In The Liberators (Tin House, Nov.), Koh follows a Korean couple through an arranged marriage, a South Korean dictatorship, and immigration to the U.S.
How does the legacy of the Korean War inform the novel and its characters?
The war is ongoing between the North and the South, so it never really ended, and I wanted to address how that affects Koreans who live in the diaspora. I wanted every character to have a different perspective of the war, and that has lots to do with people’s memory of war itself. I see it in my family members, this sanctioned “approved national memory” of war. But then there is the separate collective memory of what you remember as a community. I’ve found that, for my family, their personal memories of the war are a way to preserve and protect themselves.
Why tell the story from so many alternating perspectives?
It sounds like I’m owning up to some sort of flaw that I have as a writer, but I didn’t choose to do it that way. The only way I can write—like I did in my memoir [The Magical Language of Others] and my poetry collection [A Lesser Love]—is with multiple perspectives all going on all at once! It just comes out that way in the first draft and my editor and I go in and really pare it back.
What inspired you to include historical events like the 1980 Gwangju Massacre and the doves burning at the 1988 Seoul Olympics?
A lot of the novel comes from an extended spider web of my parents’ history. My parents met and came to the U.S. during the Olympics, which were hosted in North and South Korea, and the question of which games would be staged where was just one of the many intense political conversations that recurred during my childhood. So, my bedtime stories were very interesting!
How did you incorporate your personal perspectives on liberation into the story?
One relationship I was thinking about is my mother and her mother-in-law. When you are in this small community, you assume you are safe within that community, or in that house with family. But in this case, my mother was sort of living in a prison with her mother-in-law. So, I think it was just interesting that this lack of liberation or this sort of pain and grief didn’t come from outside of the community, but instead, it came from within. I wanted to walk toward that in my novel.