A samurai in 17th-century Japan escorts an orphan to his Korean countrymen; a Korean couple in contemporary London, children of North Korean defectors, spend their lives operating a small shop; a young Russian man in 1881 is sent to report on a Korean settlement in a remote outpost of Russia, where a domestic violence incident results in a murder; a soldier makes a solitary life at his family’s abandoned farm in the Korean countryside after the Korean War: these are just some of the settings and characters in Paul Yoon’s haunting third short story collection, The Hive and the Honey (S&S/Rucci, Oct.).
Seven perfectly crafted stories make up the collection, which explores Yoon’s themes of displacement, identity, shared history, alienation, and the lasting effects of war. The stories transport the reader over centuries and across continents, but they always quietly present the human condition and the need for connection.
The Hive and the Honey opens with “Bosun,” the story of a South Korean immigrant who unwittingly ends up in prison. Yoon writes, “During his twelve years in New York City, Bosun, who went by Bo, got into some bad business with an import-export company in Queens. It turned out the company was dealing in stolen goods and Bo, who drove a truck for them, was eventually caught one winter on the bridge between Manhattan and New Jersey.... Perhaps, in his disorientation and fear, he thought of surviving a jump and swimming down the Hudson. In any case, a policeman tackled him before he could make it to the edge.”
And later: “Bo thought he would eventually miss Queens or perhaps even South Korea, where he had spent the first eighteen years of his life, but as the months went on, they were like the faces he tried to recall: far away, as though the places he’d once lived had been homes to someone else.”
In “Valley of the Moon,” a stranger appears looking for his uncle, with whom the hermetic protagonist Tongsu had a violent confrontation a long time ago. In mesmerizing prose, Yoon writes, “Although Tongsu never saw the stranger again, and no one else came asking about a missing person, the strangeness of the encounter and the unsettledness of it hummed inside his chest for the remaining years of his life. It was at first like a fly that was trapped around his heart, something he learned to ignore, only for it to turn later on, as he grew older, into a claw.”
And in the title story, Yoon describes a murder: “In the moment I understood what was happening and saw that his body was covered in a dark wetness, I heard more footsteps behind me, more doors opening—the sound I had heard was of a door banging open—and the man stopped shuddering and went completely motionless. There was a collective gasp. The night air cold enough at the start of spring for our breaths to appear in the moonlight.”
Yoon tells me that his grandfather escaped North Korea, his family was scattered, and there were continual family stories, but, “The stories were always mysterious, there was a lack of information. The Korean War defined a generation—Korea has a vast history of movement and displacement. I wondered where my ancestors were. Where was my family tree? Some went to Japan, to Russia, to a fishing boat in the Canary Islands. I was always hearing stories of displacement. So many of my family I never met, and I’m haunted by this. I try to imagine displacement because of war or economic reasons.”
During the pandemic, Yoon says, “we were all scattered. I was separated from friends and to cope I imagined a kind of map. We were all in different places, but we were all part of one world. That got me thinking about the family tree, thinking of that as a map as well. This was the seed of the collection: the movement of a country and its people.”
Diving into research, Yoon tells me, he was “careful not to go into the fictional space with it, to put the blindfold on.” He emailed scholars: an Edo historian at Harvard, a Russian Far East Asia expert.
I comment that his stories are quiet, but then sucker punch you with their power, and he says that contrast interests him. “Can something be still yet also loud and violent?”
Bill Clegg at the Clegg Agency met Yoon a few months after he graduated from college. A friend of Clegg’s, a professor at Wesleyan, told him about a student whose writing was haunting and wise. “I was blown away by the stories he sent,” Clegg recalls, “and signed him in 2002.”
Yoon’s debut collection, Once the Shore, “received incredible reviews and ended up on more than a few best-of-the-year roundups,” Clegg tells me. Yoon’s first novel, Snow Hunters, went out to several publishers in 2012, but, Clegg says, “Marysue and her colleagues at S&S had an immediate and convincing response and it was clear Paul had found the right house and the right editor.”
Marysue Rucci, now with her own imprint at S&S, remembers seeing that first novel. “I went crazy for it,” she says. “I had never bought a book from Bill before. Snow Hunter was so literary, so beautiful. I love Paul’s novels, but he is a true master of the short story and he keeps getting better.”
Of The Hive and the Honey she says, “The tonality of the stories is the same, but there’s no sameness. The characters, the subjects are so vivid. Paul’s obsession with belonging, immigration, home, that he’s expressed throughout his career, has been honed to an unbelievable state of beauty.” Rucci signed the contract for North American rights for the new collection and an untitled, unwritten novel in April 2022.
Rucci says that when she first met Yoon, she was surprised by his ebullience. “His writing is austere, but he is so full of love with such generosity of spirit,” she adds.
As a diehard fan who finally got to meet him this year, I couldn’t agree more.