The Stories We Inherit: An Interview with Crystal Hana Kim
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is a multi-perspectival saga told from five perspectives and spanning sixteen years from 1951-1967. The novel centers around sixteen-year-old Haemi Lee as she navigates adolescence, marriage, and motherhood through the Korean War and its aftermath. If You Leave Me was a Booklist Editor’s Choice title and named a best book of 2018 by more than ten publications, including The Washington Post, Literary Hub, Nylon, and Bustle. Kim has also written essays for Poets & Writers, The Paris Review, and Guernica, among others.
She was a 2021 Jerome Hill Artist Finalist, the 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner, and the recipient of scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Jentel, and Hedgebrook.
Born and raised in New York, Kim teaches at Columbia University and Randolph College’s MFA program and was a visiting faculty member during the June 2021 Antioch MFA residency, where she gave an illuminating talk on the importance of revision.
When I spoke to Kim, we discussed the origins of her debut novel, If You Leave Me, the history of storytelling in her family, and the need for layered stories that reflect the complexity of the human experience through language that engages the audience on its own terms.
Pallavi Dhawan: What inspired you to write about this particular time period?
Crystal Hana Kim: I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War, which is why I started in 1951, but I was mostly interested in the aftermath. When we think about how we learned about war in our history textbooks, it’s always delineated as a discrete period of time. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, but the effects on the people took time to manifest, especially when we’re thinking about intergenerational trauma. This is to say, I knew the bulk of my novel would take place after the war so I could explore how these characters were shaped by their experiences during the war, and how it shaped their interactions with others.
PD: Did you know from an early age that you wanted to write?
CHK: Yes, I did. I was born in New York, but Korean was my first language. I distinctly remember learning English in school and kind of toggling between the two in my head. When I knew a word in one language and not the other, I would have to describe it using other words in order to try to ask someone, what is this called? Those kinds of language acrobatics at a young age really intrigued me. I also learned the power of language pretty early on. In second grade, I really wanted to get my ears pierced and my parents would not let me. So I wrote a book about a little girl who had really nice, understanding, kind parents who let their daughter get her ears pierced, and I gifted this book to my parents. I think I was trying to influence them through my book. They thought it was so funny I went to those lengths that they did let me get my ears pierced. It worked. That was a critical moment of my youth when I realized the power of writing.
PD: You bring up an interesting point about translation because you were doing that at an early age and then you later translated your grandmother’s poems. Was that exercise in translating your grandmother’s poems a formal process that was different from the practical toggling that you did as a child when you were translating?
CHK: Yes. It was really my first attempt at literary translation, and it made me realize the depth of the creative language that I don’t have access to or is not as familiar to me because I am fluent in Korean, but it’s very conversational. For example, I speak to my grandmother in Korean, but it’s usually pretty casual. We talk about daily activities. To receive her poem and to realize that I don’t fully understand what she’s saying here, that I need to bring out my Korean-English dictionary and really put work into it, made me appreciate my grandmother, her artistic abilities, and the Korean language even more. It deepened my appreciation for the act of literary translation.
PD: Does she write now?
CHK: She started writing only, I would say, less than five years ago. That’s when she took a senior center poetry class, and she’s still writing.
PD: Is your mother writing as well?
CHK: Yes. My mom has been writing poetry for years now, and it’s something that she also discovered later in her life, maybe in her forties or fifties. My grandmother writes poetry too, so it’s kind of this beautiful lineage that we have. Even though it worked backwards, where I was writing and then my mother, and then my grandmother. It’s a beautiful connection.
PD: I love that. Were they storytellers?
CHK: Oh yeah. My grandmother is our greatest storyteller. She actually flew to America for a couple of years when I was young to take care of me, and we’ve been very close since. I would visit her every summer, and she would tell me a lot of stories. I think the oral tradition was her first mode of writing. It didn’t occur to her to write in a formal way, but she was always journaling. She had a lot of notes that she took for herself, but taking that senior citizen poetry class made her realize, Oh, I can write poetry and I can share it with others. I love that she was able to have that opportunity.
PD: I find that so interesting that there’s that lineage, as you said, and that it’s the women in the family. And I think about Haemi, a mother figure and main character in If You Leave Me. We all are products of our parents, but I think especially our mothers. How did Haemi first appear to you?
CHK: I found Haemi in a roundabout way. In undergraduate school, when I took a workshop for the first time, I started writing about these four daughters in Korea and their relationships with one another. Writing about these sisters made me curious about the mother, who was the Haemi character. I worked backwards, and I started writing about the mother in graduate school. I started with Haemi as a teenager because I was trying to figure out: How did she become the mother that she is?
PD: Was it fun writing her?
CHK: Oh, so fun. I got to know Haemi so well, because I was thinking about her and her children for years, all throughout college, my post-graduate years, and then in graduate school. It was really fun to get into her mindset, even when the book felt dark. Even when I was writing about difficult moments, I still enjoyed the process because I felt so close to Haemi.
