Catherine Chung went from mathematics to writing, though she says words were always her first love. She was named one of Granta's New Voices in 2010, and her first novel, Forgotten Country, received honorable mention for a PEN/Hemingway Award last year.
In Forgotten Country, Chung writes of a family with a curse that stretches back generations — from their time in Korea to their life in America. Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, each generation of the family has lost a daughter.
"I tried to pull my hand out of my mother's grasp, but she held on. She had lost her sister; she had lived in the aftermath of war. This was always what it came down to, in the end. My grandmother had told me once that my mother had never gotten over the death of my aunt. 'Never talk of it,' my grandmother had said. 'Never bring it up.' "
Chung weaves in old Korean folklore as her characters deal with a flurry of tumultuous family happenings: The youngest daughter, Hannah, cuts ties with the family for no reason, just before their father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The oldest daughter, Janie, is told to find her sister, who has moved without telling the family. And Janie — ever the dutiful one — is livid that her sister could be so absent during a family crisis. This all takes place while Janie recalls foggy memories of her childhood in Korea and her family's move to Detroit.
Some say that her work is different from that of other Asian-American writers. Mary Pols, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote of Chung's novel: "The agony of assimilation has been well chronicled by writers from Amy Tan to Jhumpa Lahiri, but Chung brings a gentle, special gravity to this Korean family's tale of endurance."
The story starts as though it'll be one of loss and the inevitable search for a missing sister. That momentum builds but is cut short when the "missing sister" reappears early in the plot. The story then morphs and explores the tenuous line between freedom and selfishness.
" 'Unni,' Hannah said, the word for older sister: I could feel it pulling on me like a tide. She said, 'I've stopped wasting time on things I can't save.'
"I wish I could tell her how anxious my parents had been, how much she'd been missed. I thought of my grandmother telling me to always keep my sister safe. I remembered our father bowing to his trees. 'What do you know,' I said, 'about who you can save?' "
Chung, who studied math at the University of Chicago, later earned an MFA in creative writing from Cornell. She talked with me about the way her culture has influenced her work, the transition from working at a think tank to writing a novel full time, and the moment she realized she could be a writer.
On language and writing
So I always wanted to be a writer. And to talk about, very briefly, my relationship to language: English is not my first language; Korean is my first language. I didn't learn English until I went to school. ... I feel like my mother tongue is Korean and that English is the language of school. ...
My dad was a professor, and my mom was an academic. So they spoke English in life, but at home they spoke Korean. I actually think they just didn't think about [teaching us English]. ... I think maybe they thought I'd learn English when I went to school, which is what happened. For me, because of that, the language of me being the outsider — that was my introduction to it. I went to school, everyone spoke this language I did not, I suddenly had this other name that I was not called at home that I was called in public.
I love English. ... I wrote my first poem when I was 7 in second grade. It was a haiku; it was my first moment where I felt like I had control over language in a way that I could express myself or understand myself. I was 7 and I still remember the thrill of it, and I feel like because of that moment, I became a writer.
When I became a math major in college, it felt like really a deviation, if that makes sense — like a vacation from my desire to be a writer. Part of that happened — the math — because I didn't realize that being a writer was actually a possibility. I always knew that I wanted it, and I knew that I wanted it more than I wanted anything, and still it didn't seem like anything I could do, and I think part of it was because I was Asian.
On the writers she read growing up
I think I read three Asian writers growing up, you know: Amy Tan and Chang-rae Lee — who I loved. I remember, it was such a revelation to read his book. I mean, he [was] one of the only contemporary writers that my entire family just sat down and read. It spoke to me so deeply. ...
The thing about Chang-rae Lee that was such a revelation was not that I was hungry to read about what it meant to be Asian-American, but that he actually gave words to a part of my experience ... that I had never seen expressed before and that I didn't even know was possible. And that was incredible to think that, oh, there's this writer, and he writes beautifully and movingly, and it's not because this person is Asian, it's not because this character is Asian that I'm relating, but the fact that I'm relating to a character who can speak to an experience that I've never read about in literature before. It was so tremendously moving and empowering. ...
You know, the people who influence us when we're children or when we're just becoming adults, it's just [a] tremendous influence. It just opened me up in a sort of way that was so important. Actually, when I was older, a little bit older, the other Asian-American writer [who] had such an influence on me was Alex Chee [Alexander Chee], and personally for me as well, I met him later. ... I remember he wrote an essay about how he was a "unicorn." When he was writing [it], he might've been the only Asian-American gay man writing. And I think about that, how difficult it is to do a thing when you don't feel like anyone else like you has done that before. And I feel like, I am really lucky because I had examples that I discovered young enough that made it seemed possible.
