When Paul Yoon calls Florida an “alien planet,” it’s an earnest expression of bewilderment, not an attempt at political comedy. “You wake up and realize that everything is flat,” he says, nearly shuddering, about mornings in the Sunshine State. “There are no mountains, there are no hills. There are palm trees. There are lizards.”
During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Yoon decamped from Massachusetts to Florida with his wife, fellow writer Laura van den Berg, so they could be closer to her family. It was fine for a while. Then, Yoon got an itch. “I realized I was stuck in a place that didn’t feel like home to me,” he says, “and it started making me think about home: the idea of home, where my home was, the root of that.”
Yoon was born in Bayside, Queens—his father was a doctor who worked in various New York City–area hospitals—and throughout his childhood, his family edged farther and farther from the city until they settled in a quiet section of the Hudson Valley. As Covid restrictions began to lift, Yoon, 43, found himself longing to return there; he’s speaking via Zoom from his and van den Berg’s new home in Hudson, N.Y., taking refuge from the “total chaos” of their half-unpacked boxes to chat in the light-soaked laundry room.
Home is a major theme in The Hive and the Honey (S&S/Rucci, Oct.), Yoon’s latest collection of elliptical short stories, which he began writing during those upside down Florida mornings. In keeping with his past works—the collections Once the Shore and The Mountain and the novels Snow Hunters and Run Me to Earth—the seven stories comprising The Hive and the Honey meditate on lineage and render small-scale personal dramas against backdrops of international conflict. This time, though, the brushstrokes are bolder, and they’re applied to a larger canvas: Yoon moves from contemporary New York to Edo-period Japan, from 1990s London to 19th-century Russia, giving life to shop owners and samurai and itinerant workers and felons, each belonging to or somehow touched by the Korean diaspora.
“A lot of it was just a leap of faith,” Yoon says. “I just trusted that no matter how far I went, it would all belong to one tree.”
It’s a trust he developed over time. Yoon’s grandfather was a North Korean defector and, as a result, most of Yoon’s family narratives rupture abruptly at the Korean War. Growing up, Yoon would sometimes express curiosity about his ancestry, and all he’d get in response was conjecture. “I would be like, ‘Oh yeah, I have a great-uncle, don’t I? What ever happened to that person?’ And my dad would shrug and say, ‘Well, he probably ended up in Japan after crossing the border to try to make money, or maybe he got on a fishing boat and worked in the Canary Islands for the rest of his life,’ ” Yoon recalls. In part, he says, The Hive and the Honey “imagines the sporadic spread” of the family he’s never known. The protagonists of “Cromer” are a man and a woman, both children of refugees, who marry and operate a corner store in London, occasionally wondering after the details of their dead parents’ pasts; “Komarov” concerns a North Korean defector who agrees to spy on a Soviet boxer who may or may not be the son she left behind during the war.
Yoon stresses, however, that he’s not on a quest to piece together some sort of comprehensive family mosaic. “It’s not like I’m seeking answers to something,” he says. “I’m propelled by mystery. I want to live in the mystery for as long as I can.” For him, the act of writing is itself steeped in mystery. One of his favorite phenomena, he says, is when he sets out to write one story and another reveals itself, something “bigger than what’s been on the page.”
That’s what happened with “Valley of the Moon,” The Hive and the Honey’s final story, which was first published in the New Yorker earlier this year. For 14 pages, readers follow a man named Tongsu who returns to his bombed-out childhood farmhouse, restores it, and takes in a pair of orphans named Unsik and Eunhae from a nearby church. (Yoon’s grandfather opened an orphanage after settling in South Korea, and these are not the only orphans in The Hive and the Honey, nor in Yoon’s other fiction.) Then, without warning, the focus shifts to Eunhae as she decides to leave the farmhouse and establish herself in the small city of Daegu.
This perspective switch was a “total surprise,” Yoon says, but it allowed him to wrap up the story’s questions about family and destiny in ways he’d never intended. At the end, when Eunhae returns to Tongsu’s home and finds herself repeating a grim process that he carried out decades ago, she reflects on how “a decision could reveal all the different layers of life, which felt to her as unreachable as the inside of a flower.”
By some standards, Yoon came to writing late. During his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, he had a “really formative” English teacher who clocked his love of reading and fed him extracurricular fiction on the sly, much of it contemporary. While Yoon was used to syllabi full of “old, dead” writers like Dickens and Faulkner—both of whom he loved—the new books alerted him to the fact that literature was an ongoing conversation. “I know it sounds simple, but it never occurred to me that this was an active art form,” Yoon says. “I started devouring contemporary fiction, and I fell in love, and I think, as with love, I wanted to respond to it.”
While Yoon studied English at Wesleyan University in the early aughts, he spent most nights at his typewriter, writing “horrible shit” that nonetheless instilled in him the discipline he needed to hack it as a professional. That wide-eyed, visionary student was at the wheel, he says, while he wrote the stories that became The Hive and the Honey.
In contrast to his past books, the process for this book was “joyful,” he recalls: “I just felt so damn lucky that I was able to do this for the fifth time.” Yoon is acutely aware that his success could dry up at any moment, and that’s part of what nudged him to “engage fictionally” with his imagined family tree in ways he’d never done before.
Those twinned feelings of anxiety and gratitude tumble around The Hive and the Honey’s prismatic title story. It’s narrated by a Russian officer who’s been assigned to monitor a nascent Korean settlement on Russia’s far southeastern edge in 1881. The officer bonds with a young orphan girl, whom he leads away from an impending uprising by carrying a teacup of honey into the woods. He offers its contents up to a bee, which dips itself into the honey and then flies away, presumably returning to its hive. The Russian man and Korean girl follow the bee until they can’t see it anymore, then wait for it to reappear. The process repeats.
Eventually, the girl leaves her protector behind, wandering ever deeper into the woods. It’s easy to read her as an author stand-in, reaching for some distant, finite muse—Yoon’s estranged family, perhaps. “She is in the distance now. All sunlight. Only a sliver,” Yoon writes. “The bee comes back from its hidden kingdom, and then it doesn’t.”
With his new story collection, the Korean American author takes his explorations of home and family into new territory