Catherine Chung is the author of the novel Forgotten Country, which was published by Riverhead Books in March 2012. She is a Granta New Voice, and the assistant fiction editor of Guernica Magazine. She has taught creative writing at The University of Leipzig and Cornell University, and she currently lives in New York City.
UFR: First off, how would you describe Forgotten Country? What would you say it’s about?
Chung: It begins with a Korean American girl’s disappearance and estrangement from her family—when the family realizes the father is sick, the older sister is asked to find her sister and bring her home. It’s about family relationships and obligations and love and secrets, and the influence of culture and history on all of it.
UFR: Did you know from the beginning that this story would become a book? How much of yourself do you see in the narrator, Janie?
Chung: I knew in the beginning that I wanted to write a book, but I don’t think I knew it would happen until I was pretty deep in. At first, I thought Janie and I were nothing alike—there’s a single-mindedness to her, and a kind of unflinching almost blunt way of dealing with people that I found difficult to get close to, but the more time I spent with her, the more I began to know and understand what her fears were, and her loves, and how fiercely she feels things, and the more I came to admire how she almost never looks away from anything—and the more I was able to give myself to her as a character.
UFR: All of your characters, really, are so clear. They’re so distinct. What was your process of getting so close to your characters, their motivations, and their lives?
Chung: Thank you—I love hearing that. When I was in college I took a fiction class with Richard Stern, and I’ll never forget the advice he gave us: he said as a writer you have to be absolutely objective about yourself, and absolutely subjective about everyone else. I’ve always taken it to mean that as a writer you have to be hard on yourself, really exploring your own failings and the things about yourself you’d rather ignore, and then you have to love the crap out of your characters: to let them make their bad decisions and hurt each other and themselves, and still see it from their point of view, and be able to be on their side.
I spent a lot of time with the family in my book—five years, all told—of circling them, following them down roads, and hitting dead ends, and trying again. I feel like writing characters is sort of like making friends: some of them you connect to right away, and some of them take more time, but to really know them you have to pay attention, see them through their moments of shame as well as of triumph, and just wait and trust they’ll eventually reveal themselves to you.
UFR: There seems to be at least two major themes in your novel: family and history. What’s so important about each? Are the two connected? How?
Chung: Sure, I think they’re connected. The family in Forgotten Country is so isolated–they’re immigrants, they have this incredibly painful history filled with secrets they can’t even talk about. And at the end of the day that’s what they have: they have each other, and where they’re from, which is so entangled with who they are. And you know, as immigrants, they have to redefine themselves in the context of this new world, and that puts their identity, their relationships to each other, their sense of security—in a position of enormous tension. And so there’s this way that everything is thrown into question: their family and history and all of it. So it’s inevitable that they’ll feel estranged from themselves and each other in this new culture they’re trying to be part of, and at the same time, that they’ll struggle to hold on to everything that’s at risk, as well.
UFR: Though Forgotten Country is a novel, there’s a lot of reality, especially when it comes to Korea. What are your thoughts on the relationship between fact and fiction? Can we write fiction to talk about the truth? If so, what kind of truth? Emotional? Historical? Something else?
Chung: Oh dear. So I guess I think both fact and fiction offer a point of view, and that neither are the same thing as the Truth. Both can get a thing right, and both can get a thing wrong: I mean, it was a fact that the world was flat, until it wasn’t. It was a fact that the sun revolved around the earth, until it wasn’t. I feel like the difference is fiction operates in the realm of possibility. It suggests rather than proclaims, whereas facts are pinned down—until or unless they’re proven wrong—at which point something else gets pinned in the old place.
I think the thing that’s fun about fiction, or the imagination, is that it tells us what could be true—what might now or in the past have been true—and so it can also show us what’s possible. And I think because of the flexibility of fiction, it can get at truth in a cool and sneaky way: by approximations. And gosh, I think if a writer can figure out how to do it, s/he can use it to talk about any kind of truth there is: emotional, historical—why not?
UFR: Your writing is amazing, as it at once pushes the action forward and is also so lyrical, poetic. I mean, to be frank, you write like a badass. How much time do you spend achieving that voice on the page? How much time do you spend in revision?
Chung: Thank you! Voice is something I don’t consciously spend time on—I suspect it’s something that happens underground, when I’m not aware of it, and when it comes to me—when someone starts talking—that’s usually when I begin actually writing.
As for revision, well—I spend a lot of time revising. And I enjoy it, because it’s such productive time. When I’m in the production part of the actual writing process I get stuck a lot, and spend so much time staring at a blank page, pacing, cranky at myself as well as the story. With revision, I move stuff around, delete things, change things, rewrite—I feel like it’s much easier to work with existing material rather than creating new material to work with.
