Korean-American Janie's family has lost a daughter in each generation, her grandmother says. So when her younger sister Hannah suddenly vanishes, Janie sets out to track her down through a labyrinth of family secrets and difficult history.
"Forgotten Country," Catherine Chung's debut novel, weaves Korean folklore and a host of linked and opposing pairs -- Korea and the United States, North and South Korea, American-born children and their immigrant parents, two very different sisters -- into a spare, haunting tale of loss, yearning and discovery.
Chung spoke with Reuters about writing, how her university mathematics major may have influenced her work, and her book, which goes on sale March 1 and has been praised by the likes of award-winning author Chang-rae Lee.
Q: What was your inspiration?
A: "There were a couple of stories that just got me started writing, and I didn't know at the time how they would come together. The story that happens at the beginning with the boy falling out of the window, the story about the hermit girl in Korea whose father raised her in seclusion from the rest of the world, and then there was the story about my father's sister. My father had a sister who disappeared when he was a child.
"I started writing and knew these stories were central in my mind but I didn't know how they all fit together. I had to make a story that could fold in all three... In the end, they're all about a certain kind of loss, trying to hold onto a world or a thing or a person that's already gone. The desire to save it."
Q: This kind of loss seems like something that might develop out of leaving a country or homeland.
A: "Yes, I think that they are related. There are conflicting desires. The first is to save the thing that is already gone and I guess the second is to move on, or to plunge into life in a certain way. How do you plunge into life and also hang onto the thing that is in the past, or is lost, or you are in the process of losing? A sort of pulling from both directions. It was about the tension of these two things."
Q: How did you develop this pair of sisters?
A: "I always knew that I was writing about two sisters, but it took me a long time to get to know them. I think I wanted to write about sisters because sisters are so close, but also because I felt really connected to both of them. They both appealed to different aspects of myself.
"I was also interested in exploring the break between the two Koreas, in a distant way. It seemed in my mind a sort of metaphor: the break between family, the break between sisters, the break within a country."
Q: Is there much from your life in this book?
A: "That's a difficult question to answer because I feel that as a writer, everything that you write, everything in you, informs everything you think and write. So I feel like yes, everything that has ever happened to me has informed what I've written in my book. My father's appearance in the book isn't at all about his experience or the experience of the family he's in, and in the book it's turned around so it's another sister that disappears. So I guess my answer would be yes and no. There are lots of things that have happened in my life that are in here, like my experiences of isolation, my experiences of loneliness or love or guilt or beauty... All those things are in there but they're so transformed, because I've given these things to these other characters who are different."
Q: How did your love of math and studying it influence you?
A: "I feel that any kind of really intense studying anything changes the way that you think about the world, or even just the way you interpret things that happen. I think that doing math in some weird way almost gave me -- I don't know if I'm going way out here, I'm not even sure I believe it -- but I think that studying math might have given me a sense of narrative even, because when you do proofs you have to show how one thing leads to another. I might be making a giant leap there.
"Also, the thing about math is how clean it is. Writing isn't always clean -- and actually, math isn't always clean -- but in the final product you strive for greater and greater clarity. I think that my process in writing is often like that, to take whatever is chaos in my mind and distill it and distill it until it does something."
Q: You said figuring out the structure was hard?
A: "I think that I just had to move a lot of things around. I had to read it over and over again, and pay really close attention to what the book was trying to do and then try to follow it. I know that sounds vague, but that's really what it felt like.
"I'll just have to tell you one part -- I don't think I can answer in its entirety. But I noticed when I was writing it, the characters in this book have so many secrets. They're all hiding so many things, and it's not easy for them to try and talk to each other. It was hard to write them because they're slippery.
"All of the characters are also holding their ground. Part of the tension in the book is that the characters all want different things. They're all trying to protect themselves in certain ways. I think the realization I had was that, structurally, they're all going to have to give up a little. That that tension doesn't get to remain in the same way, there has to be a break. Their defense has to crack somewhere. But they're all trying to hold on -- to an idea of themselves, to an idea of what their family is. So when I told you that this book is so much about holding on to this lost world, I think what I realized structurally is that they don't get to hold on, actually. That they lose what they're trying to hold on to, that they have to let go."