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Suki Kim and 'The Interpreter'

The Interpreter (2003) by Suki Kim

The Interpreter (2003) by Suki Kim

Suki Kim's debut novel, The Interpreter, is a bold and haunting murder mystery that takes a refreshing break from the "model minority" immigrant story. The story is about Suzy Park, a Korean American court interpreter whose detachment from life allows her to traverse the distance between old worlds and new, poverty and privilege, language and understanding. When Park stumbles across a clue about her parent's five-year-old murder, the urgency of understanding the truth opens up a compelling investigation into her family, the Korean American experience, and her own inertia.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Suki Kim immigrated to New York with her family at age 13. She graduated from Barnard College in 1992, and went on to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her essay about the writing of The Interpreter recently appeared in the New York Times.

Asia Society spoke with Suki Kim about the success of her first novel and her trip last year to North Korea, which she wrote about in an essay "A Visit to North Korea," in the New York Review of Books.

You wrote in your essay in the New York Review of Books, “The one thing that sets me apart is that I am certain, no matter how evil North Korea is supposed to be, that I could never hate its people.” Can you elaborate on this sentiment?

People who are descendents of separated families are often told the same story over and over. My mother's brother was kidnapped by North Koreans during the war, which happened to a lot of families. People who have gone through these types of tragedy survive by telling their stories. It is a kind of therapy because there is always a lingering sadness. I inherited that sadness from hearing my grandmother's stories.

There is a combination of reasons why I went to North Korea. There was definitely the curiosity, which is more my intellectual western mind speaking because I wanted to see the most isolated country in the world, but I also wanted to understand the source of such personal and historical tragedy. An opportunity arose and I went. When I say that I could never hate the North Korean people I was trying to convey that I went there as an individual. People who write about North Korea are mainly political pundits, who have very strong opinions, whether pro- or anti-North Korean. I am not proclaiming any sides. I am a fiction writer, and I was trying to express that I went to North Korea not because of hate, but because of memory and loss.

Were their strong reactions to your essay on North Korea?

The Korea Times recently ran an article about my novel, in which they mentioned that I wrote a piece about North Korea. Right away, a reader wrote in saying that I must be a supporter of the North Korean regime. My novel was just released two months ago and it has nothing to do with North Korea. When people put a political slant on me it is often coming from hate, again the very thing that divides people.

I have also been contacted by the North Korean organization that took me there. There were half-hearted threats. They did not want me to release my article. So I went through several weeks of being terrified.

People have repeatedly told me that my essay is very sad. The sadness of people who have lost their home, whether it is my grandmother's story or even the pro-North activists who took me there. I was empathizing more with the whole heartbreak of the Korean people on both sides. That is what I am interested in.

You went to North Korea to reunite with an uncle who was separated from your family. Did you ever find out more information about his whereabouts?

No, I never did. As I said in my article, finding my uncle was not the only reason why I went to North Korea. It was certainly not the reason why I was chosen for Kim Jong Il's 60th Birthday Celebration. I was not even aware that I was a US delegate until I arrived in Pyongyang. It was at Pyongyang Airport that I realized I was actually being billed as a political figure.

Your debut novel, The Interpreter, breaks through the stereotypical images of the happy immigrant experience with a story of pain, loss, and murder. Were you conscious of this as you were writing the story or did it naturally emerge with the types of characters and plots you chose?

I don't know how much of the stereotypical images I set out to break, but I certainly focused on the theme of interpreting from the beginning. Interpreting suggests duality. It is a position of translating two languages while traversing two worlds. At the same time, an interpreter by definition must stay neutral. I think it was the New York Times who said that The Interpreter is about the channeller of other people's thoughts. Suzy Park, the heroine, is an acute observer who does everything to remain clear of involvement. Although she eventually breaks her cool, the novel starts out with a main character who is completely detached. Now, this premise is different from most Asian American stories, which are often sentimental because intrinsic in their set-up is memory. I wanted to find another way to deal with that memory. The detective angle, which pushed the novel to cross genres, was one of the ways to break that stereotype.

