that wasn't as equipment-intensive as painting and drawing. That story kept growing. I took a few workshops, got some encouragement, and then as I began to write more, realized I had no idea what I was doing. I also wasn't sure if I should be writing this book as nonfiction or a fiction, especially since, as a Confucian daughter, I had the deeply instilled notion of having to honor my parents. Wouldn't nonfiction be the best way to properly tell their story? I went to school to find out, and realized two important things: that by writing it as fiction, I would have better access to the kind of emotional truth I wanted this story to convey. Second, that because of the language barrier between my mother and myself, when I listened to her stories and would fill in words or phrases I didn't fully understand, I was already creating a fiction in that act of listening.

The main character, Najin, ends up with a nickname based on her mother's hometown, because her father refused to name her out of spite for the day she was born coinciding with Japan's occupation of Korea. Did this actually happen to your mother?

No, my mother had her given name (Hahn Hyegyung) and also, as is very common, a nickname (Taekang--a boy's name). Because it was considered unspeakably rude to call a person by their given name, people chose nicknames by which they were called. An example from my library is the book, The Lost Mother, by Iltang, whose given name is Kim Tae-shin. There were several factors that went into the decision to not give Najin a name. Matriarchal names were lost over generations since they were not recorded in the family registry. My mother never knew her grandmother's name and had to think hard to remember her own mother's given name. Because of her upbringing, it made her too uncomfortable to speak her mother's name, and so she wrote it down for me instead. Also, in my research on this period in Korea, I was surprised and dismayed to find so few works written by or about women. Out of these factors, combined with Asia's tradition of silencing women, the decision to not name my protagonist grew naturally.

Your mother had an Americanized name, Alice—did this come after she had moved to America?

Yes. I don't know the exact origins of the name, but I do know my father helped her select it. And it was another way to avoid the rudeness of her being called by her given name.

Writing a book based on your mother's life must have given you insight most of us don't bother to ponder about our parents. Did you have any epiphanies about yourself while writing?

First let me say that the writing of this book took twelve years of living and working and raising a family. During that time my mother passed away. I also visited Korea for the first time in my life. So yes, the writing of this book did lead to epiphanies about my Korean American identity, and empathy about my mother and what she had lived through. Since I was mostly writing from Najin's point of view, it was merely a short leap to see the world and this difficult period of Korean history from my mother's point of view. Among the adages she frequently expounded were "think of others first" and, in so many words, "put yourself in the other's shoes." This writing did exactly that, and also proved why these two adages were central to her thinking--they did alter my viewpoint about her in a hugely positive and enriching way.

Did you purposefully or subconciously weave in any of your own traits to Najin or her mother?

I purposefully chose not to make Najin have all of my mother's characteristics, in particular, her strong Christian faith. Najin's faith journey and religious doubt is more akin to my own path. One of the things that this writing proved was how similar my mother and I are in many facets of our personalities: we are both stubborn, energetic, independent and creative. Najin's mother is the epitome of all the stories my parents told me about my grandmother. I wished I could have met this remarkable woman.

As a writer, did you have points in the story where you had difficulty writing a personal story and also follow a historical timeline? How did you choose between historical accuracy and the fiction of the story?

Being Korean American, I was keenly aware that Korean history is less my personal history that it is a native Korean's. I was deathly afraid of making historical and cultural errors, hence I undertook extensive research. There were times when errors were made in shifting chapters in time, changing the starting date of the book, that sort of reconstruction that happens with books. Luckily, early readers corrected these factual errors. The only time when I fictionalized actual history is for the chapter titled "The Last Palace," which tells the fiction about Najin befriending Princess Deokhye, the sister of Korea's last emperor. However, the events that occurred in those final moments of the dynasty are historically correct. I'm relieved to say that by making this a fictional book allows me some leeway for errors!

I read that you pursued your MFA in writing because you wanted to write this book, and do it justice. What were you able to learn from your program at Bennington College that helped you write this story?

Beyond the core fiction/nonfiction dilemma that I mentioned earlier, the Bennington MFA program taught me how to be a better reader, and that reading and thinking about excellent books, especially the classics, was a lifelong path to learning about being a better writer. The program also introduced me to the concept of a "life of letters" and helped foster confidence that it was something within the realm of possibility.

Now that this book is published, are you working on another novel? What do you crave to write about next?

Yes, I'm working on another novel. (And here I deliver a Cheshire-cat smile and say no more.)

What parts of Korean culture do you think are important for the next generation to embrace?

There is a section in the book from the father's point of view where he considers the Confucian tradition of studying the mores of the past to find a solution to the problems of the present. Because my study of Korean history and tradition taught me so much about my own family and the why of the relationships within it, I would say that this essentially Confucian notion of studying the past is useful. There is little that is new after all, just configured differently, newly, with more technology. The style of human relationships and the how they occur continues to endure.

Names and naming were a theme of this story. How was your name chosen?

While my father was separated for years in the 1930s and early '40s from my mother after one day of marriage, he attended Princeton Theological Seminary. His roommate, Richard Suffern, married a woman named Eugenia, and I was named after her. We considered them relatives, and I called her Aunt Gene.

What's your personal library like?

I have about a thousand books, but on LT, I've only posted my Asian collection. I'm blessed with built-in shelves in both my living room and my son's bedroom. I've taken over nearly all his shelves. Since my most recent career was as a graphic designer and mom, I fell in love with beautifully illustrated children's books and have every book Chris Van Allsburg ever published, as well as Allen Say and Jerry Pinkney. I'm most proud of my Korea-related books, many of them out of print.

What are you reading now?

I'm doing research, so am reading lots of books on North Korea and the Korean War. On my TBR shelf are Barbara Kingsolver's new book, The Lacuna, and Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I adored Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, and just took down off a top shelf The Odyssey and Bernard Malamud's The Complete Stories, for dips into thinking about craft issues as I write.

—interview by Sonya Green

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