For who/m do you write?

5th Ave, Brooklyn: Love, Work, Create,

Nova recently asked her blog readers, “Who’s your book for?

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!”

What?

“He was lucky. So many people couldn’t take train.”

What?!

“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!!!!”

OhdearG*d.

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?

me and Dad
Drunken Daddy and Daughter

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8 Comments

Filed under Writing

8 responses to “For who/m do you write?

  1. I write for my mother, really. Which is not a really good long-term strategy (she’s 95), but I doubt I’ll ever find anybody else who enjoys my stuff like she does. She once told me, “Your characters are more real to me than most of my so-called friends.” (And she wasn’t just saying that for Mom-type-reasons — she’s not that nice, and also I can tell she really studies the stories because sometimes she remembers more about them than I do).

    “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.”

    My father, too! He assigned me summer reading lists every year, and I had to write reports. One reason I started writing was because he made it seem like so much fun. He’d sit at his typewriter, banging away (he was a terrible typist), and occasionally howling with laughter at some gag he’d just thought up.

  2. This is really moving (and self-aware). I suspect your father is quite proud of you (whether he is able to admit it or not!).

  3. Nate

    That is so touching about your father’s current support and how hard he “secretly” pushed you. My mother (not at all pushy about anything, ever) had a different tack: filling every available wall in the house with books. Stuffing all five of us into the car and driving all the way into town, to use our expensive city library card. Spending all of her free time on the porch swing, book in hand. Making sure that we learned to write and speak (er, OK –somewhat) proper English in an area where that is the exception rather than the rule. And of course, letting us loose outside to explore nature, unsupervised, for virtually our entire childhoods –imaginations churning the entire time.

    So I probably credit my mom and a great family of story tellers besides, so that’s the how. If I had to pick the for whom, the one dedication that I hope will, in the future, cover everything I’ve ever done it would be: “To the forgotten people working forgettable jobs in forgotten places” (the same ones that fight and die for us in our “forgotten wars”?!) Those are my family, my friends, and the people I grew up with, the ones that I love the most and know me the best. As The Lucky One, the one with a gift and an opportunity, I feel as if I should always be speaking for them.

    Thanks CZ. I think you’ve just inspired me to write the best MFing novel of all time!

    • @Anthony: I think you can write for your mother, no matter her age, no matter where she is. A lofty audience. 🙂

      @tea: I am relieved to say that I have gotten to a point in my life where I have won my father’s approval and pride. Hard-won-approval, but so so so valuable and sustaining. Whew. 🙂

      @Nate: I hope you *do* write the best MF’ing novel of all time!

  4. i didn’t know a blog could make me cry so much…can’t wait for your book.

  5. I don’t write for just one person, I think… I write for myself first and foremost (which makes me feel guilty after reading a post like this, lol, but oh well) and then for my mom, and then my dad. And then my close friends. And then maybe the teachers and mentors along the way who said I could do this, who tried to help me succeed. And then for my (nonexistent, yet) children, who I want to teach to follow their dreams. And then of course for my (nonexistent, yet) fans, lol.

    Yes, all those people are in my head every time I sit down to write. It gets a bit noisy, though, so ask all of them to shut up. And then I write for the characters.

    Anyway, what I *really* wanted to say is that this is a lovely post, and your dad sounds wonderful. 🙂

    • @northern girl: thank you so much! i love reading your blog, too. 🙂

      @Kristan: Thank you very much! And I think it is just fine to write for yourself first and foremost. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Who I write for - Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality

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