Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers on a love triangle among three young refugees in South Korea during “The Forgotten War.” As Kim tells the story of young Haemi and her two courters, Jisoo and Kyunghwan, she simultaneously tells the story of war and what it means to be human in its crossfires: the uprooting, displacement, waiting, not knowing, going without, being at the mercy of government as well as fellow civilians struggling for resources alongside you, striving for normalcy and even daring for exuberance in the face of devastation, the profound strain on families, and being forced to make decisions to survive—decisions with consequences that far outlast the surviving.
Kim’s generosity of detail so completely transports the reader to Korea (1951–1967), and her commitment to perspective makes for a polyphonically rich and heart wrenching experience.
If You Leave Me is finding itself on numerous “must read” lists. It was just long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, made it to the New York Post’s “20 Best Reads for Summer Break” list, and The Rumpus’s “What to Read When You’ve Made it Halfway through 2018” list, as well as many others.
I recently had the privilege to talk with Kim about war, family, displacement, trauma—as well as inspirations for her book.
The Rumpus: What is writing, for you?
Crystal Hana Kim: Writing is a way for me to explore the questions I have about the world. By writing through the lens of fiction, I feel freer to tell the truth. For this book, I was interested in the Korean War and what the trauma from this period of time could do to a mind, a body, a country of people, and even to future generations.
Rumpus: What themes or topics are you most interested in exploring?
Kim: Gender politics, especially regarding the way women are portrayed by society. Power imbalances—particularly the way society, culture, and tradition idolizes and reinforces specific roles for women.
Rumpus: It seems like class is a topic you tackle as well.
Kim: I want to explore voices that I haven’t heard before or that aren’t written about enough in our history… I want to amplify those who are marginalized because of their gender, sexuality, or class.
Rumpus: What were the seeds of your project?
Kim: I started working on [the characters in If You Leave Me] during my MFA. At first, I thought I was writing an interconnected short story collection that would span three generations, but in my last semester my teacher convinced me that I should write a novel about the first generation. I’m so glad I heeded his advice!
Rumpus: You tell stories from so many different points of view, how did you decide how much page time to give to each character?
Kim: I’m partial to novels that have a lot of different voices. I just love it when you see a story unfold from multiple perspectives. It’s interesting to me how people can view the same event in very different ways depending on their personalities, their biases, their own fears, and desires… Deciding how much time everyone got was an organic process. With each new chapter, I considered what should come next and who would be the person to tell that story.
Rumpus: And how was it writing from a man’s perspective?
Kim: I enjoyed it.
Rumpus: Was there anything different or is it just the role of the writer to inhabit different bodies?
Kim: It was helpful for me because, at first, I felt more affinity towards some of my characters than others. By inhabiting everyone’s perspectives, I was forced to care about them all. It made me consider why their voice was important, why the readers should care, which I think strengthened the novel overall.
Rumpus: Your sense of place is so rich—whether it’s landscape, foliage, food. How did it all find its way into your novel?
Kim: My mother’s side of the family lives in Korea, so I visited them every summer. Those memories helped me a lot, as did the stories I heard from my parents and extended family growing up. But I also did a lot of research. Korea has changed so much since the 1950s, so it was important to read the history and understand the socio-political contexts. In addition to reading books, I looked at a lot of photographs. I’m interested in books that teach you something new without being didactic, and I think immersing the reader in specific, vivid details helps. Instead of me telling the reader that there was a stark difference in quality of life based on class hierarchy, I can help the reader see those class imbalances through different descriptions of peoples’ homes, what they eat, what they wear.
Rumpus: Can you share one or two moments where, during your research, you happened upon something that was particularly gutting or moving?
Kim: One thing that was gutting—this is a roundabout way to answer your question—is that I had a hard time finding research about women during the Korean War. That was heartbreaking because their voices had not been preserved. It was just so sad to me, especially because they were at home taking care of children and working to keep their family alive, which is equally as important as fighting in the war.
Rumpus: Who would you say is the audience for your book?
Kim: Since my book is written in English, I’m interested in reaching a broad audience of English-speakers, particularly Americans. The Korean War is called “The Forgotten War” here in America. There’s literature on World War II and even the Vietnam War, but not enough about the Korean War. Within the categorization of an American audience, I’d also love to reach Korean-American readers who don’t know as much about their history but want to know more. In the end though, I hope that my novel touches upon universal themes of love, motherhood, war, trauma, and societal expectations. I hope that anyone could read If You Leave Me and come away changed.
Rumpus: Your characters cross a lot of borders—time and space. They have to adapt to different circumstances and reinvent themselves in a lot of ways. How does adaptation, reinvention, and erasure affect their identity and sense of belonging to each other?
Kim: This period—the Korean War and the years right after—was a time of intense displacement for millions of people. So many were killed or lost or taken from their families. The nation was broken in half again, so many people were reinventing themselves out of necessity. I wanted to explore this in my novel, which is why there are so many characters who are constantly reckoning with who they are—whether it’s Kyunghwan grappling with his political loyalties, or Haemi taking on the role of motherhood, or Jisoo coming to terms with his lost family.
Rumpus: Thinking about displacement, there is this epidemic of mental disorders that refugees end up living with, and Haemi’s character feels like she’s been affected in that kind of way.
Kim: With Haemi, I considered how trauma would present itself in a woman who didn’t fight in the war, but who has still been severely affected by the violence. How does trauma present itself in the moment and in the years afterward? Mental health was not something discussed then in Korea and it’s still not talked about enough even here. So, it was definitely intentional, especially with Haemi. I wanted to explore how depression could manifest for a woman like her and what it would feel like to know something was wrong but not have the vocabulary to articulate it. What happens when no one listens, understands, or believes you?
Rumpus: Who are some writers who have significantly influenced or informed your writing?
Kim: I love Toni Morrison. I love sweeping novels about issues that are difficult to write about or have not been written about and she does that so well. Her sentences are stunning. I love Louise Erdrich. And Deborah Eisenberg, who is a former teacher of mine—the way she writes about class always startles me in the best way. I’ve admired sentence-level writers like Anthony Doerr and Colum McCann for years.
Chang-rae Lee and Alexander Chee were some of the first Korean writers I ever read. I love Paul Yoon as well, who I discovered in college. I love Nami Mun and Min Jin Lee also; they were the first Korean-American woman writers I ever read. Representation is so important, and though I don’t think my writing style is necessarily similar to these writers, I am indebted to them because they showed me it was possible to be a Korean-American writer.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Kim: I’m working on a few essays and I’ve started my second novel. It’s very new. I can’t talk about it yet as I’m superstitious but this will also be about family and the ways in which we are bound to one another. This novel will be a bit more contemporary, too. Right now, the perspectives switch back and forth between a woman in present-day America and a Korean man in 1980s South Korea.
Photograph of Crystal Hana Kim by Nina Subin.