Yun's "Shelter" describes the reality of family tensions
Jung Yun, writer and assistant professor of English at George Washington University, will be at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday to celebrate the paperback release of her first novel “Shelter.”
Yun began writing the first scene of her debut novel in 2004. After 12 years, "Shelter" was finally published in 2016 and is now being released as a paperback book. Yun studied at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing. In graduate school, she wrote many short stories, and “Shelter” is her first to recieve wide acclaim.
In an email interview, Yun said she starts with the image.
“That tends to be my writing process — image first, storyline later,” Yun wrote. “Sometimes it takes a while to understand what the story is and how the image connects, so I often tell people that it took ten years to complete the novel if I include all the thinking time, or 3.5 years if I only include the research and writing time."
“Shelter” follows Kyung Cho, a young father who is burdened by a life he cannot afford. A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the most exclusive neighborhood in the town. They are surrounded by material things that Kyung wishes he could have for his own family.
The plot describes Kyung’s uncomfortable childhood, his own parents affluent, but extremely unkind in nature. Later, Kyung refuses to see them, or even ask them for help when he needs it most. However, when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, Kyung is forced to take in his parents. Quickly, tensions begin to arise as Kyung's new relationship with his parents resurfacse old feelings of guilt and anger, along with the constant question of how to be a caring father, when he was never shown love as a child.
Yun's upbringing and childhood has shaped her writing style immensely. Born in South Korea, but raised in America, English is not her first language. In lieu of constant communication with the English language, Yun became very observant.
“I constantly watched people, studied their expressions and mannerisms, tried to glean meaning from how they behaved in addition to what they said,” Yun said. “I think this watchfulness carried over to my adulthood and it’s served me well as a writer. I find the disconnect between what people do and how they might feel endlessly fascinating.”
“Shelter” has already been very well-received and is a finalist for the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Goodreads Best Fiction Book of the Year and long-listed for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize.
Yun claimed it is still shocking the way that complete strangers, like booksellers, librarians and readers, have recommended her novel to others. She supposes she had always hoped for her novels to be lining major bookstore shelves, but it has taken some getting used to.
“You don’t have to be Korean-American to be broke in this country and living beyond your means to read my book. You don’t have to be Asian-American to have challenging relationships with your family. And you don’t have to be an immigrant to question whether you want the responsibility of caring for your elderly parents, particularly if they didn’t take such good care of you,” she said.
“These challenges are relatable to many, I think. I just chose to approach them from the perspective of a Korean-American family because I found that culture, ethnicity, class, immigration, etc. complicated these challenges in interesting ways that I wanted to explore,” she said.
What I found most fulfilling from speaking with the new author was the advice she gave to me for aspiring authors. Often, young people trying to make it in the field of literature hear “keep reading.” But Yun points out that while this is important, it's also overstated.
Instead, she told me: “Simply disappear.”
Her explanation: “The stories that instantly engage me as a reader, that pull me deep into another world, are typically stories driven by characters, not by the author’s hand. I think writers should be creators, not puppeteers — no one should see our strings — so I’d encourage people to be patient and take the time to really get to know their characters (as if they’re starting a new relationship because that’s essentially what they’re doing).”