Korea has experienced many major events in its contemporary history: The Imperial Japanese colonial era, the Korean War, a long period of military dictatorship, and the democracy movement. Catherine Chung, who was born and raised in the U.S. as a second-generation Korean-American, has written a book, ‘Forgotten Country,’ that offers great insights into Korean modern history and immigrant life. An article containing her interview in Korea Daily is translated below.
In “Forgotten Country,” published last March, there are many words in Hangul [the letters that make up the Korean alphabet] familiar to Korean readers that are embedded in the English text. The author of the book is Catherine Chung, a second-generation Korean-American. In 2010, her story was chosen to be included in an issue of New Voices in Granta, the literary magazine based in the United Kingdom. Granta’s issue of New Voices showcases six new authors every year. Last June, she received an achievement award from the Korean-American League for Civic Action, which shows that she is a promising writer.
“Forgotten Country,” her debut novel, is the story of a Korean immigrant family in the U.S. The younger sister, Hannah, disappears and the father dies from stomach cancer. As these series of events happen, Janie, the older sister, begins to uncover family secrets.
This book includes many contemporary Korean events like the Korean War, the post-liberation military dictatorship, the movement for democracy, and so on. When Chung was asked how she understood Korean modern history so well, despite being born and raised here, she replied, “Isn’t it natural for a Korean to know Korean history?” The following is an interview with Chung.
– When did you first want to be a writer?
When I was 7 years old. I was in second grade in elementary school writing a poem when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. The poem’s mood resembled leaves falling in autumn, which even now I remember. I couldn’t speak English until I was 5 years old, because my parents only taught me Korean. When I started school, I couldn’t talk to friends. In class, because I couldn’t understand what students around me were saying and I had nothing to say either, I started writing. The world that I could belong to started to emerge. It was so fascinating that I could express what I was thinking no matter what people thought or anything like that.
– Then, are you majoring in writing in college?
No, my major is mathematics. It sounds like writing and mathematics have nothing in common, but to me, math resembles storytelling. To solve a problem, one builds a hypothesis and then another person makes another hypothesis to refute it, a process that I thought seemed like a discussion. The communication that takes place when working together to solve math problems, like, “In my opinion, it is like this. What do you think?”, looked similar to writing, I thought. Math itself could be a language. Before entering college, I hated math. You know, things like the questions in textbooks, which say blah-blah-blah with 4,000 cans in the supermarket. I hated them.
– You were born and grew up in the U.S, but you know Korean history very well.
That is because I am Korean. Don’t all Korean people know its history very well? I have been close with my grandmother and parents. Because of my father’s job as a computer science professor, my family has moved a lot to places like Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and Michigan, which made my family much closer to each other. So I heard [from them] lots of stories about Korean history, and just funny stories in general. Also, I am interested in Korean history. It might be a stage in my life to find my identity.
– Did you originally plan to write novels about Korea?
In the beginning, I wanted to write about Korean people as well as about people in general. Honestly, I just wanted to “write” something. Sisters are a subject that I have always been interested in. At first, I started writing a story about a woman whose younger sister disappeared. Then, the stories about Korean history that I knew well, were added. People often write about something that they normally know very well.
What is the family secret that Janie finds? In her family, a mysterious event occurs in which a daughter has disappeared during every generation. When Janie decides to follow her parents to Korea for her father’s cancer treatment, after not finding her missing sister, Janie’s mother told her a story about her aunt who died young while living in a college dormitory after being raped by North Korean soldiers.
– When you consider that a sister has disappeared in every generation, it is really scary.
Yes, it is. Looking back into Korean history, a lot of people have lost their family. Even during the generation of our parents, many tragic things happened like the Korean War and a military dictatorship. It is not surprising when we consider these events. Through the book, I wanted to describe how history affects a family. History subtly affects people’s way of thinking and behaving. Imagine a situation where we’re dealing with something but we don’t even know the reason why we react in a certain way. Like when we get mad, we don’t know why or when we get scared, we don’t know why. Korea, which has developed in a short period of time, looks like a successful country, but inside it, there are people who still have sad memories of what happened 40 or 50 years ago. It is natural that there is a huge gap between older people who experienced historical events and younger people who are given indirect experiences through books. Therefore, it is important that [people] know what has happened throughout history. When [young people] understand history, definitely, the generation gap will be overcome.
– What are your plans for the future?
I am preparing my next book. It is about a mathematician who lived in the early 19th century. At that time, women couldn’t go to school or vote. However, there were some women who were playing an active role in mathematics. I am going to research by traveling through Germany and France. In the fall, I will teach writing at the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop. And, it would make me very happy if my book is translated and published in Korea (laughs).”