UFR: Would you say that this book is more about America or Korea? Both? When it comes to identity, what are your concerns?
Chung: This is such an interesting question, and such a tricky one. My first impulse is always to evade categorizations because they make me uncomfortable, and take me back to a question I’ve been asked ever since I could talk, which is: where are you from? And it’s a tricky question to answer because it’s not even so much about where I position myself as a human being in this world (because if I were to answer America, I’m almost always asked, no where are you originally from), but partly about where or how the world positions me.
So I’d say that I think the book is what I am: It’s Korean American in the same complicated, difficult-to-precisely define way. For the most part, the Koreans I know who have read it think it’s a book about America, with some Korean stuff in it—while the Americans I know (including Korean Americans) are pretty evenly split—some have said it’s a book about Korea, and some that it’s about America, and others have thought it’s more split between the two.
My own response is that at its core it’s an immigrant story, about a family that’s living in a culture it wasn’t born into, and the particular situation that arises from that coupled with their history and the loss of their original homeland. And in that way, it seems to me to be very much a story about America. After all, America is so much a nation of immigrants, of people who came in search of a better life. And at the same time, it’s about some Koreans who became American, and what happened to them, and what happens when they go back. In a way, the book itself is an exploration of this very question you asked, and how hazy the definitions are as this family grapples with multiple and shifting identities.
As for my concerns about identity—well, as you can probably tell, they’re complicated. I think it would be wonderful if we were all born with the freedom and space for that question not to have to be so fraught. But you know, different identities are assigned by the world depending on race or looks or gender or sexuality, and some come with more or less privilege or power or struggle or visibility. And a lot of that baggage is nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it from affecting you. It’d be nice if that weren’t the case.
UFR: While you certainly tackle issues of identity and memory, you also write about the body. From sickness to abuse, the bodies of your characters seem to be, like your characters, so susceptible to the world. Would you say that’s true, or no? Do you see the body as something you can use as a storytelling device? Also, do you have any thoughts regarding the current body-centric political landscape?
Chung: This is a great question, and like the last one, I feel like I’d need to write an essay to even begin to really address it. Let me begin by saying yes, of course, my characters are susceptible to the world, as are their bodies. As are we all, to varying degrees. You know, with catastrophic illness, there’s nothing you can do but fight it but also accept that this is what it means to live in a body: that one day you will have to watch it struggle and possibly fail. That’s life. But my characters are also susceptible in the particular way that you are when you come from a history that includes occupation, that includes war and violence. In the way that you are when you are a minority, when you are a woman, or have a history of violation already: the way you are when you are both seen and not seen.
May I tell you a story? Recently, my friend Lauren Alleyne told me about a guy named Jackson Katz who teaches a class on sexual violence to college students. He begins by asking all the men in the classroom what steps they take on a daily basis to prevent themselves from being sexually assaulted. And at first, he says, there’s always a really awkward silence as the men try to figure out if it’s a trick question. He says they laugh nervously, and one guy usually says he tries to stay out of prison, and then there’s more silence until someone admits it’s not something he thinks about, and usually at that point all the other guys agree.
So then Jackson Katz turns to the women in the class and asks them the same question, and the women start raising their hands and answering, and the men sit in a sort of stunned silence as Jackson writes down on the board all the safety precautions the women recite as part of their daily routine. Here are some of the things they do: they hold their keys as potential weapons, they look in the backs of their cars before they get in, they carry their cell phones at all times, they lock their windows when they go to sleep, they watch what they wear, they don’t drink too much, they have alarm systems, they don’t make eye contact with men on the street, they make aggressive eye contact with men on the street, they don’t enter elevators with only men in them, they avoid parking garages, they don’t leave their drinks unattended, they always watch their drinks being poured—and the list goes on and on, and the board fills up, and they stop before the women have run out of all the things they do every day to protect themselves from being sexually assaulted by strangers. Katz says at the end of this exercise they compare the list of things men do to keep themselves safe to the long and far-from-finished list of things women do, and the men are shell-shocked, and the women are overtaken by a kind of growing fury. And then he reminds them that these things that women do are only to protect them from strangers, which make up only 18% of rape cases.
What I’m trying to get at with this, of course, is how part of what makes your question so difficult to answer is how the bodies we live in change where it’s possible to start our conversation, and determines to a large extent what kind of conversation it’s possible to have. As women, our bodies are susceptible to the world. We are not only constantly aware of it in ways we don’t even realize, but are also reminded of it over and over, and we change what we do and how we act because of it. And I think it’s similar if you’re a person of color or part of any marginalized group. I read an article recently that said 40-60% of Asian American women have been or will be sexually or physically assaulted in their lifetime. The numbers for other races, including African Americans and Latinas were between 20-25%, which is still so terribly high. The article suggested the rate for Asians is so much higher in part because people expect Asian women to be more compliant, and get violent when they’re expectations aren’t met. So yes, my characters are vulnerable in these ways, but thankfully, they are pissed about it. It’s a huge moment for me when Janie pushes back, finally—and it’s in that moment she understands that even in her vulnerability she has a choice: she can see herself as a victim, or she can see herself as a fighter and survivor. I’m proud that she chooses to be a fighter.
