Frances Cha is starting the canon of books on real-life Korea
You can read about Korean politics in the newspaper, stream K-pop music online, watch YouTubers eat unthinkable amounts of food in mukbang videos and ship a couple in the latest K-drama, but can you say you really understand the everyday life of the average Korean?
While fragmented information about Korean history, politics and culture has worked its way into the international psyche, very few projects attempt to show the reality of modern day life in the country. Bong Joon-ho's hugely successful "Parasite" (2019), Korea's most recent huge cultural export, focuses on a sensationalized story of economic disparity, not the reality of daily life for the average Korean.
Korean-American writer Frances Cha's debut novel "If I Had Your Face" attempts to fill that gap, depicting the lives of four young women struggling with everyday life in the country.
“Each character has different entry points for me,” said Cha during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I would see young professionals coming and going out of officetel and think how they are living apart from their families and the various life stages that led them here.”
As a former travel and culture editor in Korea for CNN, assistant managing editor for Samsung Economic Research Institute’s business journal and a frequent visitor to Korea to see her family during her school years overseas, Cha was able to pick up on aspects of life in Korea that were different to other countries and notice how things changed over time.
Cha wanted more people to know and understand modern-day Korea in a more inclusive manner, ranging from its glamorous sides to its deep, dark secrets. She felt the pressure of her book representing Korea simply because there are so few English books about life in the country. Cha’s is currently available in English in both the United States and Britain.
“I wasn’t writing just for American readers or even just for people like me who are already familiar with Korean culture,” said Cha. “I tried not to explain as much, to keep [the story] interesting, or at least that was my goal so that Korean readers wouldn’t be thinking ‘Oh, this book is just for foreigners,’ and the same goes for [non-Korean] readers, so anyone would find it interesting to read.”
Cha, who is now working with agents to create more content based on the story, shared her inspiration to turn to fiction writing in the interview on July 22.
Why chose to write about modern-day Korea and the lives of people living in it?
When I started writing fiction, I wanted to write something really personal. I took a leave of absence from school to work in Korea. I had some dark times and that gave me a lot of material. Working for CNN and facing some extreme stories and writing for an international audience in English on a daily basis actually was really helpful for me to take some bits from different material to create fictional [stories]. As I go through challenges, trauma and anguish, I think I was trying to take away different things from my own experience and build up characters in my head.
Was there any pressure for you to write something based on modern-day Korean life?
There is such a widespread understanding of American society and British society, for example, due to all the books that everyone has read over the decades. So if you say something negative, that’s still within the context of everything else you know. But with Korea, there are so few books crossing the borders, it is still difficult to capture the complete picture [of Korea for foreigners]. And that’s why I feel immense pressure, personally. I really hope lots more books are published soon in English, so mine is not the only one and people don’t think that my characters represent every single woman in Korea. They are very specific people. I find them interesting because they are extreme.
What factors in life have driven you to write?
I would say I harness desperation. I think I was able to write only when I was extremely desperate. It is kind of like confronting the anguish in my life first, and then dissecting it. Don’t be too cognizant of readers. I am quoting Bong Joon-ho quoting Martin Scorsese, that the most personal is the most creative is true. Tapping into your family story, like anguish in your nuclear or extended family, is where you can start. Tiny little bits from people can be put into a collage to create a setting completely changed and fictionalized.
Tell us more about how the story will be made into videos.
I can’t share much at the moment, but the book is being considered to be made into videos. When it would happen and what will be released is still not yet decided. We will see how it goes as no one knows how long it will take until it really gets made into a video.
What is your next book going to be about?
My second book is a horror. I’m experimenting with it. It will be based on all the scary stories in Korea. This is coming from my mom’s side of the family. My mom and uncle would talk about this family that they grew up across the street from and had been cursed for generations. Apparently, everyone on the street knew it. As soon as I heard the story, I started to record it, and my proposal was due the next day to the editor and I just typed down everything that day. I think Korean horror is very specific and appeals to different levels of scariness. I have never attempted this before, so I might catastrophically fail (laughs). My family has told me all these stories I have never encountered in Korean literature and I keep records of them.
Does it include Korea’s culture of turning to fortune tellers as well?
I love mudang [fortune teller] culture. As a fiction writer, that’s so fascinating to me. I will include some of that for sure. I always grew up being fascinated by supernatural stories, and I think Korea has a lot of stories being shared. And people casually on the weekend go to different fortune tellers to predict what their future is going to be or to see if the romantic partner they have is a good match for them. A really close friend of mine only makes really important life decisions based on what was told by a fortune teller. That’s very Korea-specific and you don’t see that in the United States much. As a fiction writer I just love such untapped subject matter that is not yet explored in English literature.
Is there any other genre that you want to discover more of?
I am working on a children’s book as well. I just finished the manuscript. So that’s a passion of mine. When I’m reading to my kids, it is so difficult to find Asian representations in English books. So I buy Korean books in Korean and read to them. When I read my children’s books when I was growing up in English, it said, "She is such a beautiful girl with yellow curls and blue eyes." Those kinds of things are embedded in your psyche from a very young age. So I think representations in children’s books are so important.
Why do you think that's important?
Only after I went to grad school did I realize that I was very sick of reading white narrative after white narrative. And I have written stories with white protagonists. I didn’t even realize that was kind of strange because in my head English was always associated with white characters. So when I started writing fiction, I wanted to write something very personal with a story whose background setting is in Korea.
How are children’s books in Korean and English different?
Children’s books in Korean are very fascinating like bestselling author Baek Heena. It has a very different chain of ideas. I think there is a very specific formula that children’s books in the United States follow — beginning, the middle and the end. There’s a linear storytelling and the story is character-based. The Korean ones I’m loving these days have no linear storytelling and they are kind of all over the place. It really shatters my understanding of a plot and characters, because there is no explanation.
BY LEE SUN-MIN [email@example.com]