Lucy Tan and Crystal Hana Kim Discuss Societal Roles, War, Secrets, and the Complications of Love

July 31, 2018 | 5 books mentioned 8 min read

coverWhen I got my hands on an advanced reader’s edition of Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me a few months ago, I couldn’t believe my luck. With my own debut novel coming out this summer, I’d been following book coverage closely and making note of titles I wanted to read the most. If You Leave Me, out Aug. 7, was at the top of my list. Over the next few days, I became completely absorbed by the forbidden love story of Haemi and Kyunghwan, their complicated ties to Kyunghwan’s cousin, Jisoo, and a rich portrait of war-torn Korea. This is a novel of epic proportions whose tone shifts agilely over time, following the lives of its characters and the devastating consequences of war. It’s full of longing and hard truths, and when I finished it I was in solid agreement with the buzz surrounding If You Leave Me, naming Crystal Hana Kim as a talented writer to watch.

coverI was surprised to find that If You Leave Me shared some striking similarities with my own novel, What We Were Promised. Set in modern Shanghai, What We Were Promised is also a story of forbidden love, following the lives of three characters bound by family ties. Lina, Qiang, and Wei grow up together in a small, silk-producing village, only to be separated when Qiang disappears and Lina and Wei marry and move to the U.S. The novel opens when the couple is back in China and must face Qiang once again—as well as the reasons he left.

Though our novels are very different, both explore the impact of political history on its people, of money and power on individuals, and of the damaging effects of gender roles. It was startling, too, to see minor totems echoed in our novels—a bracelet, a scar on a loved one’s face—which further convinced me that If You Leave Me is the dark sister to What We Were Promised. I eagerly reached out to Crystal, and we became friends. It’s my pleasure to speak to her now about family influences, novel-writing, and the books we’re most excited to read this year. —Lucy Tan

Lucy Tan: Crystal, congratulations on the upcoming publication of If You Leave Me! I loved experiencing the world of 1950s-1960s Korea through the eyes of your three main characters—brilliant Kyunghwan, headstrong Jisoo, and the beautiful and fierce Haemi. They came to vivid life and grabbed me from the very beginning. I’d love to know a little bit more about the genesis of this story. I noticed that in the novel’s opening pages, the dedication is partly written in Korean. I’m going to be nosy and ask: What do they mean? Are there hidden inspirations there that you can share?

Crystal Hana Kim: The dedication that’s written in Korean says, “I lovingly dedicate this book to my mother and father.” Fittingly, my family was integral to this novel. Both my parents are Korean, and all four of my grandparents survived the Korean War. I’m particularly close to my maternal grandmother, who told me many stories about growing up during the war. As a teenager, she had to flee her home with her widowed mother, which was the genesis for Haemi’s story. I fictionalized Haemi’s life to explore questions I was interested in (of motherhood, gender roles, and how war scars a country and its people), but the seed of my novel is rooted in truth.

I’d love to hear about the genesis of your novel too! What We Were Promised centers on the Zhen family—Wei, Lina, Karen, and Qiang—as well as Sunny, their housekeeper. Though the novel dips into rural China in the 1980s, most of it takes place in Shanghai in 2010. I know you grew up in both New York and Shanghai, and I see that you also have a part of your dedication written in Chinese! Can you tell us about your personal connection to this setting? What inspired this story?

LT: In writing What We Were Promised, I drew heavily from my family’s experiences during and after the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese words in my dedication are the names of my parents and grandparents on both sides of the family. My parents were involved in this book in an even more direct way—they helped me set up interviews, read drafts, corrected my use of Chinese in the book, and more. I like to think of my novel as a family project.

My understanding of modern-day China comes from firsthand experience. I’ve been traveling to China since I was little, but during the two years I spent in Shanghai after graduating college, I finally felt connected to it in a way that I had before. It struck me as a city changing so quickly, both culturally and economically, and I knew I had to write about it one day. At the time, my parents and I lived in a serviced apartment that served as the basis for the fictional luxury hotel in my novel, Lanson Suites. It was there that I met many of the expats, ayis (nannies), and drivers that inspired several characters in the book.

It’s so interesting to hear you name the themes you were intentionally exploring when writing If You Leave Me. The word “scar” is often associated with stories about war, but few novels portray the physical and emotional traumas that come from gender roles and motherhood as things that can scar someone permanently. Haemi’s pain was so haunting to me, particularly because as we read, we see her change, slowly but surely, from a willful young woman to someone with fewer and fewer options. How much of this character development did you have in mind when you began writing? More generally speaking, what was the process of structuring your novel like? Did you have the ending in mind before you began, or did you trust that the story and characters would lead you somewhere satisfying?

CHK: As a woman, I’ve always been fascinated by societal expectations of gender roles. I grew up hearing my maternal grandmother’s stories about not being able to receive an education because she was a woman, and she very much felt that marriage was one of few options available to her for stability. I wanted to explore what a life like that would feel like, how it could wear you down over the years. I created Haemi Lee early on in the novel-writing process, but I had to write my way to an understanding of how she thought and approached the world. I knew I wanted Haemi to experience motherhood, and I had a sense of the ending, but I wrote my way through the middle, experimenting with different paths.

