Young Korean Refugee Sacrifices Love and Education for Stability in If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

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My Review:

This wonderful debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers around five characters growing up during and after the Korean war.  Haemi is a spirited, willful and independent 16 year old refugee who lives with and feels responsible for her widowed mother and her sickly younger brother, Hyunki.  She and her lifelong friend, Kyungwan, are experiencing young love, but he wants to get an education and be a better man before he expresses his feelings.  Kyungwan’s older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has no immediate family, and he also takes a liking to Haemi.  Before he goes off to war he asks her to marry him, with the hope that when he returns he will have family waiting for him.  Jisoo can ensure less struggling and provide food and medicine for Haemi and her family.  Despite her connection with Kyungwan, her hope of having a life with him, and her desire for education, she ignores her emotions and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, knowing this union will provide stability and financial security for her aging mother and sick brother, and will allow all of them to continue living together.  Understanding he cannot provide the security Haemi needs, Kyungwan leaves.  Jisoo returns from war and he and Haemi have children, but she struggles with life and loss, and has a difficult time finding peace with her decisions.  After 11 years, Kyungwan returns for a short visit…

If You Leave Me is a war story and a love story; life choices are influenced by the Korean war and the challenges of being a refugee.  Crystal Hana Kim takes us through 16 years and we witness the struggles…what they do for love and what love does to them.  This is a generational saga with multiple prospectives over time, and we see how the old and the young are influenced by western culture as it is integrated into Korean life. Families are torn apart during the civil war in Korea, and the people are desperately trying to repair their lives. If You Leave Me is about difficult decisions, the security found in new families, and the unforgettable ache of lost love.  If you loved Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, you will love this one!

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Crystal Hana Kim Book Talk

Upbringing

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Crystal Hana Kim and as always, hearing from the author enhanced my understanding of where the story ideas came from and gave me a deeper appreciation for the creativity, effort and final product.  I learned that Crystal’s  Korean maternal grandmother came to New York to help raise her for a few years when she was a baby and then returned home to Korea where she goes to visit every year.  Crystal remains close to her grandmother and they keep in touch through texts and selfies.  Her parents are immigrants and throughout her childhood they spoke Korean,  were influenced by the culture and ate Korean food at home.  When Crystal went to school she felt people did not understand her or know who she was.  When she told a boy she was Korean he said no, she must be either Chinese or Japanese.  Shocked to realize Americans knew little about Korea she decided she would one day write about her culture and her family’s country.

Grandmother

Crystal’s grandmother often tells her stories about her youth and how she was a teenage refugee and had to flee her home during the Korean war.  She talks to her about poverty and the restraints on women and how marriage gave her stability even though she wanted an education, likely influencing Haemi’s character development in If You Leave Me.  (In order to fulfill her dream of education today, Crystal’s grandmother is taking harmonica lessons and is in a poetry class!)

Research

Research for the novel started with Crystal’s knowledge of Korea and her own personal family experiences and traditions, and then expanded to a civilian focused effort, interviewing many of her Korean relatives.  Her hope was to create a novel that was vivid, descriptive and portrayed family and cultural history with integrity, and I believe she was hugely successful.  I loved If You Leave Me and highly recommend it.

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Q & A with Crystal Hana Kim

Q:  I enjoyed the multiple perspectives in If You Leave Me, and each character painted a vivid picture of their life and surroundings.  I know you are a first generation American…have you been to Korea?  How much of your story came from your experiences or people you know? Did your parents’ experiences influence your story?

A:  I grew up going to Korea every summer because my mother’s side of the family all live there. She wanted to make sure that my sister and I spent as much time with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so that we could maintain strong ties despite the physical distance. The stories in If You Leave Me are all fictitious; my favorite part of writing is creating characters, lives, and circumstances. My grandparents all survived the Korean War, and the tragedy of this war did inspire me to write about this particular time, but the characters are all my own. 

Q:  All your characters were flawed and realistic – and the war and political situation influenced their life choices and decisions.   In addition, the western cultural influences had an impact and it seemed like traditional values were being challenged by new thinking.  Do you think people who live through these type of unstable times and suffer terrible loss can recover from them and find happiness?

A:  I’m an optimist, so yes, I believe in the resilience of humankind. However, I do think that the ways in which we cope with violence, civil war, hunger, and tragedy depends on the individual. There are so many factors that shape our individual selves, from our family relationships to cultural expectations to our access to class, privilege, and opportunity. In If You Leave Me, my goal was to create a complex, diverse group of characters who felt as real and human as possible.   

Q:  We never find out who received the yellow dress but are made to feel like Jisoo bought it for another woman.  Why did you choose not to tell us who received it?  Did it not matter? (It came up in the book discussion!)

A:  Ah, the yellow dress! I prefer books that do not tie up every loose end, that instead allows room for the reader to make their own judgments. What the yellow dress represented—mistrust, disloyalty, and the fracturing in Haemi and Jisoo’s relationship—were more important and interesting to me than neatly concluding whether or not Jisoo bought a dress for another woman.  

Q:  Haemi loses everything over the course of her short life…her father dies, she spends her childhood caring for her widowed mother and ailing brother, she gives up her relationship with Kyunghwan so her family has financial stability, she sacrifices her will to be educated to become a wife to a man she doesn’t love and she loses her brother.  She mentions several times how she has a hard time recovering after pregnancy.  She also was so angry and seemed to recognize this and try to control it at times.  Did Haemi have post partum depression or a mental illness? 

A:  Haemi had to sacrifice a lot for her family, and yet there were real moments of joy in her life as well. For example, even in her relationship to Jisoo, there is a form of love in the earlier years of their marriage. Even though she finds motherhood difficult and is not the perfect caretaker, she also deeply loves her children. I wanted her life to be complex and yet realistic to the time she grew up in. 

I specifically depicted Haemi struggling after pregnancy because I wanted to write about a strong female character suffering from post partum depression. Haemi tries to articulate how she is feeling to those around her, but they cannot comprehend her illness and thus have no empathy for her. I wanted to showcase how frustrating this could feel for a mother of young children—in addition to suffering from post partum, she does not have the vocabulary to articulate her illness to others.   

Q:  How long did it take you to write this book?

A:  In 2011, when I started my graduate studies in MFA at Columbia University, I began writing about Haemi and Solee. I was interested in their mother-daughter relationship and their circumstances. As I wrote scenes from their perspectives, the other characters began to take shape. At first, I thought I was working on an interconnected short story collection about a Korean family over three generations. In 2014, I realized that I could take part of that collection and turn it into a novel. At that point, the premise and scope of If You Leave Me was born, and it was published a few years later in 2018. 

Q:  Would you ever consider writing a book centered on one of the daughters as a continuation?

A:  Yes, I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book about the daughters in their adult years! I think it would be interesting to explore the different trajectories these daughters’ lives would take as they grapple with their childhoods, their mother’s leaving, and Korea’s modernization. I also think this could be a way to explore immigration to the United States, which, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I would love to write about.  

Q:  What 3 books have you read recently that you recommend?

A:  There are so many books I’d recommend! Chemistry by Weike Wang was published in 2017, but I read it this year. Chemistry is a funny and moving story about an indecisive Chinese American Phd Chemistry candidate trying to understand what she wants out of life. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is a slim, powerful, eerie, and odd conversation between a sick young woman in a rural hospital and a young boy. It’s an unsettling book that is difficult to describe but that will stay with you for a long time. The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir about the author’s return to Libya to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father decades before. 

Q:  What books are on your nightstand that you are looking forward to reading?

A:  I am very excited to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Crystal Hana Kim holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing editor for Apogee Journal. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Chicago.

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