Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is an elegantly executed work of historical fiction that looks beyond the events of the Korean Civil War to the devastating aftermath. Through interviews with her grandmother, intensive research, and a strong penchant for character-driven plots, Kim grounds large-scale political and social conflicts within the life of Haemi Lee, a young woman caught between freedom and security during the unstable years following the war.
Our blog editor, Arriel Vinson, and assistant blog editor, Nicole Flippo, had the opportunity to ask Kim some questions about If You Leave Me and her journey as a historical fiction writer.
Arriel Vinson: Tell me about your journey to writing historical fiction, your desire to write this particular story, and getting If You Leave Me published.
Crystal Hana Kim: I actually didn’t set out to write historical fiction! I was motivated primarily by a desire to investigate my family and culture. I learn best through writing, so I created Korean characters when I began my MFA program. During this time, while I was working on short stories about Koreans and Korean-Americans, I spoke often with my maternal grandmother. We’re very close, and she told me all these stories about her life, particularly about growing up during the Korean War. I was fascinated all the hardships she had survived, and these stories motivated me to write about Korea in the 1950s. Slowly, my novel If You Leave Me took form. The more I wrote, the clearer my vision for the novel became.
Nicole Flippo: What do you believe are the kinds of questions that can be asked within the medium of historical fiction that could not be sufficiently dealt with in either regular fiction or history nonfiction?
CHK: I think fiction and nonfiction serve different functions, and it’s critical that we read both genres. I love how fiction can provide readers with greater access to empathy. Through specific details and characters, fiction can provide readers with a deeper, emotional sense of abstract concepts like war, hunger, and famine. Historical fiction provides a way for readers to imagine our shared history. In terms of my own novel, I wanted readers to deeply connect with my main character Haemi Lee, so that they could understand what it felt like to be a woman growing up during the Korean War. It’s easy to theoretically understand that the Korean War devastated millions of lives, but it’s a different experience to read about one particular woman and the choices she could and could not make during this tumultuous time.
AV: Tell me more about the research you did for this novel and how you chose what to include. I’d also like to know more about the interview with your grandmother and if that affected or changed the novel in any way. Was there anything you were surprised to learn?
CHK: Oh, I did a ton of research! I read history texts, psychological studies, and memoirs. I watched documentaries and movies. I pored over photographs. I also interviewed my grandmother, who was a young teenage refugee during the Korean War. She provided some specific, vivid details that I slipped into If You Leave Me. I was initially surprised to find so few texts about the women’s experience during the Korean War, but in retrospect it’s not surprising at all, is it? Their lives weren’t valued and thus not recorded. This lack motivated me even more to finish If You Leave Me.
NF: The majority of If You Leave Me takes place following the Korean Civil War. Can you speak to how the crafting of a national identity interacts with the aftermath of war?
CHK: After the war, Korea’s sense of national identity was fractured in half in the most painful way. Families were torn apart, borders were drawn, and a country that was once whole was now two distinct countries with drastically different forms of government. The citizens of both Koreas needed to rebuild their identities completely. I tried to explore this sense of orphanhood and loss throughout If You Leave Me. The pain in losing your family, your country, and your identity is nearly unfathomable, but I tried to tackle those topics in my novel. On a personal level, it helped me to understand my national identity as a Korean-American, South Korean, and Korean.
NF: If You Leave Me is hugely invested in the theme of female agency. What was your thought process behind writing a romance through the perspective of a woman who constantly lives the trauma of having her autonomy disregarded?
CHK: I think of If You Leave Me as deeply feminist. I wanted to explore female agency in a culture of rigid, gendered expectations, and that’s why Haemi’s story is the central focus of my novel. Beyond the love triangle between Haemi, Jisoo, and Kyunghwan, these two men represent security vs. freedom. Haemi is so willful and strong, but she’s living under dire circumstances. I wanted to explore how she’d be constrained during this time and how she could push against these boundaries. Female agency and sexuality is important to me too—that’s why there’s a pivotal sex scene where Haemi is being pleasured. I hadn’t read a scene like that in a novel before, especially one that takes place in the 1950s, and I wanted to see that!
NF: The way you utilize scope as a tool in If You Leave Me is deftly done. What went into your choice to depict the widespread trauma of war through the specific traumas faced by individual characters?
CHK: I think that in our era of constant news and media, trauma is easily normalized. We’ve become desensitized. But fiction can create empathy, particularly when the reader feels emotionally connected to the characters. I love character-driven novels for this reason. With If You Leave Me, I wanted reader to feel like they knew my characters deeply. Through Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, I wanted them to experience living through war, multiple dictatorships, protests, hunger, and more. I personally dislike novels that try to ‘teach’ the reader; I can feel the authorial hand too much. In reaction to this, I touched upon critical moments in Korea’s political and social history through my characters, so that the reader could have a more intimate experience.
AV: What scenes were the most traumatic to write in If You Leave Me and how did you combat those feelings? What advice do you have for writers who are struggling with difficult scenes?
CHK: I’ll just say that there were many moments when I was in Haemi’s head that was difficult for me to write. I don’t want to delve any further though so I don’t give away any spoilers!
NF: If You Leave Me depicts the struggle of motherhood intersected with depression. Can you speak a little to what autonomy and human fallibility mean within the context of motherhood, as presented in the novel?
CHK: I wanted to push against this tired trope of the “good mother” vs. “bad mother.” There’s an expectation in literature (and life!) that a woman must give up their sense of self and identity in order to become a mother, that anything less makes you unfit for your new role. This is a myopic view of motherhood, womanhood, and the complex relationship between parent and child.
We are all fallible; I think that’s what makes us interesting. In writing, I wanted to create characters that felt real. That meant Haemi needed to be a woman who experienced both the joys and devastations of motherhood. She suffers from undiagnosed post-partum depression during a time when mental illness was not discussed. This means she doesn’t have a vocabulary to express how she’s feeling, which is even more frustrating. I hope the readers can get a sense of that complexity through Haemi’s perspective.
AV: During the querying stage, were there ever times you were made to feel discouraged about If You Leave Me, it heavily centering Korean culture? If so, how did you combat that?
CHK: I firmly believed in my novel, and I didn’t question the content, the Korean culture. There were a lot of other things I questioned along the way: Is the manuscript good enough? Will an agent want to represent me? But I knew this was the story I needed to write. During the querying process, I specifically searched for agents that represented people of color, women writers who wrote about complex women, in order to find a good fit. If an agent, or even editor, wasn’t interested in my novel because of the subject matter, then I knew they weren’t right for me.
AV: What is your advice to other POC who want to write a story centering their culture, but are afraid they may face rejection in the publishing world because of it?
CHK: Believe in yourself. Your story is important and needs to be told. Yes, publishing is predominantly white, but change is happening. There are great advocates in the publishing industry that want to see more diversity in literature. Social media and the internet has made it so much easier to search for a community as well. That support system can be really helpful!
AV: Would you like to let our readers know what you’re working on now?
CHK: I’m working on my second novel! I don’t want to say much about it yet because it’s still new, but I’m excited about it. I’m still writing about Korea, and I don’t think I’ll stop anytime soon.
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me was published in August 2018. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.