Research Notes · 05/08/2020

Impossible Children

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Robert Yune writes about Impossible Children from Sarabande Books.

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Snow Globes, Ghost Barrels, and Deep Breaths: Some Notes on Korea

According to John Gardner, there are two stories: someone leaves home and a stranger comes to town. I’m a first-generation immigrant through international adoption, so to some degree, I’ve lived both stories. I wrote Impossible Children because I wanted to explore the boundaries between outsiders and insiders — in my experience, those boundaries are often invisible — until they’re not. Sometimes they’re covered with razor wire.

Boundaries are complicated by history, war, and obligations, so I decided my book should feature two families who emigrate from South Korea to the U.S. The Han family is male and working-class, while men are outnumbered in the white-collar Moon family.

This essay isn’t about gender or class, although they’re great entry points into any culture. Rather, this essay is about how I tackled a grand engineering challenge: shrinking an entire country to fit my book.

(This challenge came with ethical issues: even though I look like my characters, my background and perspective are different. How to responsibly tell stories that aren’t my own? What happens if my depiction of South Korea is inaccurate or inauthentic? These are serious issues, but that’s a story for a different essay.)

Fortunately, my long-standing interest in Korea meant I’d conducted research for decades without knowing it. The first step was wandering and picking through fragments of memory. When that wasn’t enough, I read widely, especially about South Korea after the armistice. That’s where my characters’ immigration stories begin. Articles about land reform and industrial conglomerates were as exciting as you’d expect, but it was an interesting way to track America’s spreading influence.

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I’d imagine some people reading this are looking for advice, especially about researching nations and cultures. Listening to English-language broadcasts of South Korean news was helpful. I listened daily, and still do. In terms of characterization, this ritual helped me understand Edward Moon, the billionaire electronics tycoon who keeps strong ties to Seoul after immigrating to the U.S.

While I was drafting the book, South Korea was reforming its work week. Long story short, their government reduced the number of maximum working hours from 68 to a less-lethal 52. The motivations and fallout were interesting, and following the discussions in realtime through the news gave me insight that connected corporate values to postwar reconstruction to corruption and family dynamics — an entire web of knowledge sprang from a single topic I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.

Listening to radio broadcasts was also useful because it’s tempting to view a research subject as tidy and self-contained, like a snow globe. The broadcasts were a reminder that the country was a messy series of contradictions, intraconnections and interconnections — including a connection to my own life as a global citizen. I also loved the invitation to listen to actual contemporary Korean citizens and their wide range of viewpoints.

My research proceeded largely in this manner: I’d accumulate broad knowledge and context, then try to distill insight from it. Occasionally, I followed story-specific needs, such as finding an obscure Korean proverb or a specific brand of soju. Blogs and vlogs by American expats came in handy. When I needed to get even more granular, I leaned on colleagues who were historians or East Asian scholars.

I assume most writers accumulate necessary information through a similar process of expansion and contraction. For me, one useful contraction was geographic in nature. I was surprised when I did the math and realized South Korea is roughly the size of Kentucky. (North Korea is about the size of Mississippi.) I must have known that on some level, but both Koreas must have grown in my mind as they loomed in the headlines and national consciousness. This geographical re-framing gave me a better sense of Korea’s insularity, as well as its cultural concentration and diffusion.

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Readers who have reached this point are probably hoping for interesting anecdotes. Despite my information-gathering approach, most people don’t live among bird’s-eye overviews or grainy close-ups. I often took the middle ground to see where it led. When in doubt, I followed my own interests. Often, I viewed the book as an excuse to research Korean cuisine, sometimes in restaurants. The most useful dish for my project turned out to be Budae Jjigae, a type of stew. Key ingredients:

Ramen noodles
Kimchi
Hot dogs
Spam
Cheese
Green onions
Baked beans (optional)

Here, my research interests in food, war, and history intersected. Budae Jjigae has origins in postwar South Korea, where starving civilians would line up outside U.S. military bases for food. Considering America’s role in the war and reconstruction, this particular dish seemed metaphoric. Worth noting: Budae Jigae is now a beloved comfort food for Koreans and Korean-Americans alike.

