The Struggles are Entwined: Talking about Nuclear Family with Joseph Han


Joseph Han’s debut novel Nuclear Family follows the character Jacob Cho, who, when he is possessed by the ghost of his grandfather, attempts to run from South Korea to North Korea across the Demilitarized Zone. The book then explores how Jacob came to be haunted by his grandfather, as well as the reactions of Jacob’s family back in Hawai’i, and how they deal with the bad press Jacob’s actions bring down upon the chain of plate lunch restaurants they own and run. In turns funny, poignant, and political, Nuclear Family is an ambitious and rollicking first novel about intimate relationships and how history and ancestry form us as people.

Han himself promises to make a mark on our current literary landscape. He was recently named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35,” and is the recipient of a Kundiman Fellowship for fiction.

I was lucky enough to talk by phone with Joseph ahead of the book’s release.


The Rumpus: One of the primary settings of the novel is the Choi family’s plate lunch restaurant. What attracted you to that as a setting?

Joseph Han: My grandfather had a stint at a restaurant when we first immigrated to Hawai’i, so the novel mostly grew out of that. He didn’t work there very long, though his having worked there, and my own history and experience eating Korean food in Hawai’i (in particular at plate lunch restaurants) helped me to understand the Korean community’s place in Hawai’i. I definitely conceptualize the novel as a Korean plate lunch in itself, hopefully, with a bit of something for everyone.

Rumpus: In the spirit of having something for everyone, this novel also has multiple voices that tell the story. What drew you to a narration style in an alternating close third person rather than, say, first person?

Han: I initially wrote this book in alternating first person, switching between [the characters] Grace and Jacob. However, I found their voices to be unwieldy and kind of intense. I thought third person was the best way for me to explore and push beyond the parameters of these singular voices, beyond the nuclear family unit, and to explore the way family is considered such a precious gem, as well as an ideal often dangled before us. An alternating close third perspective helped me to look into the nuclear families’ many refractions and fissures, as who we consider family can actually foreclose building community, solidarity, and points of connection.

In the framing of the chapter titles, initially, that focus was on the subject or name of the character the chapter follows. The titles then switch to naming the kinship structures and intimacies that echo across the characters’ lives, while moving on to emphasize the genealogies or lineages that Korean communities do not have in Hawai’i, but must respect and reflect on daily as settlers on stolen and occupied lands, mainly the ancestral ties that Kānaka Maoli [native Hawai’ians] have to Hāloa, or the Kalo plant, and to ʻĀina, which translates to “the land which feeds.”

In this way, all the characters, really, must reconcile with where they stand in relation to each other and their family, and especially to Korea and Hawai’i, more broadly. Also, the structure and the naming of the chapters was partly inspired by the Bible and the way in which I was raised to study and read through its various books and characters.

Rumpus: Circling back to the character of Jacob, who at the beginning of the novel is distant from his family, both in terms of geography (he’s in Korea, and they’re in Hawai’i) and in terms of emotion. Why was it important for Jacob to be away from his family in both of these ways?

Han: I think Jacob’s story, and the novel as a whole, attempts to answer the question of what distances and separations remain fixed, especially as a part of the Korean diaspora, and amidst an ongoing war and division of the Korean peninsula for over seventy years.

By going back to Korea as a gyopo or diasporic Korean, Jacob must contend with these histories of war, violence, and occupation that made his immigrating to and returning from Hawai’i possible. In another sense, Jacob also left as a way to escape his family and the way they project their desires and wishes onto him within a hetero-patriarchal framework. In attempting to run away from his ghosts, however, he ends up back in their embrace and what they too want from his life. Ultimately, this is a book about searching for peace, reconciliation, reunification across distances and divides, and generational separations.

Rumpus: While Jacob spends much of the book physically distant from the other characters, his sister Grace spends much of the story stoned. What were the challenges of writing a character who passes so much of her time in an altered state of consciousness, and what advantages did that present, if any, for you?

Han: I think Grace’s narrative is analogous to Jacob’s in the way they both undergo and embody drastic transformations in the state of mind and body, and by coming back together, by the end of the novel, we have a queer Korean stoner ghost story. Say that five times fast.

Grace allows herself to fully embrace being a stoner in the same way Jacob gives in to possession. As a character that struggles with severe anxiety and depression, it was a challenge depicting her consciousness in a state of constant fluctuation between her highs and lows, while considering all of the emotional frequencies to which I could tap in that spoke to the edge, sharpness, or clarity, and on the other hand the disavowal, escape, and forgetting that smoking provides Grace. But it also deprives her of those very same things, as Grace is someone who feels incredibly lonely and at odds with the world around her and the people in it.