One of the many thematic similarities I found in our two books was of the “arranged” or “practical” marriage. In my book, Haemi faces a difficult choice regarding who she should marry. In your book, Lina knows from an early age that she is betrothed to Wei. For both our women, choices are taken away by family and societal expectations. Can you tell me about your novel-writing process? How did you come up with your characters and this premise?

LT: Lina and Haemi do wind up in similar predicaments even though they are such different characters! Lina is less independently minded than Haemi is, and it takes her a while to understand what she wants for her own life. Early on, she conflates her love for her parents with her desire to marry Wei. Arranged marriages were not the norm in the 1980s, but Lina is willing to marry the man her father has chosen for her because she trusts him and wants to make him happy. It’s only later, when she digs into the reasons her father has arranged this marriage in the first place, that she is forced to re-examine everything she knows about love. At its heart, What We Were Promised is about the different kinds of love a person can have for someone, and how that love can change and become complicated over a lifetime. But I didn’t start out wanting to write about love. I started with a single moment of conflict in mind: A bracelet goes missing from a serviced apartment, and a housekeeper is afraid of being accused by the tenants of having taken it. The entire novel grew out of that moment and what little I knew of the characters in that opening scene. For example, I knew something was off about the marriage between Lina and Wei, but I didn’t know much beyond that. I knew Sunny, the housekeeper, was wrapped up in the Zhens’ storyline, but I wasn’t sure how. I write much like I read, uncovering things as I go and following moments of tension until they reveal themselves fully.

Our novels are also similar in that they are told from multiple perspectives. Because my characters harbored private thoughts about each other that were important to the storyline, I knew from the start that the novel had to be written this way. And yet I was nervous about it, because there’s always the risk of the narrative becoming disjointed, or for the reader to fall in love with one character over the others and to become impatient to get back to their point of view. I think you pull off the perspective switching in If You Leave Me so well, but did you initially worry about the effects of multiple perspectives, as I did? Can you tell me a little more about your decision to write in the first person for each of these characters?

CHK: I’ve always been drawn to novels with multiple perspectives, so it was an easy choice for me. I knew I wanted Haemi to be the center of the story, but in order to understand her circumstances as well as the landscape of Korea during this particular time in history, I knew I also needed Jisoo, Kyunghwan, Hyunki, and Solee’s perspectives. I’ve always loved first-person narration because I think it helps readers emotionally connect to the characters. Also, I just really enjoy writing in first person!

It wasn’t until later, when I had a full draft, that I worried about the novel feeling disjointed or of the possibility that the reader would like one character over another. At that point, I had already committed to this structure, so I focused on making my characters as complex and real as possible so that readers would feel emotionally connected. My hope is that If You Leave Me pulls you in, that despite the great difference in time, place, and custom, you can understand what Haemi, Kyunghwan, Jisoo, and the rest of the characters are going through because the themes of love, motherhood, and trauma are universal.

I’d love to hear about your decision to use third-person to write from multiple perspectives. Did you decide on this early on in your process? Did you ever have some chapters in first person and some in third?

LT: I’m like you; I love the intimacy of first person, and it’s my favorite perspective to write from. This novel, though, had so much to do with the misconceptions characters have about one another, and the secrets they keep, that the reader must have a somewhat omniscient view of what’s going on for the novel to have forward momentum. During scenes where my characters are all in the same room, I wanted the flexibility to present actions and reactions that might convey more information to the reader than it might to any one character. I found it hard to manage this with first person. Close third gave me a little more flexibility.

CHK: You mentioned What We Were Promised started with the missing bracelet and the housekeeper who was afraid of being accused of theft. You also said earlier that you wanted to write about the social classes of this period in Shanghai. I think you do such an incredible job of revealing these class hierarchies without feeling didactic. You show the reader how different the lives of those who live in these luxury apartments and those who work them can be. What made you want to explore these class conflicts? Was it difficult balancing Sunny the housekeeper and Little Cao the driver’s stories with the Zhen family’s stories?

covercoverLT: One of the things that fascinated me about living in a luxury hotel was the way people of so many different backgrounds were forced to spend so much time together, often knowing nothing about one another. For instance, drivers spent most of their work days waiting outside fancy buildings for their wealthy bosses. They knew their employers’ schedules perfectly but rarely conversed with them. What did these drivers do while waiting? How did they feel about the people they drove around? What were their attitudes toward their jobs? These questions were fascinating to me, and I wanted to explore the motivations, misunderstandings and rebellions of people across different social classes sharing the same space. Balancing Sunny’s and Little Cao’s stories with the Zhens’ was challenging from a plot perspective because the overlap between the storylines wasn’t obvious. But being able to imagine my way into their heads felt like a relief because their concerns are so different from the concerns of Lina and Wei. By inhabiting their lives, I felt as though I was making the novel fuller.

covercoverCHK: I think you balance Sunny and Little Cao’s lives with the Zhens’ so well, Lucy! The novel definitely feels richer because of their voices. Let’s do one last question. What book are you looking forward to reading this year? I’m so excited for Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know and Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State.

LT: Those are on my radar, too! I’m also looking forward to A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which I hear is one of the summer’s best literary page-turners, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani.

LUCY TAN is the author of What We Were Promised, available now from Little, Brown. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares, where she was winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest. | CRYSTAL HANA KIM is the author of If You Leave Me, which is forthcoming in August from William Morrow. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and lives in Brooklyn.