Writing What Bothers: A Conversation with Frances Cha

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Frances Cha’s debut novel If I Had Your Face follows the adjacent and intertwined—but also very dissimilar–lives of four (arguably five) protagonists. The women share superficial similarities: they’re South Korean and they’re young, which is also how you could describe the author, or me. But they could not be more different from each other.

Ara is a dreamy hair stylist and boy band fanatic. Her much more practical-minded best friend Sujin is an ambitious social climber, but in a very specific way: she is saving up for expensive plastic surgery procedures so that she can work in Seoul’s elite underground bars, or “room salons,” a sex-adjacent industry where young women entertain businessmen. Their neighbor down the hall is Kyuri, a surgically enhanced room salon girl who is beautiful enough to work at the best room salons in the city. Kyuri’s roommate is Miho, whose artistic gifts and natural (biological) beauty gave her opportunities the others never had, such as the chance to mingle, both romantically and platonically, with South Korea’s moneyed upper class. Finally, there is Wonna, whose middle-class life as a married, white collar professional belies an inner life filled with rage—but of the exciting, energetic sort that suggests change is afoot.

Their lives felt familiar to me, although I did not identify with any of the characters. This is not a comment on the realism of the novel, but rather an expression of wonder: books and characters that don’t easily fit into the dominant Western canon are often burdened by the weight of representation. But perhaps because of the forceful individuality of its characters, If I Had Your Face never deteriorates into any sort of manifesto that makes strong claims to representative authority.

Cha grew up in the United States, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA in English Literature and Asian Studies. For her MFA in creative writing she attended Columbia University, where she received a Dean’s Fellowship. She worked as the assistant managing editor of Samsung Economic Research Institute’s business journal in Seoul and as a travel and culture editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong.

We discussed the literary and material inspiration for her first novel; beauty and power; the Western gaze; and the nuances of translation in its broadest sense, as a Korean and American novelist writing about Korea in English.

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The Rumpus: I’m sure you get many questions about your own citizenship—as do I. But what would you consider to be the “citizenship” of the book? It’s written in English, but it also concerns the lives of Korean women. I imagine the events transpiring in Korean.

Frances Cha: I am asked about my citizenship a lot in relation to the book—I am a dual US and Korean citizen—especially from Korea. I think of the book as being a Korean book that happens to have been written in English and published by an American publishing house. When I was querying agents, I was going to start with American agents and then query UK agents as well, and so there was a good chance that it might have been published by a UK house first if a UK agent had gotten back to me first.

Rumpus: Right. The book may be Korean, but exists in both Korea and the Anglophone world (the US, because of how things worked out). What were some of the linguistic and literary challenges that arose as a result of translating certain concepts for an Anglophone audience?

Cha: The biggest linguistic challenge I had with regard to the book was debating whether to put in the relationship markers that figures so largely in Korean language and culture—specifically unni or oppa (which means “older sister/female” and “older brother/male”). In the beginning I actually had the girls different ages and they were using unni—Kyuri was a bit older and Miho was younger than both Sujin and Ara. In the end I made them all the same age specifically because I came to the conclusion that using those markers was distracting to the reader and pulled one out of the suspension of disbelief, but I couldn’t bear to have them different ages and calling each other by name because that never happens in Korean culture, and so I got rid of the problem altogether.

Another internal debate that came up a lot was using the English terminology that has been adapted by Korean language into meaning something that is different in Korean—such as office-tel or room salon, for example (which I suppose are both originally Korean, actually) or karaoke or circle or service which have different meanings in Korean than they do in English. So, things like that would give me pause: Do I use the Korean-English word to be authentic to the conversation or find a different word in English that actually means what I want in English?

With words that had no equivalent in English, I would just use the Korean words—such as sangyeonrae (a meeting of families for the first time to decide the date of a couple’s marriage) the names of most foods, and the others I would sometimes translate into English.

My next book is also going to split its setting between the US and Korea, but it is unrelated to If I Had Your Face and is going to be in the literary horror vein (or so I keep telling people, but not sure if I can actually stick to this). The idea for it stemmed from a conversation I overheard between my mother and my uncle—both of whom are the most practical, no-nonsense people I know (my uncle has a PhD in nuclear science). They were discussing a family they grew up across the street from and how that family had been cursed across generations and they went into detail about how all the servants would come screaming over to their house whenever certain events would occur. So, I have been delving into that story as a basis for this book. I am using a character that was cut from the first book, but she is no longer going to be in the world of the other characters.