On being an Asian-American writer, and the balance between being seen as one and not
Something I was thinking about before we started this conversation — I feel like there are a lot of minority writers who say, "I'm not just this kind of writer or that kind of writer." I'm definitely an Asian-American writer, I'm definitely a female writer, and I want to embrace the things that I am and not have to feel like it's pigeonholing me. It's not actually a worry I have, but at the same time, having a conversation about the ways I am, those things can be tricky because I don't actually feel the ... limits of those things. ...
And I think that actually one of the challenges of being an Asian-American writer is that the expectation [to represent] tends to be there. They tend to think that you're writing about that thing. That is something that comes up; it's like a condition that exists in my writing. ...
Someone asked me, "Given your book ... do you have hope that the two Koreas will be reunited, and how do you think that could happen?" And there are sometimes moments — like that, that sort of expectation — and I think, "I write fiction. I'm trying to illuminate." I think what writing does is it takes a particular situation to try to illuminate the universal, so even speaking for a people is trying to show how it is for someone. ... I think fiction is suggestive; it's not prescriptive.
On when she realized that she could be a writer
I think when I was in college, I took one fiction writing class with this man named Richard Stern, who was a wonderful writer. When I graduated from college, he said, "You could be a writer." He said, "You should be a writer." And I said, "Really?" And he said it so casually, like it was the simplest, easiest thing in the world and I thought, "Oh, my God." But then I graduated college, and I went and worked for a think tank for two years, in statistics and economics. But I carried that with me, but I still didn't believe it.
I thought, "No, no I can't be a writer." But then I applied to graduate MFA programs and got in. And even then, I spent my entire MFA time feeling like a total fraud. "I'm not a writer; I don't belong here; I don't know how to write." And the real moment that I felt like it was possible actually came in the middle of writing my first book. I was at the MacDowell [artists'] Colony. It was my first residency, I hadn't published anything yet. I had graduated from my MFA program, and I was surrounded by these artists and writers at all different levels. And you know, I suddenly felt like — James Baldwin had been at MacDowell — there's a list of people who had been at MacDowell that's long and illustrious. ...
I was in this sort of despairing moment where my book wasn't making any progress, and I didn't know what I was doing, and I was so poor, and I didn't have health insurance. And a friend of mine said to me, "Cathy, I'm worried you're becoming a loser." ... I was just like, "What?" It was also a time where I had started to feel like a loser. I was poor ... I hadn't published. I sort of thought, "What am I doing?" ...
And I think I just ... decided to totally accept failure. I was like, "Yes. If this book totally fails, I will write another book. And if that book totally fails, I will write [another]." This is how I deal with stress ... I imagine the worst-case scenario, and I try to decide whether or not I can take it. And [I thought], if I'm like 85, and I'm lucky enough to live that long, and I have [not] published a single book but I've dedicated myself to trying to write something that matters and is true, then, yes, that will be a life that I'm willing to accept.
On how her family compares to the characters in her book
My own family is an entirely different family. But my family is also a Korean immigrant family. You know when you read a book and you think your family is just like that, but actually they're not, you're talking about a certain feeling or a certain dynamic or a certain something. ... Or when you talk to a friend and you say, "Oh, my mom is just like that." But your mothers are completely different. ...
I don't have a sister, and my family wasn't cursed. We weren't chased out of Korea. I was born in the states. The autobiographical details are very different, and even the day-to-day relationships of my family are different. But at the same time, I think that commitment to family is there, and then the resulting conflict of that, of being American and the desire for freedom and the desire that that freedom should be mine is there. But it acts out in a different way.
The way that I think of fiction, I guess, is I feel like writing a novel is like having a really, really long, really intense friendship with somebody that may or may not be like you. But the thing about friendship ... is whether or not you seem similar on the surface or don't seem similar on the surface is that you learn to make connections. ...
My father passed away from cancer a few years ago while I was writing this book, and I don't feel like I wrote about his death in my book. But I feel like what I got was that I very close to a family that was going through a similar loss. And you know how that is, when you talk to somebody that's had a similar experience where you can say, "Oh, it was like that for me," or "Oh, it wasn't like that for me." And then there's that emotional connection, which is what I think fiction does.
For the writer, but also for the reader — if it goes well — where you feel connected, where you feel like your experience comes to bear understanding this fictional characters' experiences.