On The Importance Of Writing A War Novel Through The Eyes Of A Woman

Talking with Crystal Hana Kim about ‘If You Leave Me’

PHOTO OF CRYSTAL HANA KIM BY NINA SUBIN

Whether we speak of fiction or non-fiction, there is perhaps no narrative as robustly represented as the war story. Well, maybe the love story. Or maybe those are the same thing? No matter the case, most of these stories—the war stories, in particular—have one thing in common: They are told from the point of view of men, prioritizing their perspectives over those of women.

In Crystal Hana Kim's beautiful, devastating debut novel, If You Leave Me, this narrative trope is subverted, as Kim centers her story around the life of Haemi, whose journey takes her from her time as a teenage refugee at the onset of the Korean War and through to her life as a wife and mother in the tumultuous years that follow. 

Though Kim's narrative jumps in perspective, from that of Haemi to those of her husband, Jisoo, and his cousin, Kyunghwan (both of whom are love interests for Haemi), as well as of Haemi's brother, Hyunki, and her daughter, Solee, this is Haemi's story, one which shows with clarity and insight the ways in which women are deeply affected by the exigencies of the world around them. It is a story rooted in a singular time and place, offering a lucid glimpse of a world and culture in the midst of a dramatic transition. It also offers a finely wrought portrait of what it was like to be a woman dealing with mental health issues, particularly as they relate to pregnancy and motherhood, before those issues were even vaguely understood. It is a story of empathy and grace, one that immerses readers into a world of strife and sacrifice, loss and redemption, a moving recounting of the way trauma is embedded in our bodies and minds for generations after it is first felt.

Below, I speak with Kim about If You Leave Me, why it was the story she felt compelled to tell, and what lessons it offers readers today.

Why is this is a story you wanted to tell? What inspired you to explore this time and this place and these people?
For me, writing is something that I need to do. If I'm not writing, I'm not happy. When I started writing in college, I really pushed away from writing about anything related to Korea. And, I think, it was because I was worried that that's all I could write about, and I wanted to push against that and try to write about different people. But what happened was that my stories were really vague and blurry. So, it took me a while to realize that writing about my history is not something that confines me. I think what made me realize this is I come from a family where they love to tell stories, especially my mother and my maternal grandmother. I don't know if it's unique, but I know many Korean American people of my generation who want to know about their grandparents' lives in Korea, but their family members won't tell them because it's too painful. But my grandmother is just a natural storyteller, and she very openly spoke about really difficult times in her life. The more I listened to her stories, and the more I realized how complex her life was, and how complex Korea's history was, the more I wanted to write about it. 

Writing also to me is very personal in the sense that I want to always learn while I'm writing. I'm not writing necessarily for an audience. I think about the audience at the end, once I have a complete book. But, when I'm writing it, I really need to feel like I'm learning, and I'm investigating something that I'm personally interested in. So, I think, that's why I chose the Korean War—I knew my grandmother was a teenage refugee during the war, and I knew this was something that I did not know enough about. So during the whole writing process, I myself learned a lot about the Korean War. 

I wanted to ask you about the research that went into writing this book, but also, I wanted to say that it made me start researching this era and Korean history, and I found out so much in the process that I hadn't known, and so much that feels relevant, and so much that was surprising. What surprised you in your research?
When I first started, I think I was a naive writer, in the sense that I very much wanted to just follow these characters. I came up with the character of Haemi early on, but, at that point, I thought I was writing an interconnected short story collection. So, she was just a minor figure in this short story collection. I was just following these characters, and at first, I wasn't doing a lot of research because I was trying to understand these characters' temperaments and personalities and their lives. Once I knew them really well—once I knew Haemi and Kyunghwan and Jisoo and Solee—and once I decided this was going to be a novel, that's when I started to start to do intensive research. 

I wanted to, of course, be factually accurate, but, I think, in order for me to be emotionally accurate, I also needed to make sure that I could really describe this particular time, and what the village looked like, what it felt like to be a refugee, and what the social implications of being a young woman would be. I needed to know all of that. So, I did a lot of research. It was a lot of reading historical texts, but also looking at sociological studies and watching documentaries. The thing that was most difficult about the research was that I had a hard time finding information about the Korean woman's experience during the war. That was surprising, but I guess, in retrospect, it's not that surprising. Because their voices were not valued, so it wasn't recorded. That's what made me take all these other avenues, because I knew that this was really important, and I wanted Haemi's voice to be the central voice. So, I needed to figure out what the average woman's experience would be like so that I could get a sense of that context and then make it particular to Haemi. 

There are so many aspects of Haemi's experience that are specific to her, to being a refugee and poverty-stricken at the outset of the Korean War, but then, also, there are other aspects of being a woman that are timeless and that still exist today, including a struggle with postpartum depression. What was it like inhabiting this character and bringing her to life?
I love books where you can fall in love with the character. And when I say fall in love, I don't mean to be so enraptured by them, but to know them really deeply. That's what I tried to do with Haemi, where I wanted the reader to not always agree with her, but to really understand her character. Before doing a lot of research, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of personality and temperament Haemi would have, and I went from there. Once I knew what kind of person she was, it was easy for me to think about how she would react to certain events in her life, and then how that would propel and reverberate around her, to the people around her. I wanted to balance this idea of having a really particular individual unique story about her life experience. But then, there had to be universal themes of womanhood and gender and social expectations, because those are the kind of questions that I am still struggling with and trying to understand now. I think that those are the themes that, unfortunately, span centuries and time and distance. So, I wanted to explore those because those are the questions that I'm interested in, but I also wanted to make it unique to her story. 

