Joseph Han on American Imperialism and the Korean Forever War
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of Nuclear Family
In December 2017, Hawai’i reactivated the nuclear attack warning siren not used since the Cold War, in response to North Korea’s November test of an intercontinental ballistic missile able, the government claims, to carry a “super-large heavy warhead, which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the US.” In the early morning of January 13, 2018, Hawai’i’s citizens received an alert: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Some twenty minutes later, a “false alarm” message calmed the panic.
The long-lasting implications helped shape Nuclear Family, Joseph Han’s first novel, which is set in the months preceding this false alarm. “I wrote this book as a way to reckon with the ongoing Korean war and the division of the peninsula, to suggest that the Korean DMZ is an arbitrary yet powerful force, in both literal and figurative ways, that must become more porous in our imagination and dismantled in reality, so we may imagine and enact more crossings,” he told me.
Han was born in Korea, raised in Hawai’i, and is now based in Honolulu. He is a Kundiman fiction fellow with a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Hawai”i at Manoa. Nuclear Family draws upon his extensive research and family ties.
Jane Ciabattari: How have you been managing during these past few years of turmoil and pandemic? How has the build-up to the launch gone?
Joseph Han: After graduating with my Ph.D. in English, I moved to LA in the summer of 2019, sold my book the summer of 2020, and worked on it all throughout the pandemic, eventually moving back to Hawaiʻi the summer of 2021. In short, working on this book kept me focused and alive, yearning to commune with all that has and will shape me.
Shortly after moving back, the news broke that the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage facility, which stores over 100 million gallons of jet fuel a mere 100 feet above Oʻahu’s primary drinking aquifer providing water to one-third of the population, leaked jet fuel yet again and contaminated the aquifer. This led to 93,000 families getting poisoned, sick, or hospitalized.
The grassroots coalition Oʻahu Water Protectors has been fighting to shut down the facility and defuel those tanks immediately, yet despite getting an order from the Department of Defense to do so, they are estimating the facility must be repaired, which may take another year, before it can be defueled, a process which may take yet another year. But another catastrophic spill is imminent. The damage has been done. The entire island is being held hostage by the US Navy’s bottom line, which continues to posit that we are expendable for the sake of national security.
Build-up to the launch has been stressful in this regard, as every time I drink water, I think about what’s worth protecting—what’s at stake. Clean drinking water for future generations, our most precious natural resource, which is being destroyed by the violence that US military occupation brings to bear on the places it touches, the communities it impacts and poisons.
JC: Can you explain what inspired this, your first novel?
JH: Writing a novel, it’s so true when people say it’s like presenting a gift to yourself in the future. It’s been such a joy connecting with readers thus far who’ve expressed how my work resonated with them and shifted their perspective of war and its presence in the everyday, in both Korea and Hawaiʻi. The novel has become an occasion to remember and resist, and hopefully to push for peace and healing in an increasingly militarized world.
JC: How did you settle on the title?
JH: It happened pretty much immediately as I was thinking through the premise of the novel, and so it became the framework that I wanted to challenge and complicate through the novel’s structural and formal concerns. I love a good pun, and this play on the title became a way to signal to the reader what kind of book this would be, despite covering difficult themes and bearing witness to painful histories and struggles.
Koreans have always been made suspect in terms of war, as either an enemy or friendly. The Korean people have been at war with themselves, and this violence has been backed by the US occupation of Korea for decades. Our dominant nuclear anxiety posits that North Korea is the bearer of our future imminent peril.
But the United States has the largest military budget and presence across the globe. It’s also the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons, during WWII, and to have tested nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands on Bikini Atoll, resulting in fallout and radiation poisoning that’s sickened many generations and future descendants.
The mushroom cloud in our imaginary remains from the perspective of the military power that enacted the violence, and we never consider the lives of those who continue being impacted by war and war-making. Why are we taught to fear our demise? Because it reinforces our militarized consciousness. All of these themes culminate in the false missile alert as it’s depicted in the novel, which hopes to dispel many falsehoods.
JC: I’m fascinated with your opening, told from the point of view of Tae-woo, the grandfather of the Korean family at the heart of the novel. How did you go about creating this ghost character, who is standing on the DMZ? In your opening lines: “Tae-woo stood on the ledge behind the Dora Observatory’s row of binoculars. No one paid him any mind since he was long dead. Tae-woo became an outline, his body opaque, waning as his spirit would with time. Until he could find a living relative, Tae-woo could only get this far.”
What research, including oral stories, is the basis for this story of a ghost that cannot come to rest before being reunited with family north of the DMZ?
JH: What we hold to be true about Korea as necessarily divided is a fiction of US imperialism. What a better place than a novel to speak back to fiction with a story of my own, one that remembers how Korea was once whole and can be again, that the desires countless families have held until their deaths, and beyond, can inform and shape the way we carry their will, to see peace unfold so that we don’t continue missing our chance to reunite and reconnect with our loved ones and the places our families have called home for generations upon generations.
