Writing Toward Feeling: Talking with Jean Kyoung Frazier

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When I first came across Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel, Pizza Girl, the title and the summary immediately grabbed me. Called “fresh, funny, and bittersweet” by the New York Times Book Review, Pizza Girl is a wry and moving coming-of-age story about eighteen-year-old Jane, a pregnant pizza delivery girl refusing to take responsibility for her future and struggling to navigate grief and family trauma.

Pizza Girl made me cry and laugh in equal measure. The deadpan hilarity of Jane’s observations contrasts powerfully with her feelings of hopelessness and her turbulent memories of her alcoholic father, who she fears she resembles. When Jane meets Jenny, a hapless, free-spirited, stay-at-home mother whose weekly orders of pickle-covered pizzas intrigue her, she slowly becomes obsessed with her and falls into increasingly self-destructive patterns as she ignores her loving mother and boyfriend and attempts to keep memories of her troubled childhood at bay.

In addition to feeling stuck in a life she does not want, Jane, who is half-Korean, also meditates on han, a uniquely Korean concept that encompasses feelings of resentment and sorrow. The book describes han as follows: “Han was a sickness of the soul, an acceptance of having a life that would be filled with sorrow and resentment and knowing that deep down, despite this acceptance, despite cold and hard facts that proved life was long and full of undeserved miseries, ‘hope’ was still a word that carried warmth and meaning.”

Based in Los Angeles, Jean Kyoung Frazier is a Korean American writer and a graduate of the Columbia University MFA Writing Program. Pizza Girl is her first novel, and is a Lambda Literary finalist. We spoke recently by phone and discussed han and grief, queer desire and attraction, why our society loves to love—and hate on—slackers, and learning to develop confidence in your work.

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The Rumpus: When you’re writing, what do you think makes something funny, particularly when you’re talking about topics where it might be difficult to find the humor?

Jean Kyoung Frazier: I was surprised that people found [the book] funny. I didn’t really go into it with that intention; it really is just that some things are unavoidably funny. And that’s the type of joke I like to write—where it’s not punchline humor, but just letting details speak for themselves. Like at the beginning of the book, there’s a line: “My dad didn’t have any money to leave us. He did have a ‘99 Ford Festiva.” It’s a line that isn’t designed just for laughs. Even if you don’t laugh, it’s still delivering information, adding color and humanity. But of course, I’m always happy to hear when people find a line like that funny, because I do also think it’s funny. Things are sad and fucked up, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny, too.

Rumpus: Your book talks very openly about han in a way that I haven’t seen much in fiction. Could you talk a bit about your own understanding of han?

Frazier: As a writer, I find stuff like that so interesting because that’s what our entire work is, is finding the right words to describe stuff. But with feelings like that, it’s sometimes like throwing darts without knowing where the target is, just hoping you hit something, that you can tell a story or describe a moment that encapsulates that feeling.

Do you remember the Korean Red Devils, the soccer team? In 2002, I was pretty young, but I remember they made the semifinals, which was huge. Everyone was so excited. My family, my mom—she has six brothers and sisters—they’re not sports people at all, but I remember we woke up at like 3 a.m. that day, and my Uncle Bruce had been in Koreatown a few days before and had gotten us all these shirts that said “Be the Reds,” and we all put them on, and we sat in our little basement, and we watched the game. And, classically, we lost. It was just so funny, my family’s reaction to the loss was just like, “Well, of course.” They expected it to happen, but they couldn’t help but watch anyway.

Rumpus: When you started writing the novel, was the exploration of han something that you thought you might put in?

Frazier: Not necessarily. And you can tie that to the feeling of han itself—counting myself out before I’ve even tried, the nervousness to even try, because it’s like, Who am I to explain that feeling? I guess I knew it had to be a part of the book because I felt like if I wanted to talk about Koreanness, I had to also talk about this big part of our cultural identity. I didn’t know if I would necessarily spell it out, but it just worked. It fit in with the flow of the story and the character’s stuck, trapped feeling, her curiosity over the culture her mom has neglected to teach her about.

Rumpus: In an interview at Electric Literature, you discussed the idea of your book being part of this subgenre of “slacker fiction,” as well as why it’s important to have female slackers. I feel like in American culture, we’re really drawn to slackers, even as we might repudiate them. Why do you think that is?

Frazier: It’s a kind of character that’s so interesting to me and probably a character I’ll write about for my whole career. That fascination must come from the fact that everyone has those instincts inside of them, like, What the fuck am I doing? Where am I going? How do I get there? Some people are better at tamping those questions down than others.

