Too often, the image of the Midwest is blue-eyed white people with Peter-Jennings accents or white people sitting on tractors in well-worn overalls. Despite the population’s increasing diversity, midwestern-adjacent terms such as “heartland” or “flyover country” or “undecided voter” have even recently become synonymous for white. A daughter of Korean immigrant parents, I grew up in rural Minnesota, home of the world’s largest open pit mine.
Doing research on my hometown’s mining industry, I learned one of the earliest miners in our town was a Korean, someone who stowed away on a ship in the early part of the 21st century, probably to escape Japanese colonialism. Our town also had a (short-lived) Chinese restaurant run by an Asian family, and yet during our town’s “Ethnic Days” celebration, it was only white ethnicities—Norwegian, German, Irish, Finnish, Slovakian, Serbian, Swedish, Italian, Lithuanian, etc.—that were celebrated.
Thus, I’m often drawn to fiction that reflects the actual and not whitewashed image of the American Midwest. Jung Yun’s O Beautiful is about a young Korean American woman, Elinor, a former model and ambitious recent journalism school grad, who returns on assignment to her hometown in North Dakota, which is now overrun by roughnecks in the Bakken oil field boom. Yun explores this territory, riven by greed, economic decline, and the specter of climate change, her hometown heavy with memories but also coming to stand symbolically for a contemporary America, one more visibly diverse but also more divided than ever. The narrative explores Elinor’s life and what she thought she knew, and, on a larger scale, the immense anger of people fearing that their societal power and dominance is slipping and the anger of those who feel they have never had access to this power at all.
I don’t know if I want to describe a book as a punch in the face, but here I really do mean it as a compliment. O Beautiful starts with a beautiful Asian woman on the cusp of aging out of that beauty, being harassed by her overly interested seat mate (never too old for that!) … and later wondering if she’d been sexually assaulted while she was asleep. This is how the book starts, and it just rolls on from there.
The novel has to do with power, writing, a sense of home, fracking …and that’s just the beginning.
The Millions: Can you tell us how you got the idea for the novel, or how you started it?
Jung Yun: My parents lived in North Dakota until 2017, so whenever I flew home to visit them, I’d treat myself to a drive out west to the Badlands if I had time. (There are Badlands in North Dakota, and they’re beautiful! People often only associate them with South Dakota.) Those trips allowed me to see the oil boom change the western part of the state over an extended period, and I knew there was a story there based on the tensions I witnessed between the locals and the newcomers, as well as the tensions I experienced personally. Prior to the boom, I’d always felt conspicuous in that part of the state because I was Asian American, but during the boom, I felt wildly conspicuous because I was female. Being an Asian American female also added an extra layer of complication because people usually assumed I’d come to the area from somewhere else to find work in the service industry (e.g., masseuse, prostitute) which pissed me off, as you can probably imagine. In many ways, I still think of North Dakota as home, yet I often had to deal with people’s surprise and disbelief that someone like me had actually grown up there. The net effect was that I spent several years going back and forth to that part of the country, thinking about what constitutes “home” and how an oil boom might complicate people’s sense of belonging to a place or a community.
TM: Shelter, your first novel, was about another boom-and-bust cycle (or, maybe the false promise of a boom)—this time the mortgage crisis. Are there certain themes you are particularly interested in exploring?
JY: I tend to write stories about the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect, overlap, and complicate the lives of my characters. This is really what interests me as a writer and a reader, and what feeds some of the biggest questions I have about myself as a human being and humanity at large. With my first two novels, I was particularly interested in telling stories about characters living through large-scale economic phenomena like oil booms, recessions, and house market collapses. Growing up in an immigrant family, I was taught to believe in the value of hard work and pulling myself up by my bootstraps (what the hell is a bootstrap?). But what happens when hard work isn’t enough? What happens when something unexpected or even cataclysmic comes along and destabilizes the things a person has worked so hard for? And why does the American Dream often resemble American Survival for some, and how does that kind of precarity and inequity change people? Writing doesn’t necessarily resolve these types of questions for me, but it does provide a focused way of thinking about them.
TM: Both your novels (without giving away too many spoilers) have an overlay of violence, real and imagined, or misinterpreted. Do you want to elaborate on that?
JY: Similar to large-scale economic phenomena, I think violence has the capacity to interrupt well-established patterns of human behavior and cut through the facades we create and maintain for others. People who present themselves as “good” or “honorable” may shy away from intervening during an act of violence (or may inflict violence upon others behind closed doors), whereas the weakest or most selfish among us might step forward to help out of pure instinct. If all stories are based on some form of pattern disruption, I think these split-second moments when one has to act or react in the face of violence are fascinating and full of dramatic potential because all bets are effectively off.
TM: Your work has a propulsive mystery/thriller feel—do you enjoy/read this genre?
JY: Not really. I actually don’t think much about genre. I’m more interested in how quickly a writer pulls me into a story, whatever that story might be or how the publishing industry might classify it. I’m always wary when people recommend a book with a warning that “the first hundred pages are a little slow, but once it gets going…” Maybe I’m just an impatient person, but I enjoy cracking open a book and watching the story get going right from the start. I try to write with that same aim.
TM: What are you working on next? What’s your process for starting to think about what you will write next?
JY: I’m just starting the research for novel three, which is set in New York during the early 2000s. Right now, I’m just reading and watching things to help me remember what that time was like. Even though I lived through it, it feels so much more distant than two decades ago. It’s hard to imagine not having smartphones or social media or the ability to stream content while walking down the street or sitting on the subway. Tech did something to us. In some ways, it made the world seem smaller and more accessible. In other ways, it just broke us as human beings. I’m interested in telling a story about who we were back then, but I’m loath to say much more than that because it’s still so early. I’m in that very luxe stage where everything seems possible, and I want that feeling to last for a while.