Catherine Chung is the author of Forgotten Country, which will have just been released by the time you’re reading this, and which ten months from now—mark my words—will be on 75% of the “Best of” lists and should be on all. When I first read a piece of it in Guernica, which is always doing the good work of introducing readers to what will come next in the world of fiction, I didn’t know who Cathy was. I started asking around. I friended her on Facebook. I waited for years for her book to come out. And now it is here. Cathy agreed to share an excerpt in The Good Men Project and to speak with me via email about her process and the way in which prophecy and silence work in the book for Hobart. The one thing I was afraid to ask her is why her book had to go and break my heart. Hopefully after this interview, Cathy will at least let me call her noona.
My introduction to Forgotten Country was an excerpt from Chapter 3, which ran in a Guernica section guest-edited by Alexander Chee in 2008. I couldn't stop talking about it then, and I never really stopped. It remains one of the very best things I have ever found on the internet, and was the main reason for my mania-like excitement over the publication of this book. In the excerpt, Janie's mother is giving birth to a second daughter, and Janie is left with her grandmother, who tells her a story about her own sister's birth and subsequent death during (one of) the Japanese occupation(s) of Korea. The husband is being held by the Japanese and the grandmother stuffs her mother's mouth so that she can’t make any sound that would alert the Japanese to her labor. When the grandmother can’t take it anymore and removes the rag to give her mother some water, the soldiers hear and come to take her mother away.
The soldiers had brought his wife’s breasts to him on the tip of a bayonet, and then released him from jail. He had brought the child, my grandmother’s sister, who had been cut out by the same blade.
My grandmother tended her little sister for two weeks, feeding her rice water bit by bit until she died.
Then, as the narrator's sister is being born in another place, the grandmother says, "In our family, a sister always dies."
When I reached this point in the book, I started marking down all the instances of silence and warnings/prophecies. Things unsaid and things said that then cannot be unsaid. I think I had half the book's pages marked by the end. Can you talk about what this warning means to the novel, and about the idea of prophecy as it relates to craft?
Wow, Matt—I had no idea you’d read that excerpt—but it’s really gratifying to hear. That was a big moment for me—to have that piece chosen by Alexander Chee, and for Guernica. But to get back to your question about prophecy: In the book, words have tremendous power, and the speaking of a prophecy can make it come true. The family in Forgotten Country uses that power, but they're also afraid of it—that's why they're so secretive, and try to protect themselves with silence. But silence has its own kind of power, and I tried to grapple with that in the book: which is greater? The realization I came to is that the question doesn't come down to speaking or not speaking, but the ways both can be used to either to reveal or obscure the truth.
In terms of writing, if you believe in the power of language to shape reality, then the idea of prophecy becomes really important in terms of responsibility for the stories we tell. You can't unsay or take back a prophecy, but you can debunk it, and divest it of power by revealing the strings that make it move. That's partly what I tried to make Janie do in the book: to look very closely at the stories she grew up believing in, about herself, about her world—and to examine how they shaped her life, and then to push back.
In the book, some of the secrets aren't fully revealed, and some of the warnings do not come true (at least by the last page). How does a writer know which stories to tell and which to leave unspoken? Was this a hard decision? There are several things I badly wanted to know, and yet I felt fulfilled emotionally at the end of the book.
So I actually don't feel like it was up to me to decide which stories were told and which weren't. I kind of had to follow Janie's lead as well as those of the other characters, to figure out which stories they would feel most compelled to tell, or most driven to hide. And then how it played out when one character wanted a story suppressed that another really wanted to reveal.
Was there any fear that letting certain stories go unrevealed would disappoint readers? Did you have someone, along the way, suggest certain stories be included or cut—and what would you tell a reader who wants to know everything?
My early readers were super helpful in suggesting cuts and asking for more, and hopefully I struck the right balance with what was revealed and what was left a mystery. I'm not certain what I would tell a reader who wants to know everything—except that I understand, and sympathize—I usually want to know everything, too!
I feel as if the power of silence in the book works to indicate that some things cannot be revealed even to the reader. It's an interesting idea. The last page I marked was because of this passage:
- Hannah pinched her lips together and didn't respond. I looked at her and at my mother, who had also become markedly quiet, and I wondered how they had both learned this particular trick of being silent while everything else fell down around them.
That seems to me to encapsulate how the silence works, in some way, on the reader. The everything else, and the fact that it is falling apart, lets us accept the silence in other areas. Perhaps. But I also want to ask, how much do we inherit these traits—like silence—from our parents? This also seems like a large part of the book. The warnings, in fact, are often given by family members, like the grandmother.
I tend to think we do inherit things like silence from our parents and ancestors, but I also think that how we choose to deal with things like silence is up to us. I was interested in what happens when we begin to challenge the things we’ve inherited—when a character starts digging into things she’s supposed to leave alone, says the things she’s not supposed to say.
And did anything remain unknown to you, the writer? How much must we know about our narratives? Everything we leave out?
Oh dear. I hope not! I think we need to know exactly as much as we need to in order to write our narrative. How's that for a slippery answer? Here’s another: how much is it possible to know about our narratives, or for that matter, other people or ourselves?
Is there anything about this power of secrecy/prophecy that is uniquely Korean? While I was reading, I noticed that silence seemed to be "better" for the characters in Korea and "worse" for them in America. At times, in Korea, silence seems exactly what is called for, whether by culture or family, but in America, the family's silences get them into all sorts of trouble.
