How does one reckon with an inherited history when that history is all but inaccessible in another language? This is the question at the heart of Caroline Kim’s stunning debut short story collection The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories (University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2020), selected by Alexander Chee as the winner of the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
As a young Korean immigrant to the US, Kim developed keen powers of observation that enabled her to survive and assimilate in the predominantly white, working-class suburbs of Massachusetts where her family settled in the 1970s. She turned to books as a way to stretch beyond the limited possibilities of that milieu, but didn’t realize until early adulthood what had been missing: stories that featured characters like her and her family, people with a more complicated history, language and culture that were practically unknown in American literature. Crafted over two decades, her collection takes to heart the advice of Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Kim’s finely drawn characters and settings take us from the struggles of Korean women and children before the outbreak of war to a church picnic gone wrong; the inner life of a grandfather-to-be; the shocking scandals of the Korean royal family; and a suburban family discovering the intersection of therapy and technology. What weaves through each of these stories is the instinct to survive the most unexpected challenges and the deep longing—across borders, languages and generations—for a place to belong. Read an exclusive excerpt of Kim’s story “Seoul” here.
I spoke with Caroline Kim just before her book launch about how she developed her characters and what inspired her as she wrote this collection.
The Rumpus: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
Caroline Kim: The one that means the most to me is the title story, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts.” This story pushed me to a new level, in terms of what kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I wrote it about ten years ago at a time when I had stopped thinking of myself as a writer. I was struggling with my identity as a Korean, as an American, and as a Korean American, and how they were different. When you’re not sure who you are, it’s impossible to write clearly. At least, that’s true for me. A big part of what I felt I was missing was knowing where I came from. So I found myself wanting to read stories that were set in Korea, but feeling shut out of that because I didn’t read or write in Korean. Although I tried. For several semesters I studied Korean through UC Berkeley Extension but I quickly saw that I’d never reach the level where I could read a Korean novel or history book. So I searched the internet trying to find stories set in Korea but written in English. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much. I was pretty frustrated.
At the same time, I was reading a lot of Korean history but understanding very little. It was difficult making sense of a history based on Neo-Confucian ideals when all of my learning was based on Western thought. There was no way I could know Korean history the way I knew American history simply because all of my schooling took place here. So I asked myself, what’s a story that every Korean would know? In the way that all Americans know about the assassination of President Kennedy, or George Washington and the cherry tree, or 9/11.
That’s when I came upon Lady Hong’s journals and the Prince Sado story. It’s a shocking story, but at its most basic, it’s about a father-son relationship and how badly that can go, with room for lots of misunderstandings. It’s a great subject for a story because the father-son are also king and prince, so the stakes are quite high. In the journals, Lady Hong, who was Prince Sado’s wife, had to be very circumspect about what she revealed so there weren’t a lot of details. I found myself wondering about those details, like what his obsession with clothes looked like, how his relationship with his concubine was different from the one with his wife, in what ways he murdered people, gruesome as that is. I wrote it just for myself, and it brought back some of the joy in writing that I had lost.
Rumpus: What’s the biggest challenge you face when you sit down to write?
Kim: Language. Right away I have to start negotiating with it. Because some or all of my stories take place in a language other than English but because English is the only tool I have, I have to figure how I’m going to deal with it. In the story, “Mr. Oh” I decided to write it in broken English. Broken English often makes people sound simple, childish, unsophisticated, and incapable of complicated thinking or feeling. But I also felt it could be very expressive and beautiful. In writing this story I wanted to see if I could use it to show the inner life of a man who probably seems unknowable from the outside. I also use it to acknowledge that language was a barrier that imposed limitations on how deeply he could connect with his children.
