Q&A with Mia Yun
When did you first begin writing?
I started keeping a diary in fourth grade and I think that was what we call “a writer’s beginning.” And then in seventh grade, I started writing poetry. It was also that year that I declared that I was going to be a writer in a letter I wrote to my Korean teacher during the summer break. The teacher kindly wrote me back saying that I should do three things a lot if I were to become a great writer. Read a lot, think a lot and write a lot. He couldn’t have given me better advice.
Were any authors particularly influential on your writing? Whose work are you currently reading?
Many writers. I have always been a voracious reader. The first book that I really loved was Jane Eyre which I read when I was twelve and also Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” I also read lots of German writers. Thomas Mann. Goethe. Heinrich Boll. Of course, Hermann Hesse. My all time favorite books are Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” and Henry Miller’s “Black Spring.” I love to read poems. Modern Korean poems are truly wonderful. In their use of language and metaphor. I think Korean is a great language for poems. The books I now read tend to be by Asian-, African- and Latin-American authors. Good writing is for me the most important factor when I choose a book but I think it is something rare these days. I also read several books at the same time. I recently finished reading V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River,” and “An Area of Darkness,” and Paul Theroux’s “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” that chronicles the friendship and ultimate estrangement between him and V. S. Naipaul.
The characters in HOUSE OF THE WINDS (such as the Pumpkin Lady and Bright Bijou) are very vividly drawn. How much do you draw from your own life when creating the characters in your writing?
Very much. Someone said, “All writing is autobiographical,” and I completely agree. What I mean is that a writer is shaped by his or her experiences and borrows from them all the time even when it doesn’t seem so on the surface. Here also enters the question of memory and it is a complex subject I often ruminate on. Recently, the eminent author, Cynthia Ozick, wrote an essay where she talked about two kinds of writers. She said there are writers who write from memory ( and experience) and those who write from ideas although sometimes the distinction is not so clear cut. So you can say, in the case of HOUSE OF THE WINDS, it is what she calls “memory writing.” And we also have to be careful when we call something “autobiographical” as a lot of readers tend to confuse it with truth or fact.
Throughout HOUSE OF THE WINDS, there is an undertone of tragedy and violence which periodically erupts into the main story (such as the murdered woman and the ghost in the well). Do you see such an undertone in Korean culture, particularly with Korean women?
I think it has a lot to do with Korea’s Confucian culture and in that sense it isn’t something particularly inherent in Korean culture. In fact, it is a common occurrence in cultures where women are suppressed. We see it in Asian, Latin and African cultures. For example, even in today’s China where boys are favored, female fetuses are routinely aborted and girls are often abandoned. At a very young age in Korea, I became aware of the Korean women’s profoundly disadvantageous position. This made me a very sympathetic and sharp observer of women in peril. In fact, I became a feminist long before I ever heard of the word.
The structure and narration of HOUSE OF THE WINDS seems deeply rooted in memory and oral history. To what extent is your writing shaped by these traditions?
Very much. In HOUSE OF THE WINDS, I tried to explores the way memory works. How what we see and remember as children works later when we try to interpret it. As to oral history, Korea is rich with oral tradition. In the old days, pansori, Korean talk-singing was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. A particular pansori could go on for twelve hours, narrating a long, dramatic story. And luckily for me, I grew up surrounded by women who always told stories. In fact, growing up in Korea was like a long story session for me. I don’t remember all the stories but I became very intimate with these woman’s voices, the way they told stories. And their stories were very personal ones in nature, often tragic but always bawdy and funny and they were liberally sprinkled with folk tales, Korean myths, fables and old yarns they had heard as children. I created the women characters in my novel from my memory where thankfully, their voices still remain to this day very vivid.
On the dedication page of HOUSE OF THE WINDS, you quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery who wrote “…it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Why does this passage resonate with you?
I hope it becomes self-explanatory upon reading the book. I think it captures the essence of HOUSE OF THE WINDS.
What role do you see for a writer in today’s society?
A writer’s role has always been to challenge prejudices and the status quo, provoke the establishment and awaken readers to the new and different and finally and most importantly to speak truths. And it shouldn’t be any different today. Unfortunately, a lot of writers today write for, sometimes only for, fame and money. Extreme commercialism and hype also confuse the readers and get in the way of good books finding readers. Of course, a writer’s job is to write. Period. But a writer should have something to say. And ultimately, a good book isn’t merely entertaining but also thought-provoking.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am sort of superstitious when it comes to talking about my current projects. I don’t talk about them until they are finished. Writing is very unpredictable. It’s like embarking on a journey without a clear destination: You don’t always know where you’re going and where you are going to end up. I guess it is insecurity.
This may be an unanswerable question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why do you write?
Because I have to.