Rumpus: Did you ever feel burdened or held captive by the responsibility of representation because of the fact that your novel was Korean, either during the process of writing or afterwards throughout the initial responses?

Cha: I do feel an incredible burden and an internal conflict about representation of Korea to a foreign audience, which I feel is due to the lack of novels in English about modern Korea. I hope fervently that others will be published soon—I was reading that the number of study-abroad students from Korea to the States was fifty-four thousand last year or something, and surely some of them will become writers? Because of the lack of other novels in this sphere, I think some readers’ takeaways from my book have been that my characters are representative of all Korean women, and that is a very distressing thought for me. My characters are specific and extreme which was the reason why I was interested in their stories… But during the writing of it, I did not think about the reception of the book, which is why I was able to write what I wanted to write with freedom. It would have been crippling and overly burdensome if I had known what was to come in terms of reception.

Rumpus: I can certainly imagine some of the material inspirations that might have fed into your novel. What were some of the literary (or if not literary, other forms of media) influences, both obvious and not so obvious?

Cha: In terms of literary influences, I have been speaking a lot about The Joy Luck Club, which was the first novel I read in English that had Asian characters and thus was very shocking to me and made me think that writing about Korean characters would one day be possible. I have been reading my old childhood books to my children here at my mother’s house in Korea, and even just last night, the one my older daughter picked had this line: “She was the prettiest girl Eddy had ever seen. She had yellow curls and big blue eyes. He hurried over to her.” In the context of all the discussions about the lack of representation still in America, this was so relevant, and I immediately read a Korean book about Korean girls to her right afterwards. But I grew up reading about Korean characters in Korean books, so in my mind, growing up in Asia, it was set that oh, English books are about white people and Korean books are about Korean people, and never shall the two cross over.

The other literary influences I had while writing this book—the books that I would carry with me from café to library to diner when I was writing, were books by Elizabeth Strout, Margaret Atwood, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Yiyun Li, among others. Which books I brought out to write depended on what I was focusing on that day.

And Korean drama—especially the overly dramatic ones—have so many plots packed in that I love watching them when I am stuck. My favorite comfort drama is probably The Heirs. It is very ridiculous and over the top and outrageous but I love it so much. I also reread a lot of Korean manhwa comic books that I loved as a teen—they are incredibly epic, and violent, and encompass several generations and countries and have interwoven intricate storylines along the lines of Game of Thrones. Lineage and Princess and The Four Daughters of Armian are my favorites in that category, and have probably influenced my writing in ways I don’t even know.

Rumpus: It’s so interesting that you bring up that line from the American picture book about the pretty girl with “yellow curls and big blue eyes.”

South Korea is often called “beauty-obsessed,” but there’s something about the American “everyone is beautiful” that also doesn’t feel quite right either, especially given the context of representation (or lack thereof). It feels like a platitude that glosses over the ways in which female beauty has been commodified as well as frequently defined in terms of the dominant (white) culture.

What’s more, I feel like mainstream plastic surgery discourse often veers towards extremes: either it’s giving in to unhealthy pressures or it’s empowering. How would you describe your stance on this, if you have one, and how would you say your novel navigates these extremes?

Cha: It drives me crazy when Western media talk about Asian plastic surgery as a means to the end of looking more Western. No one goes to a plastic surgery clinic in Korea and tells the surgeon, “I want to look more white.” The ideals of modern Korean beauty are actually quite different from the ideals of modern American beauty, as we heard during that visit together when reporting for the plastic surgery story for CNN. And during my research, when I visited multiple plastic surgery clinics posing as a potential patient, they advised me to shave down my cheekbones, for example, which is opposite to advice from the West. The list goes on and on, but apart from the varying standards in beauty in different cultures, what I was interested in exploring was how empowering beauty can be (and how judgmental people can be about that pursuit of beauty).