This might be familiar to others who as children translated for their parents, but after years and years of doing it, I have this mechanism in my mind that automatically breaks down everything I hear and read into shorter, digestible chunks in simple language. But in high-brow, elite circles, especially, I feel simple language is undervalued. In writing classes, we’re told over and over again to choose dynamic verbs and avoid repetition, often for good reason. But does every story have to do this? Because this is the opposite of what’s useful when you’re translating for someone. You want to reuse the words they’re already familiar with, dressing them up to fit whatever context you’re talking about, especially in high-stress situations when it’s not easy to take in new information. But writing stories in this way, you run the risk of your story being seen as not well written, repetitive, and too simple when the problem may actually reside in the reader. Maybe, we as readers, need to learn to be more open minded when reading stories instead of holding one set of expectations for what stories we’ll consider worthy.
Rumpus: Did you have an audience in mind that you were writing for?
Kim: For a long time, I didn’t think anyone else would see these stories. So my audience was just myself. I don’t announce the race of a character unless it comes up naturally in the story, which actually comes up a lot if you’re Asian American because people want to know where you’re from. The thought that I could get a book published felt very remote; I couldn’t see my way there. Partly this came from the fact that I wrote so slowly—one story every few years. Part of it came from my struggling with my identity, realizing how much of what I thought of myself came from others. I wonder sometimes if I would have looked back to Korea so much if I had been more easily accepted as “American.” The fact that my place here was shaky made me think more about the place I’d come from. The rest came from a lack of confidence, serious self-doubt, and the fact that I did not see myself reflected in the literary landscape. I’ve heard and read other writers of color say similar things.
What finally made the difference for me was knowing myself better as I got older, of defining my identity for myself, feeling more stable. I also gained confidence in myself as I became a parent. This was a pleasant surprise. I’d always believed women writers had to choose between their art and having children, but for me, becoming a parent made me articulate for myself what I thought was truly important in life—making use of one’s abilities, being of service to others, and sharing whatever I learned of human nature and the world.
Rumpus: These stories have a universal appeal, but they are also distinctly Korean. There’s a certain toughness and resilience that comes through.
Kim: My overall feeling about being Korean is that we are survivors. Our long history is filled with stories of invasion by others. Just look at my parents: they were born during Japanese colonization which ended with WWII and then lived through the Korean War, the devastation of their country, and then the pain of rebuilding which for a time included life under a military dictatorship. I remember being shocked the first time I heard my mother speak fluent Japanese and then learning that her name had been Keoki. Because of that, I think to them the difficulty of growing up in a mostly white town in America was not a big deal to them. Of course, for me, it was the defining experience of my life. I was six years old when we moved to America and I had to grow up quickly. Everything was suddenly different, even the dynamics between my parents and me.
Whereas they had been the undisputed authority in all matters, now they had to rely on me to speak for them. We adjusted in whatever way we needed to in order to survive. And, not only to survive, but to live well. We were always striving. That feels Korean to me, too.
Rumpus: Have your parents read the stories?
Kim: They haven’t. Their English isn’t great, so it would be very hard for them to read it. I’ll admit I’ve also been hesitant about sharing my work with them, afraid that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m a little bit afraid they’ll think I’m making fun of them. But that’s mostly because they wouldn’t be able to fully understand it in English. If the book ever got translated into Korean, I’d definitely want them to read it. I do know that they’re really proud. Because education is so revered in the Korean culture, authors are given a lot of respect. They were thrilled when my uncle called and told them my book was on Amazon. That, more than anything, made it real for them!
Rumpus: Would you say your stories are in conversation with one another? Do you have any overarching themes?
Kim: I think what they share is a sense of loss—of country, culture, and relationships… the relationships the characters could have had in Korea and the ones they do have in America, which are made different because of the language barrier. When you don’t share a language, you can still express deep emotions like love, jealousy, hate, but it’s very difficult to understand each other’s experience. The exchanges end up being mostly about basic needs and wants because of the lack of vocabulary, and there’s a real loss there.