The generation of families directly separated from their loved ones are sadly passing away and missing their opportunities. Ghost stories are stories about urgency. Confronting and rectifying what could not come to pass. Though my novel tells the story of one family in particular, this is one among so many. This is why I love the cover of my book so much, which depicts the memorial site at the Korean DMZ, where people may write messages to those that have been lost but not forgotten. My novel is but one ribbon, and I hope it invites readers to consider whom they might honor and remember.
JC: Jacob, Tae-woo’s grandson, is the “living relative” he has chosen to inhabit. What process did you use to imagine Tae-woo’s inhabiting Jacob’s body, which leads to the seminal incident of Jacob running across the DMZ, with a video that goes viral, causing his family in Hawaii to be ostracized, their legendary restaurant boycotted, and a series of episodes that haunt Jacob.
JH: There’s a scene early on in the novel describing how the Cho family often plays the game of figuring out whose features are inherited from whom, showing the way we are more like our families than we care to admit. Though he’s never met Tae-woo, Jacob shares a stark resemblance with his grandfather and may as well be a spitting image. Tae-woo seeing his descendant becomes another way to live again, first under the guise of wishing to nourish himself, as he’s been starving in the afterlife without someone to honor or remember him.
Likewise, Jacob comes to embody not only his grandfather’s ulterior motives but the fragmenting and severing of himself and his spirit, to reflect the state of the Korean peninsula, the impact of the Korean DMZ’s spiritual manifestation. So Jacob must return to himself and confront whether this is an obstacle both he and his grandfather can truly overcome.
JC: Your other key narrator, Tae-woo’s other grandchild, Jacob’s sister Grace, has a series of complicated interactions with her parents (and memories, as she misses Jacob). She also chooses to escape.
JH:Yes, Grace embarks on her own spiritual journey and becomes possessed by a recreational practice turned daily mode of being. There’s a common refrain for some folks growing up in Hawaiʻi that living in the islands is limiting: “it’s a small world,” and that they have to “get off this rock” in order to grow. But it’s the opposite that’s entirely true.
Grace is so much like Tae-woo in the way she too will stop at nothing to reach greater heights and overcome the barrier in her own life, the depression and anxiety that walls her off from the world and from having any meaningful connection to the communities and places around her. Grace also has to return to herself, to her relationship to the land on which she was raised.
JC: In what ways did you research the historic past in which South Korea and North Korea were separated, creating gaps and conflict among families that endure to this day?
JH: I’m indebted to the work of many scholars. Grace M. Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora was very formative as I began the book. Choong Soon Kim’s Faithful Endurance: An Ethnography of Korean Family Dispersal really gets at the heart of the urgency behind family separation and hopes for reunion. Suk-Young Kim’s DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border. Josephine Nock-hee Park’s Cold War Friendships. Crystal Mun-hye Baik’s Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique. My novel is reflection of my own learning and growing.
JC: Did you travel to South Korea as part of your research? To North Korea?
JH: I visited my family in South Korea when I could during summers, but unfortunately this become more infrequent over the years as were my opportunities to visit the Korean DMZ. It’s such a charged place and undertaking, and I’m grateful for the work of scholars like Eleana J. Kim, whose book Making Peace with Nature: Ecological Encounters Along the DMZ is releasing this July. I’m also grateful to the Jeffrey Tripp, who I studied with when I first started researching the DMZ; his dissertation and field work helped me immensely. There’s a scene in the book where Jacob/Tae-woo go drinking in Itaewon, and a particular night out with some new friends inspired the book.
Unfortunately, with the ongoing travel ban to North Korea, we are not able to return or reconnect with our loved ones and homes in the northern peninsula. My grandfather’s family is originally from the north, as are members from my aunt’s side of our family. I wish I could learn more about where my family comes from, as the Korean DMZ continues to be a barrier in knowledge and memory.
JC: Are the political conflicts mirrored in your depiction of the Korean community in Hawaii still ongoing?
JH: The Korean community’s presence in Hawaiʻi is relatively small and relegated to plate lunch restaurants and a number of Korean BBQ places, as I mention in the novel. There was once a motion to establish a Koreatown that never went through. In fact, the street where the Cho family’s restaurant is located, where most Korean-owned businesses have operated: these places have been demolished to make way for the construction of high-rise condos. Cho’s Delicatessen, too, would have been closed. My essay on meat jun in Lit Hub gets more to the heart of how the Korean community’s place in Hawaiʻi is understood! Really grateful to Corrine Segal for her guidance on that piece.
JC: What are you working on next?
JH: I’ve been working on taking care of myself and understanding when it’s time for rest, when my writing can wait until I’m ready. There is much work ahead as the struggle to #ShutDownRedHillNow is not over until those tanks are dry, and it’s only the beginning of a longer movement for peace and demilitarization everywhere.
I’ve often made the mistake of stretching only after something hurts, after long periods of writing at the desk. I’ve started jump roping and exercising more consistently since last August. Back then I could only do one pull-up, and now I can do ten! Now I feel like I’m training and conditioning my body to get ready for my next novel. I’ve already finished a short story collection I’m really excited about that expands upon the world of Nuclear Family.