Features / Fiction / Interviews

Imagining the Unimaginable Truth: Q&A with Annabelle Kim

by Sonya Chung

Annabelle Kim’s debut novel Tiger Pelt—named a Kirkus Best Fiction 2015 and shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize 2017—opens with a haunting scene, in which a desperate woman, her face smeared clownishly with lipstick, flees her abusive family in the Korean countryside and tries to drown herself in the river. A young man who happens to be passing through the area comes to the woman’s rescue—to which she responds that he should have let her die. This woman and this man, Lee Hana and Kim Young Nam, meet only briefly at this juncture; but their paths will cross again decades later, as parallel, co-protagonists of this harrowing and expansive historical novel. Through their stories—made up of episode after episode of sometimes savage, horrific struggle against the backdrops of Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, and immigration to the U.S.—Tiger Pelt does what all good historical novels do: it takes readers on journeys both deeply personal and globally resonant.

Despite the novel’s pervasive depictions of suffering, its vision is essentially hopeful: “Fall seven times, get up eight,” goes the Korean proverb quoted at the story’s outset, and these characters embody utterly this resilience, by way of loss and reinvention.

Sonya Chung: Tiger Pelt—for all its impressive accolades—has had an inspiring little-engine-that-could trajectory. Tell us about the publication process.

Annabelle Kim: The biggest reviewers like Publishers Weekly and Barnes & Noble declined to review the book prior to publication. When Tiger Pelt received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews as an unpublished manuscript, I was contacted by agents asking to read the full manuscript, an overnight reversal from years of rejection. I sent the full manuscript to anyone who asked. Shortly thereafter, the book was named to Kirkus Best Books of 2015.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMy publisher Leaf~Land is a startup independent publisher based in Virginia. The members of the LLC are writers as well as history and literature scholars, including my sister. With the Kirkus win, Leaf~Land decided to publish the book. I withdrew the manuscript from agents, signed the rights to Leaf~Land, and received a 20% share of the company. My main impetus [in choosing this route] was the mistaken assumption that the book would get into print as quickly as possible. Even if an agent took the book on, the likelihood of finding a publisher would be slim; it seemed to me that the deals were going to youthful MFA stars. Additionally, I admit, the desire to avoid any further editing was a huge motivation. Tiger Pelt had the starred review, it had the award, it must be perfect, right? Little did I know that my partners loved the book so much that another year of intensive fine-tuning would ensue. In retrospect, I wouldn’t give up a single one of those finishing touches.

SC: Speaking of your sister . . . I was able to dig up your sister’s blog in which she writes: “Pssst! PS: My sister Annabelle Kim recently published her novel . . . partly inspired by stories my dad told us about his childhood.” I am interested in the autobiographical roots of Tiger Pelt, specifically because a reaction I’ve heard from others who’ve read it is that the traumatic experiences portrayed strike them as “unimaginable.” Tell us about your use of true stories and your process of fictionalizing.

AK: Kim Young Nam is inspired by the life of my father. The plot loosely follows the arc of my father’s improbable life trajectory and includes a retelling of some childhood stories. Many events, characters, and details, and all dialogue and inner thoughts of course, are fictional.

As part of my research for this book, I tape-recorded an interview with my dad about his life. To say this man is taciturn is an understatement. For example, about his Korean War experience during which, like my character, he was a child laborer for the US Army, he shared only: “It was dangerous and difficult work.” In a way, as a novelist, the less I knew the better. My father’s bio served as a skeleton which I was able to fill with blood and guts of my own creation.

While the character Lee Hana is fictional, her experiences as a comfort woman—a young girl conscripted to service the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers—are entirely realistic. I’m sure Hana’s story is the one readers find most traumatic and unimaginable. Yet I omitted some of the worst of the atrocities committed against the comfort women. The survival rate of these women has been reported as low as twenty five percent, and the brutality of some of their deaths was beyond comprehension.

To research this book, I studied history books, articles, newsreels, and images. One photograph in particular haunted me. The shot pictured rows of young girls kneeling in their Korean dresses to await processing into the “Women’s Voluntary Service Corp”. The expression on the face of the girl sitting front and center in a dark-colored Korean dress broke my heart. She is compliant but immensely dignified despite the fear and sorrow shadowing her poignant face. The knowledge that, in the moment her image was captured, this innocent young beauty had no idea what was in store for her reduces me to tears every time I look at the photograph. In my mind, this girl was Lee Hana.

SC: Which of your two protagonists, Kim Young Nam or Lee Hana, came to you first as a main character?