I didn’t deliberately pursue certain themes. But if I had to pick one, it would be the longing for connection, longing for a home, a sense of belonging, and an understanding that it doesn’t exist. Because even when immigrants go back to their country of origin, it’s never the same; the place has inevitably changed so much. I’ve only been back to Korea twice and each time the country seemed completely different to me.
Rumpus: How do you draw a line from Korean history to your more contemporary stories?
Kim: It’s simply a fact that we’re affected by history that we haven’t directly experienced. For me, that’s the Korean War. Even though I was born after the fighting stopped, and even though my parents rarely talked about it, I’ve always been aware of it. Once when I commented on how fast my father ate his dinner, my mother said it was because of the war. I remember being really struck by that, that living through a war could change how you ate, how you slept, how you moved, though, of course, it made sense once I thought about it. Later, I learned that my mother was from North Korea and had made a harrowing journey to the south, moving at night down a mountain in order to avoid being seen. She was eight or nine at the time and had to carry a younger sibling on her back. She and her family made it to Seoul and lived there for a short time until it became a battleground and then she went further south to Busan where she eventually met my father. If not for the war, I would most likely not be here!
Knowing these things affects my writing without my being aware of it. In the story, “Arirang,” the main character ends up in America after the war and I remember being surprised by that as I was writing it. When I started writing the story, I had no idea she would end up in Montana, but her experience mirrors that of many immigrants. You start out in one place and have no reason to think that life will ever be different but then a war breaks out or some other big historical event and you’re swept along by it. Your only choice then is to survive and make a new life wherever you end up.
I probably related to this so much because I was young when we moved to America and I was given no choice in the matter. Nobody asked me whether I wanted to live the rest of my life in a different culture. I just understood that I had to adapt, and make the most of it. Maybe this lack of agency is what makes me look back to the past—to see and understand what I’ve left behind.
Rumpus: The theme of mental illness and therapy appears in several stories: “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts,” “Magdalena,” “Mr. Oh,” and “Therapy Robot.” Do you think Koreans and Americans have different ideas about mental health and therapy, and more broadly, talking about difficult feelings?
Kim: I do feel mental illness is still only whispered about in the Korean American community. It’s still considered shameful, a failure in some way. Worse, a failure that could be passed down. Maybe this comes from the fact that bloodlines have been so important in Korean history. During the Yi Dynasty, if someone got convicted of treason, not only would they be punished but so would the following three generations. If treason could be inherited, just imagine what else— madness, feebleness, a homicidal tendency? Interestingly, in Prince Sado’s case, in order to prevent the stain of his mental illness from affecting his son’s ability to become king, the Korean court had to come up with an elaborate ruse. Since stability couldn’t be guaranteed if the son of an insane traitor was king, Prince Sado’s son was “adopted” by Sado’s half-brother, Prince Hyojang, who had died at the age of nine, before Sado was even born!
But I do think things are changing and I expect that mental illness will slowly become less stigmatized. I feel like everybody is becoming more aware about the need to take care of our mental health these days. One thing that’s currently a problem is the lack of Korean American therapists. I actually think more Asian people would seek out therapy if there were more Asian therapists. In some cases, there’s a language difficulty, but even when there isn’t, there is often a wide cultural barrier. I’ve experienced this myself. My first therapist, a wonderful woman, often made assumptions about what I was trying to say based on the experiences she’d had with other Asian people. I found myself saying, “Well, not exactly…” a lot. After a short time, I stopped going. At the time, I really needed someone who understood my context implicitly. I was surprised at how hard it was to find a Korean American therapist given that I live in the Bay Area. We need more Korean American therapists!
That’s part of the reason I’m in a program to become a licensed marriage/family therapist. Living between cultures, in a racist society, largely invisible, searching for a self-defined, stable identity, feeling pressured to present a successful façade can mess anybody up. And, that’s okay. As one of my characters, Mrs. Oh says: “Live too long, become crazy one way or another.” We’re all going to have troubled times in our lives. It’s okay to ask for help.
Photograph of Caroline Kim by Aria Kim-Brown.