A³ (Asian American Authors) Spotlight is a writer interview series created by TMD’s Michigan in Color and Arts to spotlight and celebrate Asian American authors. The goal of this series is to feature artists whose content diversifies the landscape of Asian diasporic literature.
For Crystal Hana Kim, writing her debut novel “If You Leave Me” was more than just an incumbent milestone. What started as drafts about these Korean women in Kim’s undergrad writing workshops was the inception to explore the unspoken, less “sensational” aspects of the Korean War. She’d teach afterward, getting involved in nonprofits like Teach For America, but once in graduate school, Kim revisited the characters for her most demanding project yet: a polyphonic historical fiction novel set to probe the rippling effects of the Korean War.
“If You Leave Me,” published in 2018, follows 16-year-old Haemi Lee and her family as they navigate love, loss and displacement throughout the Korean War. Haemi’s fiery persona rejects society’s rigid expectations for women of her time; she sneaks out in a boy’s disguise to bike and drink makgeolli with her childhood friend and true love Kyunghwan. These small, frivolous moments help Haemi cope with the agonizing realities of her father’s death and brother’s illness — until Jisoo, Kyunghwan’s cosmopolitan cousin from Seoul, enters the picture. A viable husband choice, Jisoo earnestly courts her, leaving Haemi to choose a life of stability with Jisoo over one of unabashed love with Kyunghwan, which alters the course of her life. Exploring these themes required full immersion on Kim’s part — years of assiduous research including family testimonies and trips to the motherland. For our Asian American author spotlight, The Michigan Daily sat down with Kim to discuss her experiences as a Korean American writer.
From the comfort of her home in New York, Kim joins the Zoom call wearing a gentle smile despite her formidable intellect. Initially, I’m drawn to her “glass skin” (her skincare routine is coveted), but my attention quickly shifts to the tranquil charisma she radiates, befitting her position as a creative writing professor at Columbia University. Behind her stand tall, dark oak bookshelves, and while trying to nonchalantly peek at the titles, I’m reminded of how our interactions started. Still immersed in the world penned by Kim, I sent an email asking for book recommendations this past winter, which Kim answered with immense warmth. Six months later, our distanced email exchanges culminated in an intimate conversation. Now, I could pick Kim’s brain not only for the author spotlight but also to gain insights for novice writers, especially those of Asian descent.
Her novel embarks with Chon Pong-gon’s “Hope,” a surrealistic poem that echoes the repression of war trauma. Transfixed by its elegiac script, I asked Kim: Why this particular epigraph? Kim recalls browsing a library during her artists’ residency in France — the capital of art de vivre, buttery pastries and romantic literature — only to find this “one perfect green book” of Korean poetry amid the works of French authors. Kim explained this fortuitous moment, saying, “This poem stood out to me because of the way it melds this beautiful language, this imagery and also the trauma of war and how it always stays with you.”
This trauma is what Kim explores when crafting Haemi as a complex heroine throughout the Korean War and its aftermath. Over the years 1951 to 1967, we see how Haemi evolves as a daughter to a wife and mother. Yet when I ask Kim why she chose this specific setting, she discloses how the characters came to her before the time period did. Kim’s choice of backdrop cannot be more fitting: the war contextualizes Haemi’s selfishness and wayward emotions as the reader struggles with both feelings of frustration and sympathy for her. Whether it be poverty, hunger or family expectations, Kim “wanted to see that kind of tension between what Haemi wants to be, who she is, and all of the constraints around her.”
Although the narrative concentrates on Haemi’s experience with war, this is rarely the custom. The lack of Korean War narratives that center women vexed Kim, and rightfully so. Furrowing her brow, she recalls the WWII literature she grew up with and its lack of relatable viewpoints. The coverage of war in fiction and history is usually centered on a certain perspective — rarely from women or people of color, groups that were disproportionately affected by the war yet left unheard. Aware of this inadequate representation, Kim sought to illustrate “the domestic experience and how horrific being in a war is, as a lot of your scars are invisible so they’re dismissed.”
There aren’t very many popular references to the Korean War but even within that small threshold, more works focus on white male soldier perspectives. Apart from pieces like Chang-Rae Lee’s “The Surrendered,” Kim struggled to find novels about the Korean War written by Koreans. With this came a wariness of potentially catering to the “white gaze.” During graduate school, Kim admits that peers asked her to over-clarify small details within her work. But throughout the feedback process, she trusted her instincts in centering Korean voices: “If I got feedback that said, ‘explain more,’ I would oftentimes check in with myself and think that person has a different goal for the writing than I do. I’m not here to explain what kimchi is or what sort of things are. I’m going to stay within the perspective of my characters.”
This philosophy is what makes Kim’s writing so intimate. To illustrate the communality so often found in Asian cultures, she stuck to addressing strangers as “Auntie” and using romanized Korean words without italicizing them. Our conversation then pivots to the common practice of explanatory commas, a technique that italicizes and oversimplifies diasporic terms for white audiences. Kim refuses to connote Korean words as foreign within the characters’ perspectives, saying, “I trusted that my reader would look it up if they didn’t know, because that’s how words like ‘croissant’ became part of the vernacular, right?” She lets out a small laugh and continues, “Nobody italicizes croissant and says like, ‘a flaky pastry in the shape of a crescent’ or whatever.” This italicizing of words denote certain cultures as “exotic” when the overall themes, characters and lessons of this story simply aren’t. No matter how different, the experiences simulated are universal — such as motherhood.
