In Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me (Morrow, July), a young woman’s choice between lovers changes the lives of those around her during the Korean War.
What drew you to write the story of this family, and to tell it through five points of view?
I began with Haemi Lee, who is the central figure of the novel. However, as I delved into the intricacies of this family surviving the Korean War and the love triangle between Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, I realized that multiple voices were necessary. By also giving voice to the two men in her life; her younger brother, Hyunki; and eventually her daughter, Solee, I could create multiple layers of meaning and a richer texture to the novel overall.
How did your research into the novel’s setting change the story you set out to tell?
I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories about surviving the Korean War, so I quickly chose Korea in the 1950s as the starting point of my novel. Then, I did a lot of research—I read memoirs, pored over photos of refugee life during the war, and studied how South Korea was transformed afterward. The information I found was most often about the soldiers’ experiences. I was more interested in how the women left behind were affected—how these women were scarred in less visible ways. What I couldn’t find in research I made up for in imagination and by reading novels about complicated women growing up in wartime conditions.
How do you think the tension between tradition and modernization that runs through the novel will resonate for modern readers?
Haemi wants a college education and desires autonomy, and yet she rejects Seoul’s modernization after the war and clings to the comfort of her traditional clothes. Similarly, I think that people often have complex feelings about the traditions they’ve grown up with versus the modernization that surrounds us. Though the tradition and modernization in my novel is very different from what we face now, I think the core question of “how much should we embrace technological change and should we be skeptical?” remains the same.
What do you hope readers come to understand about this era of Korean culture and history?
I hope that by experiencing this story through Haemi, Kyunghwan, Jisoo, Hyunki, and Solee’s eyes, readers can imagine what it felt like to grow up during this tumultuous time in Korea’s history. I hope readers come away from the book considering the ways in which we have all been shaped by the social, cultural, and political expectations of our time.