My book’s audience, as I imagine it, is an adult child I haven’t yet had, or will never have. This is the story I am telling her/him, the book I am leaving for her/him, a child whose heritage would be both Korean and Jewish–who will want to understand the trauma that was never articulated to me.
This book is my child. This book is what I pour myself into; it is a life I am creating.
And who inspired me to write this book? My father, who has spewed both bile and love in my direction, anger and rage and love and compassion, all as a result of war trauma he could not humanly contain. He wanted to contain it, I can tell by the lines on his face and his determination to, in the second half of his adult life, live in the most boring places on earth (the suburbs!)–but you can’t dam the stamp of war on your psyche.
I have received peeks into what my parents have witnessed as children, little asides that provide gigantic hints. Like when I relayed Chang-rae Lee’s account of his father’s escape from North Korea to the South. How Lee’s father rode on the roof of a southbound train during the war. How his father’s little brother fell off the roof, suffering, and then dying.
What is a “normal” response to this? And by “normal,” I mean someone who has grown up in peacetime and has never experienced or witnessed such a thing in their lives?
My response was, “Holy sheeit.” When Chang-rae Lee shared the anecdote with us at a book reading in San Francisco, the room hushed in horror and respect and awe, which in my opinion is another way of saying, “Holy shit.”
But my mother? This was her reply, which started with the guttural “Unh,” that garnishes the Korean language like the ubiquitous “yeah,” in American-English:
“Unh! Still, he was lucky one!”
“He was lucky. So many people couldn’t take train.”
“Other people had to walk.”
Mom, his brother DIED falling off that train.
“Lots of people died. It’s sad. Anyway, I think you shouldn’t eat so much ice cream. Did you eat ice cream today? It’s better to eat fruit. Don’t get FAT!!!!”
This book is my imagining of my parents’ generation, a way for me to understand and be inspired by what has haunted me for much of my life, that required 10 years of therapy to overcome and find happiness. And to insert a little bit of my experience and hope into the war generation’s outlook–what would their lives have been if they had been able to rely on another culture? To go outside their comfort zone and traditions?
I’ve told my father a little about the novel’s plot, to his great interest and encouragement. He has had one critique, which is “Korean people don’t do that!” which made me giggle a little bit, because that is exactly what I think hampers him at times–that there is a code and tradition to which he adheres, sometimes nonsensically, and sometimes out of pride and a nod to Korean anti-colonial protest.
Well, Dad, these Korean people do that. And that’s what makes my story. That’s what gives me hope and what I want to give to my audience, to whom I want to gift hope and the kind of strength a melding of cultures can provide.
So many people have helped me write this book, but the book will be dedicated to my parents if/when the time comes for publication. This book wouldn’t exist without them. I cannot wait until the day I can take a picture of them, holding my book up. I don’t think they can wait, either.
My dad’s secret dream was to raise a writer. There are things that people do, versus what people say. And I always judge people on what they do; like if someone says they are going to leave the country, but in the interim, they’re looking at local open houses? That means they’re not leaving.
My dad? My dad kept telling me to be a doctor. But everything he did made it clear he wanted me to be a writer.
He made me read. He made me read a LOT. He assigned me Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky when I was eleven years old. He discussed the books with me afterwards at first brushing on theme and general characterization, and then advancing forward to more nuanced questions as I grew up. He made me write. He made me keep a diary from the age of 8 onward, and would require me to turn my journal in for his perusal.
I would protest and say, “But Daddy! That’s my diary! You’re not supposed to read a diary!”
But now I realize that these were writing assignments, and that he’d just used the word wrong–he didn’t mean diary–he meant a writing journal, or writing notebook.
He made me read the dictionary. Learn all the words. He paid me compliments along with plenty of critique–and from the tone of his voice, I knew the greatest compliment he paid me was “You have a literature mind!” This, despite his stated desire that I be better at science and math so that I could get into medical school.
But he never gave me science drills. He didn’t explain the science behind things. He didn’t get me a chemistry set. He bought me books. He gave me writing assignments. He asked me about people’s motivations. He told raucous stories. He brought me into rooms filled with his friends and bottles of Chivas Regal late in the night and would put me on the spot and say, “Christine! Tell us a story!”
When he made me cry or my heart would break, he would never hug me or console me, but he would say, “This will make a good story later, for your writing.” I never said I was a Daddy’s Girl–his love was too tough for that moniker.
When I published my first story in ZYZZYVA, my dad asked for thirty copies, which he then gave away to all his friends. It was, I think, his proudest moment, and when he gets really drunk (which is rare in his old age), he describes me as a writer, sometimes going so far as hyperbole and saying I’ve published a book (that’s when I cringe).
He wanted to be a writer, I think, but could not because he didn’t want to confront the awful memories in order to do so. His stated reason is because he had to raise a family and find a way to survive, which left him no room to write. (I think that’s true, too). He said he had a child, because he had to give up on his dreams as an immigrant and hand his dreams to me.
My dad wanted me to be a writer. I write because of him.
For who/m do you write?