It’s also kind of a never-ending curse—an itch that can never be satisfied once you start embarking on this path. If you have once had it, then you thirst for it again, and if you are trying to achieve it, then you get a taste of how empowering it can be and want more. And I do believe that it is driven by this idea—which is alluded to in the title—that people have that if only we achieve something, then we would be so happy and everything else in our lives would fall into place. It’s also related to how faulty that line of thinking is, but how we subscribe to it anyway. Everything we aspire towards comes with its own set of issues.

In the book, it is not as much about an objective or subjective beauty standard as it seems on the surface, but more about doing everything that one can to make one’s life better. Who are we to judge that sort of decision when it is accompanied with so much pain and fallout and an endless new set of issues, but can lift you out of your old set of issues? I am always very interested in judgement and tradeoff and consequences, and how all that affects human personality and behaviors.

Rumpus: You once gave me a piece of advice about writing that I think about often. You told me to write about what bothered me. Some of the things that made it into your novel are fairly easy to imagine: the scenes from Wonna’s workplace where you’re roped into a reluctant empathy for Wonna’s boss because of the microaggressions (are they micro?) about marriage.

Then there are also loving sense-oriented details that almost read like nostalgic tributes—the puppy spa and the visually striking scenes and characters that inspire Miho as an artist. Can we linger for a moment on some of these other sources of material, both likely and unlikely?

Cha: Wonna as a character was inspired by the darker parts of my recent years. I went through a difficult postpartum period, and even before giving birth I experienced periods of extreme anxiety, and so I think several strains of thought from that period found its way into her chapters. Her backstory, too, is from a familiar place of family trauma that is very recognizable in Korean society historically.

Kyuri’s storyline that takes place in the room salons was also very much about issues that have bothered me over the years about room salon culture in Korean society, and how prevalent and accepted they are while also never being talked about “above ground.” It is very unfair to Korean women in many ways—to the businesswomen who are left out of the camaraderie that is built within those spaces and the deals that are discussed there, to the wives that are at home raising children and tending to the households never dreaming that their husbands may be in a situation that can easily lead to temptation, and finally to the women who work there, who often enter a vicious cycle of systemized debt.

I liked having the modern landscape of Seoul peek through the smaller details and sometimes highlight the differences with Western world, like the puppy spa that you mentioned, and everything from how easy it is to buy birth control, to maternity leave policies, and even the gestures that English speakers use that are quite different from the ways Koreans in Korea move their bodies when they talk.

I love contemporary Korean art, and so I loved having Miho inhabit that world—a fish out of water in both the ritzy Seoul art scene and the New York art scene. I think even people who are very confident in most areas of life become chastened and rather timorous of appearing ignorant in the art scene because it is such a subjective scene with so much money dispensed by those in power. So, there is a lot of material to mine.

Rumpus: Speaking of money and power: I’d like to talk about the many varieties of power in the book. What do you feel is the source of your protagonists’ power, individually and collectively?

Cha: That is such an interesting question. I do think that if you do not have family that you care about, and if you are not trying to desperately keep up appearances and climb the social ladder, then there is a true power and a freedom that allows you to operate without wondering if what you are doing is hurting anyone, or costing anything. There is so much pressure that comes with relationships in Korea, because the ties are so close and there are high expectations and fierce loyalties, and so I am always wondering what it would be like to be free from that. Of course there is a tradeoff and a yearning and loneliness as well.

Individually, I think Kyuri’s power is that of her extreme practicality and ability to understand boundaries but at times to cross them as she feels like it, because she has the freedom of having nothing to lose. I think she also feels power in gaining beauty, and the fact that she can “increase her beauty” at will is something that she finds addictive and in control of.

For Miho, I think her nunchi [in this context, the ability to read a room; social savvy] and understanding of what is beautiful, what is art and what is marketable art—which includes her own beauty—are what propels her and equips her with a superpower in her field. The fact that she has a vocation and a calling is something that she draws power from, too.

Ara’s comes from her ability to switch from fantasy world to the real world at will, and from her confidence to take control of her reality if she chooses.

With Wonna, I think her upbringing of being entirely alone, and the fact that she is used to her loneliness and expects nothing from anyone, is her power. Her hope for her baby—despite the fact that she finds it difficult to voice it or face it—is a surprising source of new strength for her.

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Photograph of Frances Cha by Ilooz.


Violet Haeun Kim is a writer, editor, and translator from Seoul, South Korea with bylines in Slate and CNN Travel. More from this author →