Jung Yun – Shelter
At thirty-six, Kyung is beginning to accept the possibility that his fortunes will never change. It bewilders him, though, how he followed his father’s example, but produced such different results. From an early age, he was led to believe that if he studied hard and worked even harder, he’d eventually be rewarded for his efforts. If an immigrant could come to this country and make something of himself, his son would surely continue that line of progress, multiplying the gains of one generation for the next. Kyung, however, hasn’t moved the line forward so much as back. Other than his debts, he wonders what, if anything, he’ll have in his own name to leave behind. The best he might be able to do for Ethan is pass on what he inherits from his parents, a thought that makes him feel oddly proprietary, as if the damage in the room were somehow done to him. It’s only now that he realizes what good work Mae did, curating the house in such a way that nothing never seemed out of place until it all suddenly was.
–Excerpt from SHELTER by Jung Yun (Picador)
CORINNE GOULD: Your debut novel follows Kyung, a young father struggling against his cooling marriage and rising debts when an act of extreme violence forces his emotionally distant and aging parents, Jin and Mae, to move in. Shelter has already earned praise from outlets like Shelf Awareness, Publishers Weekly, the Kirkus Review, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and BookRiot’s All The Books! Podcast. I predict even more glowing reviews and critical praise are to come! Has the reception of your work been what you expected?
JUNG YUN: I’m a pragmatist (who people often mistake for a pessimist), so I really tried not to expect much from this process. That probably sounds awful, but I’ve just seen too many great books die on the vine because no one noticed them. I think the combination of my comically low expectations and Picador’s incredible support has created such a nice element of surprise leading up to the book’s release. Whenever something exciting happens, I’m so grateful for it because I didn’t see it coming. I write a lot of thank you notes and emails these days. Everyone at Picador is probably like “stop it already!” But I’m just blown away by their efforts to introduce readers to my work. I know this doesn’t happen for everyone, so I consider myself very fortunate.
CG: On social media, you support fellow authors like Mel Bosworth, Rumaan Alam, Tony Tulathimutte, Rachel Cantor, Sari Wilson, and Lisa Owens. What does it mean for authors to be using their own platforms and media influence to support and promote one another?
JY: I became an avid reader of literary fiction in my early teens when writers just used to have bios and (sometimes) head shots in their books, and people didn’t want or need more because it was really about the work, not the writer. That was kind of great. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice had a huge influence on me, but I didn’t know whose books Styron was reading or what his writing habits were. I probably wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup, but I can’t say that my enjoyment of or admiration for his work suffered for that lack of knowing. All this being said, what I do appreciate about social media is how it’s expanded my community of fellow writers in a way that I find deeply comforting. It’s nice to be connected to other writers who are sweating blood to create art, make a living, raise their kids, and promote their books. Publication and promotion are such long processes, and it’s important to support people as they go through it, to tell them that you appreciated the end result. Twenty years ago, I would have sent a handwritten card in the mail to do this. Now I DM and tweet.
CG: You have a Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from Vassar College, a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. As a South Korean who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, can you speak to how the intersection of your lived experiences and your scholarship informs your writing?
JY: My Asian Studies program was interdisciplinary, so I learned to think about the region through the lens of art, history, literature, economics, political science, etc. That’s been helpful to me as a writer, looking at different dimensions of people and places rather than flattening them into one. I can’t say that my MPA factors into my writing much. That was a practical decision based on the fact that I graduated from college during a recession, so grad school seemed like a good place to hide out and learn some skills that would make me more employable. In many ways, my seemingly disconnected programs of study reflect the struggle I felt from an early age, being a creatively oriented kid who was also very vocationally minded. Everything in my late teens and early twenties was about finding a good job, making money, buying a house, etc. By my late twenties, I realized those choices reflected my parents’ desires more than my own interests, which explains the MFA in my thirties.
CG: This desire to find a good job, make money, and buy a house is one that you play with beautifully in Shelter. You wrote Kyung “was raised to believe that owning a home meant something. Losing a home like this—that would mean something too.” Houses and home become richly developed symbols with Mae’s meticulous decorative eye and the instances of violations against domestic space, both literal attacks and overcrowded or unexpected gatherings of guests. How do you see ownership, especially of a home as important in your novel, especially for Jin and Mae as immigrants to America?
JY: For Kyung, having a home of his own is central to his idea of adult respectability (following in his parents’ footsteps), but also physical and emotional security (taking a sharp detour away from his parents). That’s why selling his home or losing it as a foreclosure terrifies him. Within his own four walls, Kyung feels like he has some semblance of control over his life, which always eluded him as a child. As for Mae and Jin, home ownership—as well as the accumulation of material possessions—is directly related to their pursuit of the American Dream. These are people who came to the U.S. for money, opportunity, prosperity—all of which they now have, but the price was much steeper than they ever could have imagined.
CG: What were the first origins of your inspiration for the novel?
JY: I started writing the first scene of Shelter in 2004. I just didn’t know it at the time. Back then, I imagined a man standing at his kitchen window, watching his elderly mother walk toward his house naked. For me, the joy and the challenge of writing is coming up with a random image like this and trying to piece together what happened to the characters before and after. But like a lot of ideas, I didn’t quite know what to do with it, so I put it away and moved on to other things.
CG: You begin the novel with the Heraclitus quote, “No man steps in the same river twice, / for it is not the same river, / and he is not the same man.” Throughout Shelter, we see Kyung endure an astonishingly saturated period of trauma, vulnerability, and change, and his evolution feels both authentic and unexpected. What was the process of developing Kyung throughout the story?