You said that when writing The Interpreter you lived the life of your protagonist, Suzy Park. Can you explain how you did this? Do you think it is important as a writer to use this method?

I knew that Suzy Park was going to be an interpreter before I wrote the book. At first, I thought I could just do research on the internet or in books. But I soon realized that I needed to understand more thoroughly because interpreting was becoming more than one metaphor. So I called up interpreting agencies and passed their exams and interviews and worked as an interpreter at depositions. With each interpreting assignment, more ideas kept coming to me about the character and the plot. Suzy Park examines her life through interpreting but I was closely examining Suzy. I would be interpreting as Suki Kim but often I would suddenly get confused and think, "This is a chapter I just wrote."

Why was interpreting an interest for you? Can you explain what the significance of language is for you? You wrote, "Being bilingual, being multicultural should have brought two worlds into one heart and yet for Suzy, it meant a persistent hollowness."

Before writing The Interpreter, I traveled extensively through writers' colonies. I also did post graduate studies in London specifically for Korean literature, where I learned translating. I came to the US when I was 13 years old. When you approach a new language at that age, you really study it. You have to examine it carefully and constantly -- every word, every comma, every possible connotation. In a way, my relationship to English is still like that. I never take it for granted because I was not born into it.

You were a student of East Asian studies. What is your impression of the field and about how “Asia” is taught to students?

I studied East Asian Studies at Barnard College and in London at the School Oriental and African Studies. My focus was literature and I was highly disappointed. This was 10 years ago so it might have hugely improved by now, I really hope, but with Korean literature the works that were being translated and the level of translation simply did not compete with Japanese or Chinese literature. There is no Korean Kawabata, Mishima, or Soseki -- these are household names in Asian literature. The quality of translation and marketing and educating is not the same for Korean authors. I do believe that Korea has top writers but the fact that there is not one single Korean author being celebrated here in Western culture is a very sad reality. Whatever problem must exist behind that process, it, unfortunately, directly feeds back to the perception of Korea.

Has your family been supportive of your fiction writing?

My parents are incredibly supportive. There is the stereotype of Asian parents pushing their kids to go into law or medicine, but, really, many parents besides Asian Americans do this to their children. My parents have always put art above anything else, oddly enough. They are not artists but they have always had the appreciation. My sister is an artist, whose painting actually appears on the cover of The Interpreter. My brother just quit the semi-pro career in golf. Three of us have continued to pursue our dreams. Much of that has to do with our parents. They are now so excited by my novel. I can't wait till they read the Korean translation, which will be coming out next month.

Are there writers who have been influential on your work?

I love the usual suspects that English majors love, such as Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Nabokov. When I was in college, I was deeply infatuated with Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as Mishima and Natsume Soseki. In terms of Asian American fiction, the one that really took my breath away was, not surprisingly, Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. I am not a big contemporary fiction reader, and these days, my favorite authors change all the time.

What do you think about audiences' expectations of Asian American fiction?

The minute you get published you are set up to receive criticism. Someone even said to me that it helps to be Asian to get your work published. The odd thing is that it has never been an advantage even when they say, "ethnic writing is in" because that puts you in a box. When you look at Asian American fiction, you do see a lot of what is expected to be "Asian American writing," which often portrays the old country as exotic. Audiences would rather hear about Asians in Asia, because that comes free of guilt and consequences. We often turn a blind eye to Asians here in the US.

In the world of publishing, you can be put in a box and critics immediately expect your book to go in a certain way. Just because my name is Suki Kim, my work could immediately be categorized as a "Korean American immigrant story." As a result, everyone has an expectation of where it will go and that is a disadvantage as a writer. It stops your freedom to create. You can't go unexpected ways because somehow being an Asian makes this not a surprise but a disappointment.

It is a struggle for any writer because writing is hard, but one look at any top publisher's catalogues of new fiction would reveal predominantly white authors, and to break into that without writing the expected, cliché stories is definitely a challenge. My goal is to not be in that box and to be a writer with a long-term career.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society.