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Interview: Catherine Chung

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Photo by Ayano Hisa.

Catherine Chung was one of Granta’s New Voices in 2010. Her first book, the novel Forgotten Country, is published this month by Riverhead. Granta’s Patrick Ryan talks with the author about the inception of her novel, and how stories from the past, a fascination with sisterhood and math came into play.

PR: What is the ‘forgotten country’ in the book? Is there more than one possible meaning in the title?

CC: I came up with this title around the time when I was doing a lot of research into the Korean War, which is also sometimes called the Forgotten War. The idea of that blew my mind – just how something as large as a war can be forgotten, and how in forgetting it you’re also forgetting the country that fought it and was divided by it – the title came from that and then seemed to resonate with the history of the particular family in Forgotten Country.

They’ve lost their homeland – not just the Korea they leave behind, but also the Korea that existed and was lost before it: before the split from the Korean War and before Japanese Occupation, when it was still a whole country. That initial loss echoes in all the others. In a similar way, I liked how the histories of the family – the national and the personal ones – are encompassed by this title, which is also – I think – about the lost unity of the family itself.

Sibling rivalry plays a large part in the novel. One of the major arcs involves the narrator and her sister and their struggle to come to terms with both their past and present. How important was it to you that this rivalry be resolved? And do you have a sister?

I don’t have a sister – I have an older brother, but I have always been really interested in sisterhood, which is filled with such complexity of emotion. There’s the possibility of so much intimacy, but also competitiveness and dependency and blame. It’s so fraught.

It was important to me that the rivalry or the issues between Janie and Hannah be engaged, that they would both be forced to face up to One day my aunt disappeared, and my family thought she’d been kidnapped by North Koreans who were raiding dorms and taking girls. their longing for closeness as well as the ways in which they’ve both made it so difficult for their family to be together – but I don’t know if I ever expected an actual resolution to come out of that, not in the sense that everything is good now between them. I don’t believe that real relationships between anyone actually work like that. I wanted there to be hope for that though, for the possibility of it to be real and clear between them.

Can you tell us a little about the aunt you didn’t know you had until recently? Both your aunt and your character Hannah vanish. The former was a real-life, horrible incident you found out about after the fact; the latter you chose to invent. Did what happened to your aunt influence your approach to the novel?

I still know almost nothing about what really happened – out of habit or grief or a lingering sense of danger, my paternal aunt just wasn’t talked about – all I know is that one day my aunt disappeared, and my family thought she’d been kidnapped by North Koreans who were raiding dorms and taking girls. When I first heard this story, it was like discovering a window in a house I’d always lived in, that looked upon some other world that was nothing like where I thought I lived. Writing about disappeared siblings allowed me access into that other world that I couldn’t otherwise slip into.

Janie, your narrator, is a complex character. She’s very forthcoming with the reader as the story unfolds, and yet she ends up realizing things about herself for the first time. What do you think is her biggest self-revelation?

I think Janie would tell you that all she wants is for there to be peace in her family, and for everyone to be happy. She’s grown up so afraid of Writing about disappeared siblings allowed me access into that other world that I couldn’t otherwise slip into. her family falling apart, of losing her sister, losing her father, and she feels so out of control – she just wants to hold on to everything, to keep it all together. And I think the biggest moments of self-revelation for her are when she realizes that even though she’s felt so powerless and helpless, the ways in which she’s been holding on, the ways she tries to force everyone to stay peacefully together – is part of what’s driving everyone apart. She needs to learn to let go, to let the things she’s most afraid of happen, to let life and loss happen.

The father in Forgotten Country is facing the biggest of all challenges: a life-threatening illness he has a very slim chance of surviving. How would you sum up his character?

He’s an idealist, and he loves his family. There’s a purity to him that I love: a kind of honor and courage that I admire.

Is he the ‘hero’ of the novel?

I think the father is for sure one of the heroes of the novel, but I think the really unsung hero is the mother in the book. She’s the one who makes it possible for the father to be the idealist he is, because she keeps it together. She’s the one who ends up getting Janie to search for Hannah, and the one who finally gets Hannah to come home. I think she’s the strongest person in the family, and the most ferocious: she’s the one who’s had to sacrifice the most to keep the family together, and yet she abides by them, and feeds them, and sings to them, and tells them stories.

You have a background in mathematics. Do you feel that might influence the way you write?

I think that my appreciation of what’s considered beautiful or elegant in math definitely carried over into what I appreciate in other fields as well. Math teaches you to state your idea as clearly and cleanly as possible: Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler,’ and I think that’s definitely true in math, but it’s also something I strive for when writing. ■

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung is published by Penguin USA and available from Barnes & Noble, here.

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