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"So many war novels focus on men in battle, but what about the women who are at home supporting their families?"
This thought accompanied by growing up immersed in Korean culture inspired Crystal Hana Kim's acclaimed debut novel, If You Leave Me. The novel follows the story of lovers who are broken apart by the Korean civil war that is also separating the country itself. In fleeing for safety with her family, Haemi Lee finds herself in a refugee camp on the coast of the country. Her mental escapes come from spending time with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan. However, when his cousin Jisoo wants to marry Haemi Lee before setting off for war, she is forced to put the well being of her family over the desires of her heart.
Kim opened up to us about her background experience that led to her penning the novel as well as some of the challenges she faced when working on the background research. You can also find out about the fascinating story behind the captivating flowers featured on the book's cover. Read the complete interview below.
How did you become interested in writing and literature?
I’ve loved writing since I was young, and I wonder if it’s because Korean was my first language. I learned English in school, and in my early years, I was always translating back and forth in my head. Writing came easier to me. Whatever the cause, I read and wrote obsessively from a very young age. I majored in English literature in college, and after a few years teaching, I decided to commit to a graduate school program in fiction writing.
I read that you previously were involved with Teach For America. What did you learn from that experience and how did it influence your writing?
Yes! I loved my Teach For America experience, and I’m extremely grateful for the years I spent teaching at an all-girls elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. When I was in college, I was afraid to commit to the life of a writer because it felt so opaque, unstable. I thought I’d enjoy teaching, which led me to TFA. I quickly learned that yes, I truly love teaching. I gain an immense gratification from working with young students. I also learned that I’m the type of person who needs to both write and teach in order to be happy. Writing is solitary and introspective, but teaching is all about engaging with others. I need that balance.
What was the process like for writing your debut novel, If You Leave Me? What inspired the book?
As the child of Korean immigrants with half my family living in South Korea, I grew up steeped in Korean culture. Through my maternal grandmother, I learned about the Korean War and her years as a teenaged refugee. Those stories stayed with me, but I didn’t write about them until I was in my MFA program. As a grad student, I started working on an interconnected short story collection about three generations of a Korean family, beginning during the war and ending in present-day America. I created my main characters — Haemi, Jisoo, Kyunghwan, Hyunki, Solee — during this time. In 2014, during my last semester of the MFA, my professor encouraged me to write a novel focused on the first generation. As soon as I heard his advice, I knew he was onto something and that’s when I started writing If You Leave Me.
Your novel is set in Korea a mist the outbreak of civil war. Were there any challenges working with this setting?
Yes! I wanted to accurately represent the Korean War, so I did quite a lot of research. I also wanted to focus my novel on an ordinary, uneducated, rural woman’s experience. So many war novels focus on men in battle, but what about the women who are at home supporting their families? Writing from this perspective was more difficult than I’d anticipated though because I couldn’t find relevant texts — the Korean woman’s experience hadn’t been preserved. I relied on my grandmother and other female family members who had survived the Korean War for help. I also watched documentaries and looked through photographs. I read sociological texts about women and trauma as well as novels centering on women’s lives. I had to get creative with my research, but this gap in history fueled me to continue writing my story.
Photo Credit: Nina Subin
There is also a love story at the heart of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about developing a personal narrative within the greater story of political turmoil?
I wanted readers to learn about Korea’s history, but I personally dislike novels that are too didactic, with long stretches of historical information. I’d rather learn by closely experiencing a character’s life. In If You Leave Me, my main character is a willful, intelligent, independent young woman named Haemi Lee. She’s living under the duress of war, poverty, and hunger. What would her options for survival be during this period of time? Marriage. I wanted to explore the complexities of this predicament, so I created a difficult and hopefully enthralling love triangle between Haemi, Jisoo, and Kyunghwan. If You Leave Me has alternating narrators, so the readers will also get to see the world through these men’s perspectives. By inhabiting their minds, I was able to show how their lives were affected by class, education, and poverty as well.
The characters are faced with many difficult decisions throughout the story, many that are direct results of the war. Do you think that your novel or others like it that explore the effects of the past can influence the way we think about the present?
Yes, I do. Reading creates empathy; fiction in particular allows us to inhabit another’s consciousness and find similarity through difference. I think that in our age of endless, constant news, it’s easy to become numb. Atrocities become normalized. By reading about a character whose life is inextricably torn apart by war, we can, hopefully, remind ourselves of our own humanity. In addition, in order for us to understand the current socio-political tensions between the United States, North Korea, and South Korea, we need to understand the historical context. If You Leave Me can provide one lens into what happened during “The Forgotten War” 68 years ago.
The flowers on the book's cover also have an interesting story behind them. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
When writing If You Leave Me, I had Haemi associate each person in her life with a specific indigenous Korean flower. I did this as a bit of literary treasure hunt for myself and for particularly astute readers! My editor loved this, and we sent a list of the flowers to the art director. She then hired a painter, and the result is this lush, unique, gorgeous cover. For example, Haemi associates the pink flower at the center of the cover with Kyunghwan. The dusky red flower at the top right represents Haemi’s daughters, who she describes as pasque flowers at one point in the narrative. The cosmos flower at the bottom right (with the yellow center) represents Jisoo. The cover means so much to me because of these hidden meanings, and I hope readers will enjoy figuring out the flowers as they delve into the story.
How do you feel about the future for women writers, particularly in terms of increased diversity in the world of literature?
I think the literary landscape is changing. Slowly, we are diversifying and valuing women’s voices, women’s stories, women characters. I’m an optimist. I truly believe we are moving in a more inclusive, diverse direction. We need to continue lifting each other up, as The Rational Creature does by providing a platform for feminists. We need to keep writing. We can create this necessary change.
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.