I Write to Find Out: The Millions Interviews Marie Myung-Ok Lee

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel The Evening Hero, publishing May 24 from Simon & Schuster, centers on Dr. Yungman Kwak, an obstetrician living and working in the fictional town of Horse’s Breath, in rural Minnesota, near the Iron Range. Yungman, whose Korean name translates to “Evening Hero,” often feels trapped between two worlds, unwilling to return to his ancestral—near-imaginary—land of Korea, yet somehow yearning for it. Now, a father and grandfather in the twilight of his life, Yungman has less time ahead of him than behind him. And when a letter arrives that threatens to the life he has worked so long to build, everything changes. Keenly felt and deeply observed, this sweeping sociopolitical historical saga bears witness to the medical institution and the immigrant experience. 

The Evening Hero is Lee’s second novel, after her 1992 debut Finding My Voice, hailed as one of the first contemporary Asian-American YA novels to explore hometown bigotry. Lee is one of a handful of American journalists granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War and was the first Fulbright Scholar sent to Korea for creative writing.

I spoke with Lee about how she brought The Evening Hero, and Yungman’s story, to life. 

Leslie Lindsay You grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a predominately white community. What was your experience like growing up in Northern Minnesota as a Korean-American? It’s an isolating area in itself, but perhaps you endured additional challenges? 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee: We were for most of my childhood the only family of color in our community. The area we lived in was predominantly white, and, at the time, the whole of Minnesota was more than 90% white. We talk a lot about physical violence against Asians today, but my first experience getting punched in the face and called the c-word was when I was four or five years old. But even though I was aware of racism at a young age, because everyone else was white, that made me feel white as well. I was born in Hibbing just like all my white friends. My parents wanted to be really “patriotic” and kind of disavowed Korea and never talked about it, so I grew up not really knowing who I was and how I fit into the grand scheme of things. I think figuring out who I am is why I write—to find out!

LL: There continues to be a good deal of anti-Asian racism, even in settings far more diverse and metropolitan than Hibbing. How do you confront this in your daily life?

MML: Non-Asian allies are so important. I’ve seen several cases in New York City where when people intervene, it can defuse a situation. I think the more some people step up, more other people will step up as opposed to everyone being afraid of the bully. I believe the work I do both in fiction and nonfiction is to make the experiences of Asian Americans legible. I think the more stories and voices we have, the less chance there is for racism and stereotypes to seep into that vacuum. As you know, reading builds empathy.

LL: One of the things I was particularly keen to as I read The Evening Hero was your use of color: the white and black, that woodland gray-green, made from the iron in the clay, celadon. We see it in ginseng, grasses, the family tree. Celadon originated in China, was brought to the Goryeo region in Korea. In a sense, celadon is a bit like an “immigrant color.”

MML: I love the celadon color and was happy the book designer, who is Korean, chose to use it.

LL: In the book you pay special attention to the color white. Minnesota is not just “white” in terms of people, but landscape, too. Snow, ice, even farmhouses are sun-bleached. And there’s the medical aspect as well. White lab coats, white shoes. At one point in the novel, Yungman is proud of purchasing white shoes in Korea. Combine that with the lab coat, white collar—he thought he was as close to a white American as possible. And in Korea—white rice, white ramie fabric, white “powders” and substances falling from planes during the war. What was the intention there?

MML: I’m glad you caught on to that. I wanted to point out how in the U.S. and the West in general, “white” has positive connotations, including racially. In Korea, white is a frequent motif—Koreans are called “the white-clad people,” and the flag is predominantly white, a color of peace. So it’s all about context—in the U.S., a white flag doesn’t mean peace but surrender. Or how in Korea, Korean faces can be “white” but no one in Horse’s Breath would describe Yungman’s wife, Young-ae, with her fair complexion, as “white.” 

LL: Ancestors also play a pivotal role in The Evening Hero. Like the use of color throughout the narrative, I find this elegant. There’s a section about trees and saplings, family burials, keeping bodies intact, rather than cremation, about honoring the dead. Can you expand on these? 

MML: My grandfather died during the Korean war and we moved his body in 1996 to a better place. It took forever to disinter him and my father explained that they had to find all the pieces. They laid out a tarp and we watched them reassemble everything—it was very moving and I could see how sad my father was. As a matter of accuracy, I also studied anthropological books on Korean funeral rites when I was writing the book.

LL: The idea of “what’s in a name” becomes apparent in the end of the book. Kwan translates to “Evening Hero” in Korean, which takes on extra significance seeing as Yungman is in the twilight of his life. We get the sense he might die soon, but his legacy will continue. 

MML: In my mind “evening” refers to the time period when Yungman muses that he’s lived more life than he’s going to live. He can just coast into the end of his life, or he could do something with it—but then does he have enough time? He doesn’t have that luxury anymore.