In conversation with Crystal Hana Kim

Debut author of “If You Leave Me” shares thoughts on narrative craft, creating complicated characters and writing the Korean War

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Crystal Hana Kim spoke to the Arts and Entertainment section about her new novel. 

Courtesy of Crystal Hana Kim

To call any work of literature “epic” is to invoke a highly-loaded category — it’s a description that seems largely reserved for discussing the great deeds and anguish of exalted men. Yet it’d be difficult to describe Crystal Hana Kim’s sweeping, multigenerational debut “If You Leave Me” as anything but. The story opens on Haemi Lee, a 16-year-old girl coming of age in a refugee camp during the Korean War, and ultimately follows her life as she becomes caught between her childhood friend Kyunghwan and the overtures of his older, richer cousin Jisoo. 

“If You Leave Me” is a novel of ambitious scope, spanning five narrators and 16 years, but remains grounded by a deep sense of empathy and emotional attention. It feels utterly bracing to read a refugee woman living on the outskirts of war as a fully-realized protagonist, and Kim characterizes Haemi with unmistakable force and humanity. It’s a lyrical, absorbing work that wields the genres of historical fiction and family saga to investigate several still-resonant themes — among them the aftermath of war, the choice between passion and safety and the pursuit of female autonomy within a world that does not value it. The Cavalier Daily’s Arts and Entertainment section recently got the chance to talk with Kim about how she crafted the novel.

Arts & Entertainment: While Haemi might be the beating heart of this novel, Kyunghwan's and Jisoo's perspectives are crucial and the story itself spans 16 years during and after the war. When you were initially planning how “If You Leave Me” would take shape, did her emotional arc come first or did you already have that multi-narrative scope in mind?

Crystal Hana Kim: As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to epic narratives with multiple perspectives. When I began writing “If You Leave Me,” I very quickly decided to write from multiple perspectives. I love what happens when you layer voices, how it allows the reader more freedom to fit the story together. “If You Leave Me” begins during the Korean War, when the three main characters — Haemi, Kyunghwan and Jisoo — are teenage refugees. They are living in a time of extreme poverty, hunger and violence. I knew I wanted to explore the aftermath of this war, particularly regarding how trauma can manifest years later. So, I knew the novel would span a large swath of time, but I didn’t decide on exactly how many years. I followed Haemi, Kyunghwan and Jisoo’s emotional, intellectual and personal developments to figure out the novel’s final shape.

AE: On that note, I found myself so invested in Haemi because she was such a fully-realized individual — she's resolute and passionate and sometimes selfish, and in one of your Poets and Writers Craft Capsule columns, '"Unlikable" Characters,' you mention being frustrated by your classmates questioning her "likability" in a way they wouldn't for male characters. I think her characterization also resists the simplistic way that American media and culture often regards refugees, especially refugee women. They're often cast as inherently tragic, martyr-like figures completely devoid of complex inner lives. Did you have any difficulties writing her in terms of the pressure to provide "positive representation?" More generally, how did you develop her narrative voice and personality? 

CHK: My goal was to write characters that feel as real as possible — I wanted readers to know them deeply, to want to fight and love and root for them. Since my goal was to be true to the characters, and since this is my first novel, I was able to disregard the pressure of providing a “positive representation” — of Koreans, women, refugees, mothers or whatever category — while writing. As the writer, my purpose is to create emotionally resonant stories, not to represent a certain grouping of people in a particular light.

As for how I created Haemi’s narrative voice and personality, that took time! I started graduate school for creative writing in 2011, and for two years, I wrote short stories. This is when I created Haemi, Jisoo, Kyunghwan and the others. I didn’t begin writing my novel until 2014, and by that point, I knew Haemi and the others’ personalities and mindsets intimately. 

AE: Another aspect that struck me was how the novel thoroughly inhabits the Korean point of view and never attempts to hand-hold non-Korean readers through a potentially unfamiliar narrative — for instance, the Korean War is referred to as the "6-2-5 war," and words like "hanbok" and "makgeolli" are never translated in expositional asides or even italicized to signify difference. The novel expects us to be capable of making these connections on our own, in the same way that a typical English-language text might assume that a reference to Homer or Shakespeare will be universally understood. Was that a conscious decision?

CHK: That was most definitely a conscious, deliberate decision! I detest expositional asides, and I find them very distracting in narratives. The same goes for italics. They both function to cater to an unfamiliar audience, but it veers away from the reality of the character’s lives. “If You Leave Me” is told in first-person, and it would be silly to think Haemi or any of the characters would think of a Korean word like makgeolli and then define the term for themselves. I wanted to stay true to their voices, so instead of asides or italics, I provided context clues for the readers who might be unfamiliar with Korea’s culture.

AE: For female writers of color, there's often this very frustrating presumption that our work is inherently biographical, that it somehow lacks the refinement and imagination of craft because we're told we can only write "what we know." There's a line in your The Paris Review article, "Like You Know Your Own Bones," that I think speaks to this particularly well — '“What I know” and “who you are,” I realize, are code for my Koreanness. I resent this teacher. I am more than what I look like. I write to figure out what I don’t know, I think."' So I'm interested in that last part. In the process of writing “If You Leave Me,” what did you figure out and/or discover?

CHK: This is such a great question! I discovered so much from writing “If You Leave Me.” This is my first novel, so on a practical level, I learned about craft, structure and story. There’s this assumption that writers know exactly what they’re doing when they write a book, but we’re always learning. At least, I am. I want to always push myself to stretch new literary muscles. 

In terms of content, I did a lot of research into Korea’s history, particularly regarding the Korean War. I grew up visiting Korea every summer and hearing stories about the country’s past from my family, but all of the research I conducted deepened my understanding of my own history. I hope that I’ve been able to construct a compelling narrative for readers, so that they can learn while following Haemi, Kyunghwan and Jisoo’s lives as they make their way through 1950s-60’s Korea.  

Crystal Hana Kim will be reading at New Dominion Bookshop on Sept. 21 alongside poet Kyle Dargan. 

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