Neville Chamberlain, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has a famous quote ”In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.” War stories have typically been told through the eyes of a soldier while you follow them through the trenches of combat. Rarely do we hear about how others experienced the war.
Crystal Hana Kim, in her debut novel If You Leave Me, explores the repercussions of a country in war. The book is a timepiece during the Korean War that’s told through the first person narratives of protagonist, Haemi Lee, and her love triangle between her childhood best friend, Kyunghwan, and his older cousin, Jisoo. TheMillions review of Kim’s book highlights this feat, “Kim alters the expectations of the genre of war to include a much stronger focus on women and the multigenerational cultural changes that occur in and after a war caused by a global power struggle.” All throughout the year Kim’s book has caught the attention of various news outlets. Her novel has been listed in the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, “20 Best Reads for Summer Break” list, and The Rumpus’s “What to Read When You’ve Made it Halfway through 2018” list. As the book has been out since August 2018, the reviews have been nothing short of remarkable. This kind of rich multi layered story told in a debut novel gave me the curiosity of how this came about. I had a chance to interview Kim and cover her literary journey that led up to If You Leave Me.
Throughout Kim’s life, her grandmother has played an integral part of her life. When she was about two years old, her grandmother flew from Hongcheon, South Korea, to Flushing, Queens, to take care of her. While her parents were out working, her grandmother helped raised her and told her many stories about Korea and her life. While her grandmother set the foundation of her roots, exposing her to Korean heritage and motherland at a very early age, Kim still has yet to figure out what it means to be Asian-American on her own.
Kim has been a writer since the early age of 7 years old. One of the first essays she wrote was about Korean New Year. However at that same age she had become aware that her Korean heritage made her different than her classmates. The way she reflects on that time was being aware of her “otherness.” Being caught between two worlds of a traditional Korean household and growing up in America, it was hard for Kim to balance as it reflected in her writing. “Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world,” as she reflects in her essay “Craft Capsule: Who Are You?” I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. “I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues.”
Kim’s writing takes a pivotal turn during her college years that gets the momentum going for If You Leave Me. Kim found herself wanting to explore a mother/daughter dynamic and crafted a short story, “Solee.” The story is told from the perspective of a young girl in rural Korea, who develops a crush on her parents’ friend when he comes to visit the family. It was published by The Southern Review and later chosen as one of PEN America’s 2017 Best Debut Short Stories.
During her MFA, completing Solee made her interested in the protagonist’s mother. Writing in the mother’s perspective, her writing led her to other characters and their dynamics. Solee eventually evolves and becomes a chapter of her current novel If You Leave Me. The novel gives a space for Kim to create a female character of Haemi, a complex and fully developed character you don’t typically see in war stories. Kim explains her character development in Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters, “I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed.”
Now that If You Leave Me is out, I got the chance to interview her through email. She was gracious enough to answer more in detail about her grandmother, her other passion of teaching, and her excitement of her book release.
Your grandmother seems to be a great pillar in your life, the way she was open to tell you the stories of her life. Which particular story of your grandma's was your favorite?
Crystal Hana Kim: My maternal grandmother is an incredible storyteller, and as I’ve mentioned in other interviews, her experiences growing up during the Korean War were the seed of my novel. I’d have a hard time picking a favorite story of hers because there are so many that are meaningful to me. I can share one particular story though. During the war when my grandmother was a refugee, she once heard an airplane fly overhead. She was so startled that she hid beneath a large pumpkin leaf and pulled it over her face, as if that would save her. She always laughs as she tells me this story because in her mind, it portrays how innocent and naïve she was. In my mind, though, it’s heartbreaking. It reminds me of how much pain and terror she lived through.
As we know in the Asian-American community, it’s very uncommon for the older generation to be open about their previous life, especially those who lived through war. Do you have any insight as to why your grandmother is so open and forward about her life?
Crystal Hana Kim: I think it’s my grandmother’s personality. She’s a very strong, determined, independent woman. She raised five daughters, and she really created a tribe of strong women. I think she wants us to remember our history, The Korean War, her story, and what she had to live through as a young woman growing up during a very tumultuous time.