I think when people shit on characters like that it’s because they don’t want to be reminded of those questions, or that there’s something about watching a lost, fuck-up character who makes them uncomfortable, reminds them of the ugliness, the difficulty of life. If that character is also woman, well, there are going to be even more issues since beauty and perfection are so inherent to how we view and judge women. It feels really important to, even if it’s difficult, talk about characters that don’t live up to societal expectations, because ultimately, the way you make people feel ugly is by not having nuanced and widespread portraits of them in popular, mainstream media.

Rumpus: As we spend more time with this character, we really get a sense that she’s dealing with all this repressed trauma and grief, specifically regarding her relationship with her father. What was it like writing a character that is so self-aware but also making these incredibly bad decisions as a result of all this trauma?

Frazier: It’s not fun to write about a person making bad decisions, but like I said, it feels really important. I remember my editor and I were talking about the book’s ending and her big thing was, “The epilogue doesn’t really feel like an epilogue since it doesn’t feel like the character has had a great life change.” And that was the point for me—it’s kind of like a joke epilogue. Not a joke in the sense of, Haha, isn’t this funny? but like, I wanted to fuck with people’s expectations as readers.

We crave neat, wrapped-up endings, but real life doesn’t often provide those. Shit happens and that doesn’t always prompt change or growth. Real change, real growth often happens slowly, gradually. I’d like to say that every time I’ve made a mistake, I’ve never made that same mistake again, or that I could point to a moment and say, “That’s the moment I knew that I was going to turn my life around,” but I can’t.

Rumpus: How did you decide to tell the story in the first person?

Frazier: With this, first person just seemed so natural. You know how sometimes third can provide a really cool authorial distance, and you feel almost like God themself is narrating the story? That didn’t feel right for Pizza Girl. I wanted this to feel more like you’re actually talking to this girl, or this girl is just talking at you. I think you have to have that personal connection to a character like this to be able to bear any of it—and it’s still pretty difficult to bear at times, even with that closeness.

It’s easy to be anti-sentimental, to be a little cold, and I think that’s a great disservice to some stories. Sometimes, you just have to lean into the emotionality, into the angst and the drama. It really depends on the effect of the voice you want, like what you want your voice to leave the reader feeling. Third person can feel a little bit more crafted to me, and that can really help certain stories and certain novels—it’s fun to see the strings. But if you want a reader to feel as lost and desperate as the character, I prefer first person.

Rumpus: One of the many things that I thought the book did very well was in making Jane’s realization of her own queerness a really important part of the book, but not necessarily the source of the main conflict. Was that a conscious decision on your part, in terms of writing that aspect of the story and her attraction to Jenny?

Frazier: Definitely. That was the part that I was really nervous about writing, too. Similar to the Korean community, I wanted people within the queer community to feel like I did well. It’s just also been a long, tough road to accepting myself.

I remember my first year in my MFA program, I was dating someone long-distance, and I was at this bar with my cohort and I just brought up my girlfriend offhandedly—at that time, I was making an effort to be open about myself and my life—and a friend said, “I had no idea you were gay.” My initial reaction, I didn’t even think about it, was, “Oh, thank you.” Later, I felt so ashamed that that was how I reacted. I thought I was comfortable with who I was, but there was still this part of me that was pleased to be straight-passing. There was self-hate, internalized homophobia, still buried deep. These hateful feelings can get drilled in to you so early and become so difficult to untangle and scoop out.

It’s been moving to see so many more queer voices be heard in fiction and I wanted to add to that, to create something that would maybe help a young person like me move past all those ugly feelings. There’s been so many great coming out stories, but I wanted to make one where same-sex attraction wasn’t a big deal because it really shouldn’t be a big deal. Jane thinks about her sexuality, but obviously her problems are so much bigger in scope than just who she’s attracted to.

Rumpus: I got that sense that even the secondary and tertiary characters in the novel, like Jane’s coworkers and the regular customers, all have lives outside of what we see of them. Did you map out all the characters first, or did they come to you while you were putting the draft together?

Frazier: I met a lot of odd folks while delivering pizzas, and I also just love creating side characters in my fiction, even if they only appear for a line. In fact, I like it better when they only appear for a line because then I have to be really precise with my word choice and what details I assign to them. There’s such great pleasure when you read a description and you’re like, I totally know that person, I can see them so clearly.

Rumpus: You wrote the first pages of the novel toward the end of your time in the MFA. How did the rest of the writing process go from there?

