2016 march 23, UES barnes and noble: i've been raving about jung yun's shelter since i read it last year, and i'm glad it's finally out in the world for everyone to read. if you haven't read it yet, read it; it's amazing; and it will wreck you.
jung yun: i used to live in new york city but left fourteen years ago with this vague idea of being a writer.
JY: i started writing [shelter] in 2010, but it's set in 2008.
[the scene they discuss below is the one she read -- pages 12-17 from the novel.]
alexander chee: i think the incredible power that you give the mother as she approaches is just one of the moments when i knew that i loved this novel because you allowed her the dignity of her suffering, in a sense, amid the humiliation that was happening. and the misunderstanding of the son -- it's so heartbreaking. that's not a question. how did you come to this idea?
JY: so that scene -- i was an MFA candidate, it was 2004, and, at the time, my parents were getting older and heading toward retirement. you know, my parents are fantastic and they're loving people, but i was thinking [...] [about how you can love someone, but it can be inconveniencing].
that was sort of the beginning, then i put it away in a drawer, then, in 2007, there was this high-profile home invasion in cheshire, connecticut. [two men broke into a home of a family of four; the mother and two daughters were brutally raped and murdered, while the father survived.]* i became really obsessed with that case, but i didn't understand how this man was ever going to have a life. i didn't know how this man was going to recover knowing that his loved ones had all died in fear.
that particular crime that happened in real life was the connecting thing between the scene in the field and everything else.
* wiki page here
AC: the parents are also remarkable characters, and i think that was part of what moved me about the novel, this sense that i was reading characters i'd never really seen in a novel. and, to some extent, that includes your portrayal of kyung. it's hard for someone like to understand that there is a great deal of love in all of the demands placed on him, and yet that's also part of the heartbreak. so this is a kind of crisis in which crisis happens -- this gap. what were the biggest challenges in structuring that?
JY: i think, in not making it overly sentimental. i wanted kyung to be kind of unlikable from the start but also for readers to understand him. there are times my husband would be like "he's so frustrating," and i was like, "good!" i wanted to capture some of the tension and expectation of someone who came to the country with his parents and has felt the weight of having to do just as well or better than his parents did.
JY: i tried to avoid delving into too much sentimentality but tried to subvert expectations and to avoid stereotypes and make him more three-dimensional.
AC: how much did you research the family and kyung? maybe the expectation would be that you're korean so you wouldn't have to, which is ridiculous.
JY: i did a lot of research into domestic violence in immigrant communities.
AC: what surprised you in what you learned?
JY: i don't speak korean very well myself, and one of the most messed up things i learned was about the korean language. in english, you can say, "you hurt me," but you can't say that directly in korean. but you can say, "it hurts."*
* i had to sit and puzzle over this for a good five minutes there. it's kinda blowing my mind ... but not. sounds very korean.
Q: did you purposely want to write about korean-americans?
JY: i write a mix of characters, but i did want this character to be korean-american, and i wanted him to be married to someone who wasn't korean-american because i wanted that question.
JY: when i was doing press, i'd get the question, "are these people based on real life?" a lot.
AC: the most boring question.
JY: taking care of parents -- taking care of lousy parents -- that's not a korean-american problem; that's a universal problem. struggling with money, having financial problems -- that's a universal problem, too.
JY: [explained how she gets up at 4:30 in the morning to write before work because she realized that, after the work day, she has no wherewithal to write. writing is the most important thing to her, though, so she'd start getting up at 6, then 5:30, now 4:30 to write, and now she wakes up without an alarm.]
JY: when i don't write, i'm terrible. it's better for everyone if i start my day doing the thing that's most important to me.
JY: there's a whole lot in my life that i can't control. i can control what's on the page, and that's about it.
AC: i think the thing that's so frustrating about the autobiographical question is that you put all this energy into creating something and the thing people want to talk about is the thing you didn't write about.