As for the current body-centric political landscape—listen—I think any policy that capitalizes on or enforces the victimization of anyone else’s body is fucked up. Arizona’s recent anti-immigration laws are made to remind anyone who looks a certain way that their right to be here is in question, and will be contested based on what they look like. It’s meant to show them they’re not safe, and to make it seem natural and feel fundamental to who they are, because it’s based on their bodies, which they can’t change. All this anti-abortion legislation that’s being proposed, this nonsense with a Michigan lawmaker being banned from speaking after using the word vagina in an abortion debate—and this latest monstrous comment by Rep. Akin about “legitimate rape” is meant to remind women that some people with significant power in our country believe that we don’t have the right to our own bodies, even in the aftermath of a violation of the rights we supposedly do have to our bodies. And that it is even up for discussion, that our lawmakers are considering making it legal to allow others the right to choose what happens to our bodies while denying us that right—is horrifying, and deeply wrong, and meant—of course—to control and subjugate us. And let me just say it’s no accident that these kinds of measures are gaining heat and support just as the number of women entering higher education is surpassing that of men, and as we anticipate that whites will lose their majority within the next thirty years.
Which leads me to your question about the body as a storytelling device: I think the body has been used as a storytelling device, always, and continues to be used for good or ill. And I think it’s incredibly important to demand and assert control over our own stories: to resist and interrogate the narratives that are so often given to us, that insist we are wholly at the mercy of our bodies and what others can do to them—the stories that argue that it’s perfectly reasonable that others can make decisions about our bodies, or violate them at will. It’s necessary to acknowledge and access the actual power we hold in our bodies, to defend our right to that, and to learn what we can do with that power when we recognize and claim it.
UFR: How important is writing to your life? What does it do for you? In other words, the old question: Why write?
Chung: Writing is how I move through things. It’s how I see the world and grapple with my existence. It’s how I think, really. So this question is kind of like asking, how important is thinking to your life? I mean, it’s everything!
UFR: Can you remember your first ever attempt at writing? How did it go?
Chung: The first creative thing I ever wrote was a haiku in the second grade about the falling of leaves and the crunchy sound they make. It was accompanied by a watercolor painting of trees. It was awesome—the experience, not the painting or the poem, I mean—and the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I think it’s the one thing I’ve known without a doubt I really wanted for myself ever since, without question.
UFR: For you, what’s the hardest part about being a writer? What keeps you going?
Chung: The hardest part is the doubt—not about whether or not this is what I want to do, but whether or not it’s a sane or healthy thing to do. And it’s always difficult to balance writing with life: how much time do you devote to your work, and how much time do you devote to going after other kinds of work that will feed and keep you alive, for instance? How important is comfort? How important is safety? Most other lines of work don’t demand these kinds of decisions.
What keeps me going is joy. Even when I’m miserable and doubting and overwhelmed, I still have this sense that I am so lucky (so astoundingly lucky!) that I get to do this. Whether I succeed or not, whether I write anything worth anything or not, I get to be part of this larger community of people who live by words and ideas and stories—and I get to spend my life striving to be part of a conversation that’s larger than myself. I believe in the value of that absolutely and always, and that’s a beautiful and joyous thing.
UFR: Who are some of your favorite writers? Why?
Chung: James Baldwin, because he’s so brave and human and clear-eyed and beautiful. Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, and J.M. Coetzee for the same reasons.
UFR: What are you currently working on? Where do you want to go? Are you already where you want to be?
Chung: I’m currently starting work on a new novel, which I’m really excited about. It’s going to take me to Germany and France, into stuff with math and science and gender and trailblazers and social upheaval. The next novel and I are mostly in the flirtation stage though, where we don’t really know each other or the limitations of our relationship (should it progress to that stage), so everything seems possible.
As for your last question—I’m pretty happy with where I am now, but of course there are a billion places (at least!) that I want to go next.
UFR: Last, what one piece of advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Chung: May I repeat myself here? I quoted my mom in response to a similar question in my first interview ever, with Granta back in 2010, but I still stand by it. I said: The advice I give myself is to risk more, be patient, and remember that life is pretty big. But I think my mom’s advice is better: Eat and sleep right, exercise, remember to take breaks, and treat yourself gently, because you will write other things but you only get one life – so above all, take care of your health!