In your Paris Review essay, I want to highlight this part: "When I turn twenty-four, a first-year graduate in an M.F.A. program, I decide to start a novel. I finally feel like an adult, like I am living life, but I am also beginning to understand that who I am does not end with my body, my bones. My parents and sister. Halmuni. My almost-estranged, dementia-ridden grandfather. My father’s parents, too, who have passed away. My aunts and uncles. I want to understand who they are, what they have lived through."
What was the personal turning point for you to shift into understanding yourself through your family lineage? Was it a gradual shift or a light-bulb "a ha" moment?
Crystal Hana Kim: It was definitely a slow shift. The more I wrote, the more I became curious about my history and culture. There was so much to unpack, so much to write about. And yet, growing up in America, I hadn’t read many books about the Korean or Korean-American experience. I constantly experience classmates, peers, and strangers who knew very little about Korea. I wondered about that gap in knowledge, and it always bothered me. When I started writing more seriously in graduate school, I naturally began writing more about my Korean identity and past.
Can you talk about your role in LEDA? How does being a child of immigrants help influence your teaching these kids?
Crystal Hana Kim: I have two passions in life: writing and teaching. I feel very lucky to be able to balance my life as a novelist with my role at LEDA. To be specific, I’m currently the Director of Writing Instruction at LEDA, which is a nonprofit that helps low-income high school students prepare for college. I love my students, and I gain a real sense of pride from seeing their writing abilities grow throughout the year. As the child of immigrants, I feel a sense of commonality with my students. I had to navigate the college admissions process myself, and it was difficult. I think this helps me to be more empathetic and understanding. My students are so wonderful, and I think my own experiences motivate me even more to help them as much as I can.
In your essay, "Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters" you wrote about the criticism you got about writing a flawed female character. Since you had been working on your book since 2014, is there any new ways you want to explore writing flawed female characters in post #metoo Movement?
Crystal Hana Kim: I want to continue writing feminist stories about complex women. I don’t think I’ll ever stop! I’m working on a second novel right now, and my central character is a deeply conflicted Korean-American woman. I don’t know if I’ll touch upon the #metoo movement as I’m still in the early stages of writing, but I’m excited to see where this character will take me.
Can you give me a short description about the book?
Crystal Hana Kim: If You Leave Me is a war story and love story that follows one Korean woman’s life, beginning with her teenaged years as a refugee during the Korean War. Haemi Lee is willful, smart, and she wants an education so that she can create her own life. She has conflicting feelings about the two men who love her—Kyunghwan is her childhood best friend, and Jisoo is Kyunghwan’s older, wealthier cousin. Haemi’s younger brother is ill, and her mother is trying to ensure the family’s survival in Busan as the war continues in a stalemate. This novel is a family saga, a love story, and a story about how one woman’s life is shaped and constrained by violence, war, and the social and cultural expectations of her time.
You mention in Refinery29 about your cover as each flower has significance, what made you choose flowers for a book about war?
Crystal Hana Kim: I wanted the cover to be unexpected, lush, abstract, and eye-catching. If You Leave Me is about war, womanhood, motherhood, Korea, trauma, and more. It’s so hard to encapsulate all that with a cover! That being said, writers don’t always have control over their covers. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful cover designer, who hired an artist to paint my cover. Each flower on the cover of If You Leave Me represents an important relationship in Haemi’s life. This cover means so much to me because of these hidden meanings, which I hope the reader will be able to identify as they read along.
Now that you’re out and about actively touring and talking about the book, how does it feel that everyone gets to appreciate your work?
Crystal Hana Kim: It’s been an amazing experience! This novel has been living inside me for years. I’ve become so close to it, and it’s such a surreal, incredible feeling to now share it with the world. My favorite part of this whole process is hearing from readers who have been impacted by the novel. I’ve had readers who have come up to me because If You Leave Me tells a story about their Korean past that they wanted to learn more about, and I’ve had other readers come up to me because they’ve appreciated how I depicted post-partum depression and motherhood. I’m so grateful for these interactions.