AK: Kim was my first character and sole protagonist in early drafts. I had not even known about the comfort women until I started researching for the book over a decade ago. One of my books on modern Korean history briefly mentioned the comfort women. I remember reading those few paragraphs over and over, and thinking: why have I never heard of this? Still, my focus in early drafts was fixated on Kim’s story.

But the voices of the comfort women were crying out to be heard. I never wanted to write about the subject. I simply had no choice. The story would be false without it. So Lee Hana was added to the book. In early versions, she played a more peripheral role. Later, a major edit reconfigured the structure to alternate Kim’s story with Lee Hana’s story.

SC: Readers may not be familiar with just how central the protestant Christian church has been in the lives of Koreans and Korean Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries. Kim Young Nam almost stumbles into Christianity as a way of gaining education and the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S., more than as a pure spiritual pursuit. Is this accurate, and do you think this is a prevalent experience for Korean and Korean American Christians?

AK: Accurate. Kim Young Nam’s will to succeed is a more powerfully sustaining force than his faith in God. Without that drive, my character would never have survived.

However, as the saying goes, “There are no atheists in the foxholes.” For anyone who knows the solace of faith, it’s nearly impossible not to embrace religion in times of greatest fear. For instance, the first time my daughter drove herself to school, I locked myself in a bedroom, knelt, and prayed like a fiend for twenty straight minutes until my daughter texted that she’d arrived in the parking lot.

The mathematician Blaise Pascal demonstrated in “Pascal’s Wager” that the cost of refusing to believe in God was so enormous that to do so would be irrational. While this particular idea is not explicit in the book, when writing about Kim, I thought about Pascal harnessing his formidable intellect to the tricky task of squaring his science with his faith. I had the recollection that some of my father’s theology manuscripts (which we were asked to proofread as high schoolers and understood only dimly) contained similar intellectual exercises.

I never asked my dad about his beliefs. He never gave me any reason to doubt that he was anything but a devout believer. However, he was a denomination hopper. He was raised in the Holiness Church by his mother. Then, he switched to the Presbyterian Church, joining the denomination of my maternal grandfather who had become his mentor. Before he came to the US for graduate school, my grandfather advised him to join the Southern Baptist church because it was the most “up-and-coming” denomination in America. So he did. I found his facility for switching denominations for pragmatic purposes counter-intuitive and fascinating.

While I would shy away from opining on Korean American Christians as a whole, I will say that converts are often stunningly devout in their faith. On my mother’s side, I am the descendent of three generations of Catholic martyrs. My maternal grandfather’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather were all executed on the same day in the 1800’s during the Catholic pogroms. (My grandfather later converted to Presbyterianism.) I believe there are Korean Christians who would die for their faith to this day. That being said, the Korean church also serves an important social function, providing fellowship and support, which I suspect largely accounts for the proliferation Korean churches in America.

SC: Late in the novel, Lee Hana finds herself married to an African American GI, who was kind to her in Korea when her life hit rock bottom. I admired the flaws and complexities you rendered in that relationship. Were you interested in this relationship as a common enough scenario to explore, or was there something more specific—political or socially conscious—you were pursuing?

AK: In the sixties, American GIs stationed in Korea often formed informal “contracts” for exclusive relationships with Korean prostitutes. Sometimes these couples fell in love and married. Reportedly, these associations typically arose between Caucasian GIs and Korean women whereas African American GIs did not form such attachments. One of my references wrote that it was believed that African American GIs were only interested in one-night stands. So Lee Hana’s marriage to Noah Washington would be the exception to a stereotype. I found it impossible to believe that no African American men formed loving bonds while stationed in Korea. While I was not acquainted with any couples like Lee and Washington, I wanted to imagine how two such different people might come together and fall in love. Then I wanted to explore how their union might play out once their roles as strangers in a foreign land were reversed.

SC: I hope it doesn’t spoil too much to reveal that things turn out relatively okay for the two protagonists—despite much suffering. Tell us about whether you knew/wanted this to be the case for them, or whether you struggled to determine how their stories would end.

AK: I always knew both my lead characters would survive. While there was no struggle to determine how their stories would end, there was a good deal of experimentation with the details of their final scenes. In one of the earlier drafts, I wrote a scene that was purposefully vague but might have been interpreted as Kim’s final hours in a hospital bed at the end of a long and fruitful life. It was terrible and ended up in the trash bin. For Lee the challenge was convincing the reader that, as you put it well, things turned out “relatively okay” for her. My editors felt that I had not achieved my intended purpose, that her ending, while factually “relatively okay”, viscerally felt too bleak. They knew this was not what I wanted for Hana because I loved her. And that is how Hana ended up with her faithful little dog at the end, who plays a tiny but key emotional role, as dogs will do.