That's such an interesting observation, and it occurs to me as I'm thinking about it that there's a way in which silence can operate as language, but like any language, you have to understand it in order to use it to communicate. So maybe in some ways when something is left unsaid in one context, to protect someone from danger, for instance—everyone knows what that's about. But when you're unaware of the context, or even unaware of the silence and how it works—it begins to operate in a very different way.
As for the ways in which this language of silence or prophecy is uniquely Korean—well, hm. I think that all languages and cultures contain their own forms of both, so it makes sense to me that the family's relationship to these two things is informed by both parts of their identity: their Koreanness and their Americanness. And of course there's a conflict or tension between the two: what's acceptable to talk about in one culture isn't always acceptable to talk about in another.
That cultural difference and the sisters' sometimes misunderstanding of that difference—say as kids newly arrived in America—seems important. There's this shift in their lives from Korean to American (Hannah even loses her ability to speak Korean) but then in the "real-time" of the book there's also this shift back from America to Korea, where the family goes after the father's diagnosis. I would venture to say this plays into the title, how the family deals with their return to their "forgotten country." But I want to tie all of this into a question about the shift from Hannah's disappearance to the father's struggle with cancer. I'm wondering how you came to move the focus and what the challenges were to accomplishing this. Did you know from the start that you wanted to make this (as I perceive it) shift?
The truth is I knew very little from the start. I was just trying to follow a family through a particular predicament. When I started writing this book, it began with Hannah's disappearance, and I didn't know what was going to happen next. I just knew that I had all these questions in my mind about culture, about language, about stories, and family and loss and trying to hold on.
Stories are always changing—that's part of the joy of writing, to follow a story all the way to its end and learn its twists and turnings. I lost my father while I was writing this book, and suddenly all the questions I was exploring looked different in the light of my new understanding of life and death and what matters in this world. I realized, oh—this isn't just a story about just Janie and Hannah, but what might be lost if they don't find a way back to each other in time. It was a new perspective, one that I thought led to a deeper, bigger story—a kind of opening out.
It opens out beautifully, and I like what you say about finding a way back to each other. Do Janie and Hannah's grief make this connection any easier, harder? What were the challenges of revisiting the emotions of your own experience? Did the telling, as we discussed above re: prophecy, change your experience?
Thanks, Matt. I don't know if there’s easier or harder, but I think their grief colors their connection (and disconnection) differently—and makes, for me, the possibility of that connection more necessary... As for the next part of your question, well—I think exploring love and death and loss through the lens of this other family's experience helped me understand my own, in the way that talking to friends or reading stories about someone else’s experiences can.
Talking becomes so important for Janie and Hannah's father, and their family, as he suffers. At one point, he loses his ability to speak, and then he finally starts talking again and the family thinks this is a great sign but the doctor doesn't. We get this beautiful vulnerable display of anger then that both sheds light on the power of words and death and puts the reader back into that uncertain position between life and death, language and silence. Can you talk a little about the intersection between theme and story?
That's such a lovely observation—thank you! You ask such wonderful, thought-provoking questions! I'm not sure how to answer this one, except to say I love it when theme and story intersect. It feels like a coming together, or an everything-is-falling-into-place sort of moment, if that makes sense.
It makes perfect sense! How does one achieve it! Does it come about in the daze of the first draft, for you, or through revision? In a related note, I have been recommending this Orhan Pamuk essay for years that I heard him give as a speech at Harvard, about finding the "center" of the novel, and adjusting that center through revision until it resonates with the reader. Center, in some ways, being theme. How did you work on threading silence/telling through the text, or did it fall into place more naturally?
Wow. Can you send me that essay? That's such a good way to talk about something I felt happening as I was writing and revising—the story's search for the heart of itself. This was my first novel, it was my first really big project, and so especially at the beginning I was guided mostly by instinct or intuition or foolishness or luck—but all the way through I could feel the novel shifting, finding its own center, and that really led me through. I just tried to follow the characters, and stay close to the story, and let them teach me what they needed and where they were going.
Were there any revision methods that worked best for you that you could share? Did you "story-map" or do character exercises, etc?
With each draft I always print out the whole thing, and then hand-edit. And then I spread it all out on the ground and look at it. And I walk around reading poetry to myself when I'm stuck.
Which books? Can you give some reading recommendations, poetry or otherwise? Reading for writing as well as reading for reading?
The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee (I wore holes in my socks pacing and reading that book over and over every day) was the big one. Other poets I read were Mary Oliver, Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon, Anne Carson... As for fiction/non-fiction books—James Baldwin is my favorite. I read Peter Cameron for the first time when I was working on my book, and he blew me away. And oh my God, Marilynne Robinson and Louise Erdrich. Chang-rae Lee, Colum McCann, Julie Otsuka... Lately I've fallen in love with Roxane Gay—I've been telling everyone about her. Oh, and Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction is so helpful when you're in the middle of writing--it keeps you company in the most wonderful way. And Alexander Chee's Edinburgh and his blog Koreanish. Junot Diaz. I read lots of children's books. The Little Prince, over and over. The Dark is Rising series. I could actually go on forever, you know.
I love when writers bring out their list of recommendations. Okay, last question—thank you so much for this, Cathy—look ahead: what happens next? What happens between the sisters? And what's next for Catherine Chung?
Thank you, Matt—this has been such a wonderful conversation—I've learned so much from it. And also—after all this—are you really trying to get me to make a prophecy? I can't do it! Still, to answer your question—I don't know what will happen next for the sisters: I only know what I hope for them—which is that they will find peace and joy and love, and a way to come together and with their mother. As for me--well, I have a couple projects to tie up, and then I've already started thinking of my next novel, which I am very excited about. Beyond that, good things for all of us, I hope. Joy, light, love, and happiness—all of it.