PD: When I read about female characters or analyses or critiques of characters, there seems to be, I hope this is changing, but a tendency to label them as unlikable if they make choices that don’t conform to societal expectations. And I love those women characters.
CHK: I do, too.
PD: What do you think about that term, “the unlikable woman,” and do you think that female narrators get labeled unlikable more than male narrators?
CHK: I think it’s such a gendered term. There’s a sexist root to it because when there are unlikeable male characters, and there are many, they’re not remarked upon. Their likeability is not a factor for the reader to consider in terms of whether they liked the overall book. It’s such an eye roll when people have that reaction, that the female character was unlikeable, because it shows their own biases. Who is always likable? Who wants to read about someone who is always likeable? That would be extremely dull.
The most interesting people, regardless of gender or sex, are complicated ones – where we understand their actions, even if we don’t agree with them, where they make wrong choices, where you see the many facets of their identities. That’s what I’m interested in. If the character happens to be a woman, then there’s a chance that someone will say they’re unlikeable, and that’s okay with me, because that means that I’ve created somebody who feels real.
The most interesting people, regardless of gender or sex, are complicated ones – where we understand their actions, even if we don’t agree with them, where they make wrong choices, where you see the many facets of their identities. That’s what I’m interested in.
PD: Haemi is a really complex character. And I loved reading her. Was there ever a point in this process where you thought it would be her point of view alone?
CHK: I always knew If You Leave Me would have multiple perspectives because I wanted to show many different experiences of the Korean War. I also wanted to show Haemi from different perspectives, because she acts differently as a sister than as a wife than as a lover than as a mother. I wanted to create this full picture of her so when you see her from her husband Jisoo’s perspective, and you see Jisoo’s irritation, we understand him, but we also understand that’s only one aspect of her identity. I’m partial to novels with many perspectives because it creates this rich layering of experience.
PD: At any point when you’re writing, do you think about the audience?
CHK: I think about an abstract audience in the sense that I want to make sure a reader would feel engaged. For example, I think about audience when I’m thinking about pacing or tension or clarity. I’m also thinking of an audience that isn’t white, male, or patriarchal, but rather one that would understand some Korean culture or be willing to do the work of reading about it. In other words, I’m not catering my language to an unfamiliar audience. In that sense, I’m thinking about an audience, but when I’m writing, I try not to think about publication or the book business aspect of it, because for me, that would deter or stymie the writing process. I fear that I would change the writing to cater to those outside forces, and I don’t want to do that.
I try not to think about publication or the book business aspect of it, because for me, that would deter or stymie the writing process. I fear that I would change the writing to cater to those outside forces, and I don’t want to do that.
PD: I love that you don’t explain or define terms in If You Leave Me. When I saw that there were no italics in If You Leave Me…
CHK: No italics. I have strong opinions about italics.
PD: Tell me about your opinions about italics. They are the bane of my existence. I feel like if anybody tells me to italicize something, I just lose my mind.
CHK: That’s what I mean when I say I do think about audience because I’m not catering to an unfamiliar one. I’m not going to italicize my words, and I’m not going to include an explanation of what those words mean. I’m writing from the perspective of Korean characters. Why would they italicize in their heads the words that they know? Why would they then define them? That doesn’t make sense. I expect my reader to be an intelligent, motivated person who will look those words up or figure it out as they go. I’m not going to italicize, because I need to stay true to the story.
PD: I think that’s the best explanation I’ve heard about why not to italicize or define. Did you encounter resistance to that at any point?
CHK: I was lucky that when I was searching for agents, I found one who really understood what I was trying to do. Similarly, with my editor, I found someone who had the same viewpoints about these issues as me. I emailed her when the book went to copy edits asking please tell the copy editors that I’m not italicizing for these reasons, she understood immediately. It’s important to have those allies.
PD: And it’s important to have books like yours because I find myself even now reading things that have come out recently where the italics are there. And I think, but why are we still doing this?
CHK: Yeah. I have strong opinions about italics because it’s just not true to the story and the characters. I think italics most often occur when we’re thinking about the audience as an unfamiliar audience that we have to cater to. We don’t need to do that anymore.
PD: How do you advise those writers who are creating stories based on what they know, but then encountering resistance because who they are and what they know isn’t already out there?
CHK: That’s all the more reason for them to tell those specific stories. If someone is saying that the character is not relatable, because they have never seen a person of that culture or country or gender or sexual identity before, that means that person should be reading more diversely. I don’t think resistance should be a deterrent for the writer. It should be a motivator. We have been reading books about people who don’t look like us for years, and we have found emotional connections. I’d also like to say that if you are encountering resistance, find the people who will support you—your fellow writers and readers. It’s so important to find the community that values you as a writer and to trust that those people are out there.
Pallavi Dhawan is a lawyer and writer living in Los Angeles. She is the co-founder of POC United, an artist collective which brings together writers of color creating stories free from the white gaze, and the co-editor of POC United’s inaugural anthology, Graffiti. Graffiti was winner of a 2019 Foreword INDIES Award for Anthologies. Pallavi is an alum of VONA/Voices, Community of Writers, and Hedgebrook, and is working on her first novel.