SC: Our readers are especially interested in hearing about the “zig-zag” journeys of writers who publish later in life. You’ve had a career as a mechanical engineer. Tell us about that, and other pursuits/experiences; and also how long you’ve been writing fiction and how long you worked on Tiger Pelt.

AK: I always thought I was going to be a writer. I never thought I was going to be an engineer. The irony is that I became an engineer first because of my writing. After taking the PSAT’s, college letters clogged the mailbox, and one of them was from MIT. They mixed me up with one of the thousands of Kims who applied, I thought. But it was not a mix up. It was worse. I was hand-picked by an admissions officer to be her freshman advisee. (Professors couldn’t be bothered to advise the freshmen, so the administrators babysat us for the first year.) The first thing my advisor told me was that I was at a huge disadvantage getting into MIT because I’m Asian and they have too many Asian applicants. (Imagine a college admissions official saying that nowadays!) The second thing she told me was that my essays in particular were passed around and read by everyone in admissions. I distinctly remember an awful sinking feeling that I didn’t actually belong at an engineering school. Higher verbal scores than math scores? Never won a science fair? Got picked because of my essays? I was doomed!

Mercifully, freshman year at the time was pass/fail and somehow I managed to survive. A turning point was the annual mechanical engineering design contest, the biggest event on campus at the time. My machine made the final four in a single round elimination contest, and was written up in Smithsonian magazine. This had to mean I was destined to become a mechanical engineer! I went on to earn a master’s degree, specializing in fluid mechanics.

Early on I worked as a design engineer for a water treatment equipment manufacturer, where I developed a new treatment process which was awarded several US Patents. Then I moved on to a large international engineering consulting firm. When I gave birth to a real baby nineteen years ago, I started a consulting engineering practice and worked as a sole practitioner. Six years later, the birth of my triplet boys spelled the abrupt end of my engineering career.

I have been writing fiction since high school. In college, I minored in English literature. Throughout my engineering career I took stabs at writing fiction here and there. Nothing worthwhile came of it. Part of the problem was that my career routinely demanded sixty hours a week or more.

Technically I started writing Tiger Pelt in 1984: a scene from the book—where a teacher inflicts a perverse punishment on a child—was written for a short story course I took with Alexander Theroux at MIT. The story ended up in the trash bin, but I resurrected the scene and repurposed it for the book.

Real progress on the book began around 2005 when my triplets started napping at the same time. I also took the boys on a second nap drive to pick my daughter up from school. As soon as they fell asleep, I would pull into the car line and scribble on a pad I kept in the minivan. During this sleep-deprived phase of my life, I wrote about an hour or two a day, but I thought about the book constantly and even dreamed about it. The production pace picked up when my boys went to preschool. By the time the boys were in full day school, I had plenty of time to write.

I queried agents with a version of the manuscript around 2013. While I received some complimentary feedback, nobody wanted to take the book on. I made further edits to the manuscript and submitted the unpublished manuscript to Kirkus in 2015. Final edits were made under Leaf~Land’s auspices and the book was published in January 2017.

I always admired and envied newly minted MFAs who emerge from their programs with a sparkling oeuvre. Me? I have a hair-triggered cringe reflex for my own writing, and I think I needed to live longer and experience more before I could write anything publishable. I had more confidence to write about grownups after I knew what it felt like to be one: to complete a massive undertaking, suffer failure, overcome obstacles, make a lifetime commitment, raise children, love unconditionally.

Then there are so many life experiences that collected in my mind and populated the pages of the book. Some of my advance readers told me “you write like a guy” and asked how I developed the dialogue of the American soldiers. Well, I was in Navy ROTC freshman year, trained by a Marine Corp gunnery sergeant, and you could say plenty of dialogue stuck with me when shouted at two hundred decibels two inches from my nose. In my later career, I worked with machinists and water plant operators who took pains to shake me out of my ivory tower.

A very British University of St. Andrews professor once told me he was incredulous that Jane Austen could be so highly regarded after having penned a mere six novels. I felt depressed. There have been plenty of times I wished I had started younger…but then I wouldn’t get to be interviewed by Bloom, would I?

Bloom Post End

Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones and Long for This World. She is the founding editor of Bloom and a staff writer for The Millions.


Homepage image via koogle.tv

Korean War photo credit: U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive) Korean War – HD-SN-99-03153 via photopin

3 thoughts on “Imagining the Unimaginable Truth: Q&A with Annabelle Kim

  1. What a heart rending and inspiring story. Congratulations to Annabelle Kim for coming back to writing after MIT, after raising her children, and for daring to portray the pain and the sorrow of the comfort women. I don’t think I would have had the courage.

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