Part of the reason why I mustered the courage to email Kim was her raw depiction of Haemi as a mother. Rearing a child is seldom simple — once the umbilical cord is cut, mothers lose a part of themselves. But in society, the exertions of motherhood are often overlooked as if it’s supposed to complete you. Kim realized this pattern in literature as well: “I’ve always been fascinated by motherhood and how difficult mothering is and yet how in literature, it’s usually a dichotomy of good mothers and bad mothers.”
So what makes a good mother? Kim explores this question: Is a good mother someone who sacrifices everything for her children without any regard for herself? To paint layers of complexity, Kim dissects the “uglier” part of motherhood as Haemi struggles with an unnamed phenomenon — now commonly classified as postpartum depression. Haemi has good motherly intentions but given discontent for her own adverse circumstances, she feels suffocated. And when Haemi is frustrated and unable to attain catharsis, she’s considered selfish: “Postpartum depression, as a term, didn’t exist back then, which I thought was interesting. What happens when this mental health issue exists but there’s a gap between the actuality of it and the language? If we cannot name the illness, how does it manifest and how is it received by others?”
These harrowing mental illnesses in times of war often translated as emotional bruises afterward. It’s something that directly affected many, including Kim’s relatives, and in that sense also herself: “It was personally important to have my first book be about the Korean War, because it formed so much of my experience without me even knowing.” I nod, as her sentiment is a familiar one. From the current armistice that calls for the two-year mandatory military service to the stories we hear of our blood relatives in forbidden territory, there’s a looming generational presence of the war even to this day.
For Kim, she understood the war’s presence mostly through stories from her grandmother, with whom she shares a close relationship. Hearing about her halmuni fleeing as a teenager and giving up her dreams made writing about Haemi a more personal endeavor for Kim. Although different from Haemi, her grandmother served as a primary source during Kim’s research. But apart from family accounts, Kim felt the war’s presence in some arbitrary ways. Her grandmother would firstly ask, “Hana, what have you eaten?” or try to always feed her as if she was getting full just by watching her grandchild eat — an instinct likely cultivated after growing up hungry.
This love language of food transcends households — I’ve come to realize how similar our families are. The emphasis on not wasting a single grain of rice holds true to this day in many Korean households, even 70 years after the war. I salivate not just at Kim’s gustatory descriptions of delicacies like samgyetang and hotteok, but more because I feel the nourishing effect it had on characters surviving the war. It’s moments like these where I realize Kim doesn’t just explicitly share the ramifications of war, but rather unleashes it, letting its hunger seep deep into our skins. When characters are stuck in desolate conditions, hearing descriptions of tantalizing foods is almost hypnotizing and makes hunger sharper for the readers.
She then brazenly admits, “And it was also just fun to write Korean food.” Laughing along, I agree as my taste buds dance whenever I think of Korean food — something so personal to me yet rarely written about. But then again, showcasing Korean culture through descriptions of its cuisine is arguably easier, unlike more controversial aspects that may spring generalizations. The pressure to represent Korea in a nuanced yet realistic light was an intimidating thought for Kim like it is for most writers from marginalized communities. Especially in light of recent anti-Asian hate crimes, the community struggles with fears of misrepresentation; it’s a method of survival to be perceived as the “good immigrants” to counter racism and xenophobia. Kim understands the root of these concerns, but quickly dispels this misconception, “We need to have lots of stories, and it’s not about only showing our good sides. That’s not something that a white author would hear in America: ‘represent us well.’ That’s not how art works. So I think that’s something that I push against, and what I tell all my students when they’re writing: write what is true to you — you don’t have to represent anybody.”
When asked about her journey as a writer, Kim reveals that she was always “surrounded by artistic women,” and mentioned her mother and grandmother’s love for poetry. From a young age, Kim’s penchant for creativity meant pursuing a career in this artistic realm, so her profession as a writer wasn’t unexpected. Although she wasn’t discouraged by her family when pursuing her work, she still internalized feelings of doubt: “In college, I took creative writing classes and I loved writing, but at that point, I didn’t know if I could be a writer because that seemed so impossible to me.” Kim then attributes the root of these feelings to not seeing many writers of color she could emulate as an English major at Columbia, with her curriculum mostly consisting of white Western male authors. Speaking to her about imposter syndrome suddenly spoke to something within me, as her shell, along with mine, cracked a bit during the interview.
Kim told me, “One editor passed on the book and said, ‘You know, I already have a Korean author.’” It’s comments like these that uncover the publishing industry’s habit of tokenization, which prevents writers of color from embracing their identities on paper — all in hopes to be taken seriously. Tired of being solely classified by personal characteristics like race, we feel the need to write something that dispels certain expectations. Kim explained her process of gradual acceptance: “You know, I thought, I don’t want to be read a certain way. So I’m going to make my characters very vague, but that actually creates a less meaningful story, right? … And then I realized that not writing about Korean Americans because it was going to pigeonhole me was counterproductive, because I was falling in line with the silencing of my voice. I was trying to resist, but I was actually doing the opposite.”
When asked for some final words of wisdom for Asian American writers who are discouraged from pursuing the craft, Kim deliberates for a second before offering advice that’s simple, yet profound: “You have to live for yourself — being true and authentic to ourselves is the best possible way to make our family proud.” Although this advice may not be paradigm-shifting, there’s truth in this platitude for a good reason. After all, “If You Leave Me” is a portrait of the consequences when people forsake their words, desires and dreams due to fears of the unknown. And as if she’s rewriting her characters with an omnipresent insight, Kim says so much with only two words: “Do it.”
MiC Editor Rachael Kong can be contacted at email@example.com