This also allowed me to infuse more humor and critique into the novel and play with the way form reflects content at the level of language to increase layers of meaning. I think there’s something very Korean about being able to joke and laugh while also being super-serious, and cry, too.

Writing this novel, I kept asking myself, “How far will we take this?” Ultimately, the answer was, “As far as the characters will it.” Of course, there are the moments when the characters come crashing down only to reevaluate what keeps them grounded, tethered to reality, and what relationship they have to land itself and what they hold sacred and dear. Tae-woo [Jacob’s grandfather] is such an incredible force throughout the novel, and I think we just see how much Grace may resemble him too, in that way, though they never meet.

It takes a certain tenacity to embrace being a stoner. It’s all you want to do sometimes as the daily driver and mode of being. I wonder if a lot of people will be turned off by these aspects of the book in the same way you might catch a whiff of something strong in the air and wonder with your nose up where it came from, but I wrote this book for the folks who want to follow it back to the source and maybe join in on the circle.

The slacker narrative in Korean American literature is thriving right now, with books like Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier and Go Home, Ricky! by Gene Kwak, two books that I love dearly, and I’m proud to be in their company in that regard. I like to think that our characters would all hang out.

Rumpus: Now that we are talking about other books that might be in good company with Nuclear Family, I’d like to ask if there are authors or books that you see as influences for your novel.

Han: Absolutely. The book starts off with an epigraph from Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, which was one of the first Korean American texts I read as I started to think more deeply about what it means to write Korean characters and Korean history. That epigraph was central to my thinking through this book, its premise concerning the Korean DMZ, and the ways in which I describe the spiritual border as a force that is keeping not only the living, but the dead, apart across the peninsula. Reading that section of Comfort Woman cut deep, and it’s a text I’ve lingered on for the longest time.

Around that same time, I was reading Alexander Chee for the first time, as well as Chang-Rae Lee, so, really, the whole of Korean American literature informed and shaped the direction of this book. A friend once told me that all Korean American stories are stories about war and separation because the Korean war is technically still ongoing, and I really took that to heart. That thought inspired me and pushed me to constantly return and go to the DMZ in my work.

On a formal level, I was influenced by R. Zamora Linmark, and Rolling the R’s, which is a classic and is frequently taught at the University of Hawai’i. The opening and the myth-making around Tae-woo and the wall, and the mythology around the life of the spiritual border was heavily inspired by Toni Morrison and Song of Solomon, and also the work of Mohsin Hamid. Patrick Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace helped. I thought Cottrell’s book reflected what I was trying to do regarding tone and humor, while also balancing that with darker subjects. Justin Torres, NoViolet Bulawayo, Julie Otsuka, Garth Greenwell. There are so many influences all coming together in this one book.

I had the secret goal to set out to write a classic of my own heart, so that was the daily driving force. R. O. Kwon, who was my mentor at Tin House, told us that you should approach your work, and really anything that you’re writing, as if you were placed on this planet to do exactly that.

Rumpus: Those words are a powerful guide. Lack of confidence can be a killer when you’re trying to get something done, right? Writing’s such a lonely process.

Circling back a bit, there are three different characters, Peter, Jacob, and Tae-woo, who reflect on the presence of soldiers in the area that they’re in, or the idea of occupied territory. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to that theme or how that theme works in the book?

Han: Sure. This book became a reckoning for me with the history of US military occupation across the globe, and of US empire. Anywhere you go on the island of O’ahu, you’ll see helicopters or jets or V-22 Osprey flying across the sky, whomping and making noise and taking you out of the reality that the island is not, in its entirety, one big military base.

About twenty percent of Hawai’i is under the control of the military because of its “strategic location” in the Pacific—the same Navy that is poisoning our water right now with 100 million gallons of jet fuel, still sitting directly above our primary drinking aquifer, which have yet to be drained despite an order from the Department of Defense. That might take a year, but the Navy’s own estimates say that there’s a thirty percent chance of another catastrophic leak happening within the year, so we’re all really worried about that.

This is the same Navy that overthrew and illegally annexed the kingdom of Hawai’i, so it could stake a claim to Pu’uloa, which is now commonly referred to as Pearl Harbor. Likewise, the Korean peninsula was occupied by the US as a strategic asset for its military, and this continues to hamper peace efforts in favor of constant war. In that way, I don’t see Korea’s division and call for reunifications separate from the movement for Hawai’ian sovereignty and demilitarization. The struggles are entwined.