Frazier: This is why, in some ways, I feel like I’m not meant to be a full-time writer—I just like doing a lot of things, being busy, not just writing. I was writing the book when I was working a full-time job—a couple jobs, actually. I would have to get up at 5 a.m. to work on it. I would sit in this fold-out camping chair I had, and I would tinker. I honestly don’t really remember too much of it other than getting up every morning and really trying, if not to write, then to at least look at it and think about it. I always think that’s important—opening the Word document every day and living in it for a little bit.

Rumpus: As Korean Americans, we come from a culture where it can feel risky to pursue the arts. How does it feel now to have the book out in the world?

Frazier: I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been having to learn how to dream. Growing up, I didn’t really know any Korean people who wrote creatively. So, while it’s really inherent to some people to think, If I want it, I’m going to get it, I’ve never felt that way. But I’m okay with that. I think it’s made me work harder, appreciate everything more. While this whole process has been complicated and really fucked with my anxiety, it’s also been moving to see people, especially those I love and hold dear, read the book and be affected by it.

I’ve also had friends I grew up going to Korean church with or who I played in Asian basketball leagues with, who have messaged me after reading my book saying, “I love reading, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer, too, but have felt too shy to try,” and I’m like, “Oh my God, please try! Do it! You got this!”

Rumpus: If you could meet yourself from a year ago, before the book came out, knowing what you know now about the publication process and what it would be like to have the book out in the world, what advice would you give that version of yourself?

Frazier: Right off the bat, I would tell her, “You are absolutely right.” I am such a nervous person, and I remember the happy feelings of selling the book wore off very quickly and I was deeply, intensely anxious. I had thoughts like, Oh God, is this how I’m going to feel the entire time before my book comes out?

And I would love to go back and tell that one-year-ago-me: “Yes, you will feel this way the entire time before your book comes out, but that’s okay—you are who you are. You’re going to get better at dealing with that anxiety, and it’s good. It’s good to care. It’s good to want your work to be good.” I would also say, “You’re very lucky, luckier than most. You’re going to have people in your corner and people that love your book and see you, and the story you wanted to tell.”

Rumpus: You attended the MFA program at Columbia. In what ways do you feel like your MFA experience impacted your journey as a writer?

Frazier: I feel lucky that I can say I had a great experience in the program. I think the best thing it taught me, frankly, is how to move past feedback. I love workshop. I think it’s amazing. I also think that you shouldn’t always take it too seriously. I only workshopped twenty pages of Pizza Girl in my last semester. I remember a guy I really respect in my class, who I think is smart and talented, whose work I really like, said, “I don’t know. I think it might be better as a short story.” Immediately, I felt my heart just seize up, like “Oh God.” And then in the next moment, I thought to myself, No, I think he’s wrong.

You’re always still going to have that “Ahh!” moment when someone says, “I don’t think this is good,” but you have to also be able to bounce back and say, “Well, you’re just one person,” or “You haven’t seen the whole thing; you don’t know what I’m doing yet.” I think it’s really that confidence with my work that the program gave me. I wasn’t even actively thinking that I was gaining that confidence over the course of two years, but I was. I was also realizing which readers I cared the most about, the ones I really wanted to speak to, whose feedback mattered the most to me. It’s easy to forget why you write and what the whole fucking point is, but it’s ultimately, at least for me, to reach people that have had similar experiences to me, that need narrators like the ones I’m writing.

Rumpus: I think it feels like everything just to see reflections of yourself refracted through the stories of others.

Frazier: When I sold my book, a friend at a production company told me that one of her coworkers had read my book and asked me if I’d want to grab a drink with them. So, me and a few of them were just chilling at this bar downtown, and we eventually started talking about my book, and it led to everyone talking about their early experiences exploring their sexualities, and I found it so moving, I had to go to the bathroom for a second and have a happy cry. Because, whoa, something that I created sparked an honest and vulnerable conversation.

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Photograph of Jean Kyoung Frazier by Vamsi Chunduru.


Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the communications manager at PEN America and an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Catapult, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, F(r)iction, Fugue, Wigleaf, Waxwing, Split Lip Magazine, Jellyfish Review, the VIDA Review, and LIT Magazine. Her stories have been recognized by the Black Warrior Review Contest, the Los Angeles Review Literary Awards, the CRAFT Elements Contest, and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer's Contest, as well as named Longform Fiction Pick of the Week. Find her at @ginathechung on Twitter or gina-chung.com. More from this author →