I also think it's so important to tell a war story from a woman's perspective since they're voices have traditionally been silenced.
Definitely! Growing up, I loved war narratives and war movies, but they're always focused on the men in battle. And it's not like home life reaches a standstill, right? The women are the ones who have to pick up the pieces, who have to care for the children, who have to work and make sure that daily life is running. I always found it really frustrating that there were never any stories where the woman suffering from war was a central figure for the central narrative. I think, in human nature, it's easier for us to sympathize with the physical trauma that we see, like soldiers losing limbs. But mental trauma is a lot harder for us to empathize with, or understand. When that mental trauma is exhibited by those who are not actively fighting in the war, I think it's much easier to dismiss it. So, I wanted Haemi to struggle with mental health, too, because, even if she wasn't fighting in the battle, she still saw a lot of death and was still a refugee. The war effects you even if you're not at the battle line. 

Another way in which Haemi's experienced is not prioritized is that she is a refugee, and she is displaced, but because she is those things within her own country, it's something that is not extensively discussed; her experience is devalued. And yet her feelings of rootlessness persisted throughout her life. What was important to you to convey about this specific type of refugee and displacement issue?
I think that the idea of being a refugee in your own country is not a familiar one. I think that for Koreans, the idea of home and the idea of a motherland is really complicated, especially for those that are of my grandmother's generation. When my grandmother was young, Korea was still united. But it was colonized by Japan, and so they weren't allowed to speak Korean, they were taught Japanese in school. So, that sense of your home country was really a complex one, because she was not allowed to have that pride in her home country. And then there were five years of independence when the North and South were already broken up, and I think that a lot of people don't realize that the North and South were broken up temporarily by outside forces before the Korean War even began. And then, of course, with the Korean War, we're still in a stalemate technically, and I think that a lot of Koreans want Korea to be reunited. But, we also, for the past 68 years, have created such a strong sense of South Korean identity versus a North Korean identity. So this idea of home is so complicated for people in Korea and people of Korean descent. I wanted to explore the very early stages of that through Haemi, and Jisoo, and Kyunghwan because they all feel displaced throughout the novel, and I wanted to play with this idea of orphanhood or being an orphan. I tried to have them all think of themselves as an orphan at certain points in the narrative. Whether that is actually an orphan because their parents have died due to war, or when they're thinking about their place, their physical place, in society and what Korea means to them.

It was so fascinating getting their different perspectives and seeing the ways in which trauma plays out on an individual and collective level, and the ways in which it reverberates throughout your personal relationships and then down through generations. How hard was it to explore certain things with your characters? The narrative goes to some dark places and the characters make some difficult, at times frustrating choices. Was that challenging for you?
I love stories that are about very imperfect characters. Who wants to read a story about a perfect character? That's so uninteresting. I think because all these characters are so imperfect, that makes it frustrating to me sometimes as a writer because they're not always making the right choices in my opinion. They're not making the choices that I would want them to as a reader or as a friend, if I were friends with the characters. So, that was difficult, but at the same time, I was very sure in how the narrative needed to unfold. I didn't hesitate about the direction because I knew the characters so well, and I knew the choices that they would make and why. Well, I don't want to give anything away, but it's not necessarily a happy book. So, it was hard to write. 

It's not a happy book.
No, it's not. I feel like when I read a book and I can tell when the writer is forcing a neat ending, I resist that. So, I didn't want to force an ending that didn't make sense for these characters.

How did you feel upon finishing it? What makes you most excited about having this novel out in the world?
Well, (a) I think I realized how important it is for me personally to write about Korea for my own growth as a writer and as a person. But, then looking outward at the reader, I'm really excited to have other readers—particularly Korean American readers—find some kind of connection with this book or have it resonate with them. I'm really excited about that because growing up I didn't read many Korean American writers and I didn't really know about them. Part of that was because the internet wasn't great. I think it's easier to find diverse writers now. But, I'm really excited to have people read about Korea, and I think that fiction is such an amazing way to learn about a history and a culture in a more emotional way than just reading facts or history textbooks. So, I'm really excited about that part, and I'm excited that I'll be able to, hopefully, contribute to people's greater understanding of the war and Korea.

Yeah, [America's involvement in Korea and] the Korean War is so overshadowed in American history by Vietnam and World War II. But knowing about it is just such a key part of understanding who America is in the world today including our roles in other, current conflicts. 
It's so true. Especially with North Korea in the news. I think that with Trump being our president, he makes Koreans seem othered and alien. I think it’s so important for people to understand the history of the war and what happened afterward, in order to understand what's happening now.

If You Leave Me is available for purchase here.

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