Where are you from?
I have a friend, a gorgeous woman of color with turquoise eyes, who answers this question with another: how far back? Far enough, and you and I are relatives. More recently, in 1948, my Korean parents traveled to America for a year’s visit. The outbreak of the Korean War kept them here. I was born in New York, the last of six, have lived in a few other states and have been a District of Columbia resident for most of my life. Like half a million other DC residents, I pay federal taxes but have neither a vote in the House nor the Senate. Please write to your congressional representatives and ask them to support congressional voting rights for District of Columbia citizens like me.
Who are your favorite writers?
James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxine Hong Kingston, Philip Pullman, Wallace Stevens, Mary Oliver, Virginia Woolf, Younghill Kang, oh dear, the list goes on and on. Sometimes it’s more about favorite books—the ones reread every few years, such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I think all of what I read influences the writing. It’s like going to an art exhibition or seeing a good movie or play—a great book will kindle inspiration or shed light on a dim path into a story. A single word in an unusual context or a familiar thought expressed in a different way can give as much insight as being startled by a particular color or shape in a painting, or by a captive riff in a song.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
There was a hobby shop in Wheaton about half a mile from my parents’ house. It had trains, model cars and airplanes, Duco Cement, called dope, and rows of tiny glass bottles of shiny enamel paints. The kiddie section had beads, gimp, raffia, paint-by-number and potholder kits. I loved that hobby shop, though I could barely afford enough gimp to knot a bracelet. The American idea of hobbies epitomized in an entire store devoted to them was a fascinating thing.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
My son, Van, came up with four Rules for Living:
- Be nice to people.
- Do good work.
- Make art.
- Be healthy.
What is your favorite quote?
"He sees, in effect, his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable identity." —James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name "Pay attention and tell the truth. And in telling the truth, sometimes you tell it fictionally, sometimes you tell it nonfictionally." —Maxine Hong Kingston "In the beginning was the word…" John 1:1
What inspired you to write your first book?
Since I spoke little Korean and my mother spoke little English, her stories were a way we could talk to each other. My parents’ stories were essential to understanding and ultimately accepting the differences and bonds between Korean and American in my family. Realizing their life stories through fiction was a way to be fully Korean and American; and also their stories were laden with history and are simply amazing.