Through these characters, I wanted to explore how a liberal multicultural Hawai’i and the island of Oahu are being touted as a “gathering place” where everyone is family, your uncle and aunty. That’s far from the case, and only upholds the illusion that people who live in Hawai’i are accommodating to not only your tourist vacation, but your US military and the desecration and destruction both industries reap on Kānaka Maoli lands and ways of life.

Having the premise of the novel set in the months leading up to the false missile alert is my way of highlighting how militarized realities already threaten the land and people on which they rest, and how narratives of national security posit that that threat is always elsewhere and always looming, when it’s already here. US military occupation brings violence across the globe, poisons our climate and all life forms.

Rumpus: In addition to the themes surrounding military power and occupation, there’s also an important theme around possession or haunting. Jacob becomes possessed by the ghost of his grandfather, and during that possession, becomes removed from his experiences. Yet Jacob already feels like a character who holds himself at a distance from his daily life and the people around him. I was wondering if there was a way in which that possession actually frees Jacob from being himself, at least temporarily.

Han: I think that’s a wonderful reading of Jacob as a character. There definitely comes a moment where Tae-woo frees Jacob of his inhibition and Jacob allows himself to be swayed by the force of his grandfather’s will, though to the detriment of his own, when he realizes they are misaligned and that his, i.e., Jacob’s, life has been misappropriated. In a way, Jacob is granted access to explore who he would’ve been, had he remained in Korea with his family.

Jacob’s possession by his grandfather is, at first, determined by performing a kind of Jesa or ancestral rite, a communion with the dead to ensure they are remembered and fed in the afterlife. Here, too, Jacob cannot quite escape the patriarchal dynamic of this practice of family which is commonly initiated by the eldest son or male heir in families.

Soon he learns his situation—that of being possessed—is something where both Jacob and Tae-woo are biting off more than they can chew regarding their relationship and dynamic. Eventually Jacob begins to understand why his grandfather would choose to stop at nothing to return to the north. That leads Jacob to the matrilineal story of his grandmother, whose tale of separation unlocks the heart of his own suffering, as it’s connected to his parents and informed by the distances that continue to organize his life as a diasporic Korean and someone born on the other side of the divide.

As the novel progresses, he quite literally starts to embody this divide in many different ways, in relation to what he feels and doesn’t feel, what control he has or doesn’t have over himself, and how his own wishes to understand his family origins almost allow him to give in completely to Tae-woo’s antics and Tae-woo’s larger scheme to take advantage of Jacob.

Rumpus: How long did it take to write the novel, and what was that process like for you?

Han: I started dreaming of the book in 2017, right after I finished my area exams for the Ph.D. I did in literatures and histories of US immigration, as well as an area on Asian American lit with a focus on Korean American fiction and an area on short stories.

I wrote the book within the timeframe of graduate school and wanting to graduate in four years, which was really fast. I ended up writing a first draft by the end of 2018. I spent most of that year just getting the story down and writing through the plot of Jacob’s failed attempt at crossing the DMZ.

Initially, a version of the novel actually saw him accomplish the goal and was about him being detained in North Korea, as opposed to having failed and being detained by the South Korean government. I changed direction after the Inter-Korean summit in early 2018.

That totally changed the premise of the novel. Seeing the two leaders meet across the slab dividing the Koreans made me rethink why I wanted to go there, literally, with the character. That helped me to reshape the intention behind why I would have his story take place in North Korea.

I revised the novel throughout 2019 when I graduated, with a lot of help from Danielle Bukowski who is an absolutely amazing agent and who helped me to reshape and restructure the novel as a whole. I revised the book all throughout 2019 and going into fall of 2020 when that summer, the book sold to Counterpoint. I worked on it with my editor, Jenny Alton, going into spring 2021, all throughout the pandemic.

The hardest part of the book, really, was contending with and understanding the wall. Quite literally, coming up against the blank page, oftentimes, I felt like Tae-woo staring at the wall, figuring out how to defeat it. Tae-woo’s drive and tenacity to overcome this divide very much became the spirit behind my own approach to finishing the book.

Rumpus: Are you working on anything new right now?

Han: Yes. I’m currently working on essays, and for what feels like the first time, getting ready to embrace my own narrative voice. I’m also working on editing and revising my story collection, which extends the work that Nuclear Family does looking at the lives of diasporic Korean communities in Hawai’i.

It’s very much a part of the same world that Nuclear Family establishes. It returns to familiar characters from the novel, like Jacob and Grace, at different points of their lives, so building out a little fictional universe, I guess.



Author photo by Huan He

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Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Passages North, Midwestern Gothic, Bust, and elsewhere. You can find her online at or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares. More from this author →