I'm pleased to present Eugenia Kim, author of the touching story of The Calligrapher's Daughter. Eugenia has happily answered a few questions for this interview.
When were you inspired to write The Calligrapher's Daughter?
In the late 1990s, I began to write as a way to do something creative without having to lug around paints, giant sheets of paper and canvases. I wrote a story based on a ghost story that's part of my family lore. That story kept growing, and grew to be something larger than I knew how to handle. So I went to school to figure out what I was doing and to explore if I should be writing these stories as nonfiction or fiction.
Which of the topics examined in the story (The Rebellion, life for priests etc) did you have to research?
I was born in the U.S., and am more American than Korean. I deeply feared getting the historical part wrong (I would be found out as a Korean imposter!) so I did a ton of research on Korean history, especially about the Colonial Period. It's probably the main reason why this book took more than ten years to write. When I began researching, I was surprised that little was available (in English) about this period, and even less was available about the women of this period. Combined with the Asian tradition of silencing women, this vacuum intrigued me, and further inspired me to tell my mother's story.
Have you been to the places in Najin's life? Did you get to make a special trip to investigate the place where Calvin proposed to her?
The beach in Wonsan, now in North Korea, is a fictional location, though there is a beach and busy port there. When the book was almost whole, I went to Korea for the first time. The impact of that visit was more about validation than adding information, though I fine-tuned a number of details. The thing that most moved me was to see my mother's hometown in the distance, across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea through high-powered binoculars. The city is now full of high-rises, bit its valley topography was exactly as I had imagined it. I had chills! I also met family members in Seoul whom I've never met, and with the family history resonating from having written the book, the visits felt deeply meaningful.
Can you write calligraphy? Is it something you researched while writing the story?
I'm not a calligrapher, but my uncle was (one of his scrolls hangs in the hallway outside my office), as was my maternal grandfather. In traditional times, to be a scholar was to be a calligrapher, but my grandfather and uncle were also both exceptional artists.
Najin is a wonderful character to read about. I came to care about her a lot in the book. When you first started writing the book, did you know how badly she was going to be treated by Calvin's family, or was this a plot twist that unfolded while you wrote the book?
Some have said that for an Asian woman to be mistreated by one's in-laws is cliché, so I'm gratified that you asked this question, and thank you for the kind words about Najin. The story of her life with her in-laws is very much based on my mother's experience, though I changed some characters and characterizations. She did sleep in a linen closet when my father's sister came home to live with a newborn, and there were problems with her father-in-law. But she never told my father the truth about those years, and only told this story to me several years after my father had passed away in 1987. The bitterness in her voice was unmistakable.
The part where Najin and Calvin were separated - I didn't think she'd ever see him again. Did you ever consider leaving him out of Najin's life forever?
That's one of the wonderful things about fiction—the possibilities are truly as limited as one's imagination is. I actually never considered leaving him out of Najin's life because I was so struck by my father's story about seeing his wife after their separation (reality, it was nine years; in the book, it's eleven). When he first saw her at the door, wearing beat-up men's shoes, hunger lining her face, he was so quietly emotional he could barely retell the story. He said that he swore to himself at that moment that she would never worry about food or money again. And it's true that my mother never learned how to balance a checkbook, though--being a survivor of destitution--she was naturally frugal.
What was your favourite part of the book?
Even after thinking about this, I'm hard-pressed for an answer. I do think the front part of the book is a slow build, a foundation of culture and restraint, so that when we finally get to the beach and Najin laughs with her friend on vacation and then meets Calvin, it feels like an emotional release. My favourite character is the scholar Han, Najin's father.
Are you able to tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment? Will there be future work with Najin and Calvin in?
Um. Yes, I'm working.
Thanks so much!
I'd like to thank Eugenia for the interview, and for writing an engaging book. I'm looking forward to more by her.