If memory serves, Budae Jigae barely gets a cameo in Impossible Children. Although the dish’s origin story is thematically perfect — and though I tried to feed it to some of my characters — it just didn’t fit. There’s a famous Hemingway quote about the “dignity of movement” of an iceberg, which results from its bulk being mostly underwater. I suspect writing, culture and history often float in a similar manner.

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While I was revising my book, North and South Korea sent a joint ice hockey team to the Olympics and made other gestures of unity. Someone on the radio reminded me that the folk song “Arirang” was the unofficial national anthem of both countries. It’s a song about longing and sorrow, the kind that transcend language. In my favorite version, a woman addresses her lover, who is walking away after having dumped her. Watching him go, she sings that she hopes his feet hurt after a distance of four kilometers. Something about the weird specificity, plus the ambiguity, spoke to me: maybe she’s wishing for empathy, that her pain will become his. Maybe her song is a feeble attempt at revenge, the scorned lover lashing out with the nothing she has left. Considering the wars, separation, and heartbreak both Koreas have endured, that verse felt like a national metaphor.

Most nation-sized stories are full of anguish, but I suspect their citizens’ everyday lives are rarely consumed by it. I’ll leave you with this little gem: around 1900, an American missionary traveled to Korea with his wife. She was musically inclined; as a going-away present, her family and friends presented her with a piano that was, according to the Presbyterian Historical Society, “seasoned for ocean travel.” The instrument followed the couple and was eventually ferried up the Nakdong river toward the missionary’s house in Daegu. Picture the local porters on the dock hoisting this strange wooden crate on their shoulders and trudging uphill. No one in Korea had seen a piano before, much less heard one. Spooked by the muffled chords as their heavy burden bumped and slid, the porters dubbed it “the ghost barrel.”

I love that term, and I love this story. It’s basically a poem about unexpected encounters and perception. The sensory echoes are lovely, too: picture locals leaning out their windows to hear the missionary’s wife play Chopin. Today, Daegu celebrates this piece of music history with “piano-themed monuments and public art and […] annual piano concerts on the dock.”

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I know I should conclude with that image and quietly glide away. Doing so would end this essay neatly, with a practical piece of research advice, something about condensing knowledge into metaphors or images that correspond to your nation-sized topic. Maybe they can reveal or summarize a national soul. However, I must admit to a bit of dishonesty.

The facts I’ve provided are accurate, and I’ve accurately presented my struggle to depict another culture faithfully. At the same time, I didn’t write Impossible Children simply because I’m interested in immigration, insiders, or outsiders. I tried to address several questions during the eight-year period in which I wrote the book. For example, why do some families succeed in America — despite everything — while others always seem to fail? After the 2016 election, I didn’t recognize the country I’d been living in for most of my life, so one of my goals was to understand America through these immigrant families.

I also wrote to articulate various hauntings: the way I felt constantly exposed by landscapes in the American Midwest, the background radiation of toxic masculinity and my own possible complicities, the hard limits to language and empathy. Consciously or subconsciously, I wrote about my interests at the time, which included the history of land mines, the concept of collective memory, abandoned Rust Belt factories, poems about Kafka, fetishization of Asian suffering, and foreign words for snow.

I’d be suspicious of anyone who gives a simple explanation for why they wrote a book, especially a collection of interrelated short stories. The truth is, Impossible Children is the product of several obsessions and characters and storylines coalescing. I searched out patterns and did my best to carve the stories into a cohesive, meaningful experience. To some extent, this essay is a scaled-down version of the process. Come to think of it, my life’s work as a writer is basically a scaled-up version of the process: expanding, then contracting my world into something useful. If only it were as easy and instinctive as breathing.

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As a Navy brat, Robert Yune moved 11 times by the time he turned 18. After graduating from Pitt, he lived in Pittsburgh for the next 15 years. In the summer of 2012, he worked as a stand-in for George Takei and has appeared as an extra in commercials and movies such as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Fathers and Daughters. Yune’s fiction has been published in Green Mountains Review, The Kenyon Review, and Pleiades, among others. In 2009, he received a writing fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In 2015, his debut novel Eighty Days of Sunlight was nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Other nominees that year included Lauren Groff, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. His debut story collection Impossible Children won the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize and was published in October 2019 by Sarabande Books. Yune was the 2018-2019 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. He currently lives in Northeastern PA with two miniature dachshunds and a flock of chickens.