JY: I don’t outline or plan much in advance. Typically, I just start with a vague idea of a character and overwrite various scenes until I get a better sense of who s/he is. I had maybe two or three plot points in mind when I first started writing this novel, but the rest of them (and all the connections between them) evolved over time as I got to know Kyung and his family better. The first year of drafting was pretty challenging. I did a lot of mental meandering and invested huge chunks of time on scenes that I eventually had to cut. But the overwriting was a really important step to understanding what kinds of behaviors and situations seemed true to the characters, rather than necessary to me as the writer in order to move the plot along.
CG: With movements like We Need Diverse Books and the recent addition of culture-specific imprints at major publishing houses, I am interested to know if you identify as an author of diversity, and if or when you are asked to be representative of a non-white experience.
JY: I’ve always identified as a woman of color, but no one ever asks me to be a representative of the Asian-American experience—I’m not sure under what set of circumstances that would even happen. Because I physically present as Asian, I think most people just assume that I strongly identify as Asian, which is fine with me personally because it’s true, but sometimes the assumptions don’t stop there or race becomes the only part of my identity that people see, and that’s when things get problematic. I also resist the notion of an Asian-American “experience.” Other than checking off the same box on a census, I probably don’t have much in common with a third generation Hmong man in Los Angeles or a first generation Filipina in Atlanta, no more so than a white man in Iowa Falls would have much in common with a white Orthodox Jewish woman in Brooklyn. I think individual lived experiences are so much more interesting than broad categorization or generalization, and while I’m happy to talk about my experiences as an Asian-American female writer, I’m wary of thinking they’re representative of anyone else’s.
CG: Thanks for responding to that. In Shelter, you juxtapose Kyung’s upper-class parents with his working-class in-laws, to expertly interrogate issues of race, education, access, and gender equality. In reference to Jin’s treatment of Mae, Kyung’s father-in-law asks “college professor ought to know better than to hit a woman, don’t you think?” Domestic violence is a central conflict in this story—can you speak to this theme?
JY: There were a couple of realities about domestic violence that I hoped to reflect in this novel, and a couple of stereotypes I intentionally chose to reject. One of the saddest realities is that children of abusers are more likely to become abusers themselves, and we can see how Kyung fights this, almost deadening his emotions, both good and bad, to avoid feeling any of the potentially dangerous ones. I also wanted to replicate the secrecy and shame that typically characterizes families in which intimate partner violence and/or child abuse occur. Perpetrators and victims often go to great lengths to hide what’s happening from the outside world. And the shame that so many victims report feeling is really heartbreaking.
In terms of stereotypes that I didn’t want to perpetuate or contribute to, Jin may seem like an unlikely abuser because he’s wealthy, educated, older, and religious. Domestic violence is actually quite unpredictable in the way that it cuts across race, ethnicity, class, religion, and a whole host of other demographic factors. If nearly twenty people in this country are abused by an intimate partner every minute (that’s a true statistic, by the way), chances are high that it’s happening near all of us, perpetrated by people we would probably never think to suspect.
CG: The horrifying violence that Jin, Mae, and their housekeeper suffer is reported in brilliantly frank, literary prose. Without sensationalized language, the brutality is more visceral and appalling. Beautifully written, these descriptions were still very hard for me to read. I want to know more about what this violence was like to write. Can you tell us about the research or writing exercises you did to craft in order to render these scenes, and any creative self-care that you employed?
JY: By the time Kyung understands what happened to his parents, the details have passed through three different narrators: Mae, Jin, and Connie. It’s like an extended game of telephone in which the sense of detachment increases with each telling. The violence had to be conveyed this way because it was narratively honest—there were no conditions under which Kyung would have heard the details directly from his parents since that’s not the kind of relationship they have. I think the need for this detachment helped me get through the research, which involved reading a lot of news articles about similar crimes to recreate a quality of reportage.
As for self-care, I really don’t do any. For my current project, I need to be able to describe a corpse in detail, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on NAMus (the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database). It’s not that I’m inured to violence—I just accept the fact that as a realist writer who’s interested in violence, this is the kind of work I have to do. My poor husband though. I write early in the morning, so when he wakes up and walks into my study to give me a kiss, he often sees a photo of a dead body on my computer, and I’m like, “Hi! Should we make smoothies today?”
CG: I was struck by James Scott’s (The Kept) declaration that Shelter is “an urgent novel, a book so alive, contemporary, and above all, honest, it could only exist right now.” With the complex intersectionality of cultural, generational, economic, and gendered tensions in Shelter, I couldn’t agree more. What about the current political and literary moment of 2016 feels right for your work?
JY: Although I drafted the first scenes in 2004, I didn’t start writing the novel in earnest until mid-2010, just as the U.S. was pulling out of the recession. It took about three years and change to finish the version that eventually sold to Picador, and by then, the economy was in full recovery. I’ve been asked if I worry that the timing of the novel, which is set during the most recent housing market crisis, will date it in any way. And the sad thing is, I don’t think it will. Debt will always be a present tense condition in this country. Every time I get the mail, I have to throw out so many unsolicited offers to re-finance our mortgage, consolidate our student loans, or open an absurdly large home equity line. It’s as if we (and by “we,” I mean individuals, financial institutions, industry regulators, etc.) have gone right back to the same debt inducing practices that helped bring on the last recession, which I find extremely troubling.
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Jung Yun was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. She attended Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her work has appeared in Tin House (the “Emerging Voices” issue); The Best of Tin House: Stories, edited by Dorothy Allison; and The Massachusetts Review; and she is a recipient of an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize and an Artist’s Fellowship in fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband. Author photo by Stephanie Craig.
Corinne Gould is a student in the Book Publishing M.A. program at Portland State University. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne wrapping up engagements with Timber Press, PubWest, and Ooligan Press. She will be a fledgling in the publishing industry starting in June.