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Marie Myung-Ok Lee on the Challenge of Writing Satire in Present-Day America

The Author of The Evening Hero in Conversation with Jane Ciabattari

Writing a novel can take years. During that process, the novel can change form based on unanticipated outside events. That was the case with Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero, a revelatory novel that hinges upon the personal upheavals that accompanied the aftermath of the Korean War in the 1950s and the immigration of a physician to the US with his family. The Evening Hero draws upon Lee’s own family background: her father was born in Pyongyang, and her mother in Bukcheong, both now in North Korea.

“The novel has taken eighteen years—yikes!” she told me. “And thus, has had several seeds because it has, like the Argonaut, been rewritten from scratch several times. It’s been revised so much, Mike Szczerban, an early editor, noted that the tone is the same, but almost all the parts have been replaced. The first seed was a case of a male OB-GYN who successfully saved a woman from placenta previa (placenta growing over cervix—lots of danger as the fetus grows that the placenta will rupture, and the woman will bleed to death) by skillfully delivering the baby and removing the uterus.

However, he was sued for medical malpractice for ‘butchering’ a young woman delivering her first baby. This attack was strangely successful for the plaintiffs and ruined the doctor’s career. At the time, I’d wanted to write a Sinclair Lewis-ish novel about small village life, and this case was resonant with a different favorite novel about small village life, Middlemarch, which also has a prominent doctor-plot, and I was off to the races.”

In 2016, she adds, “with the election and the open rearing of anti-Asian racism, particularly seeing the MAGA-ish people in my rural Minnesota hometown echoing Trump’s call for the utter annihilation of North Korean/North Koreans, I realized people had no conception of what ‘North Koreans’ are—i.e., like my father, the longtime anesthesiologist at the hospital.”

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Jane Ciabattari: Before we dive further into your writing process, how has your life been going during these past two unsettled and disorienting years?

Marie Myung-Ok Lee: I recently was talking to my husband [Karl Jacoby] about the weeks leading up to the pandemic. In March 2020 we (both) went to AWP in San Antonio, were teaching our respective classes, then went to the PEN Awards ceremony because I was a judge for Open Book. Before the awards ceremony, we stopped at our favorite Korean restaurant in midtown (Bann—RIP) to celebrate our friend Beth Piatote, who was a finalist for a different prize. The restaurant, which was normally full, and my spouse fretted over making sure to make reservations in plenty of time, was empty except for us—a portent of the pandemic, of the racism, that was to come.

JC: In The Evening Hero, is your narrator, Dr. Yungman Kwak, an obstetrician who has been based in rural Horse’s Breath, Minnesota for some forty years, based on your father? What influenced your sense of his personality, his attitudes and choices?

MOL: My father was a longtime physician in our small town, and that gave me a window into the “old” way of doing medicine, including how money was never discussed. And now for me with a child with disabilities, we are used to going first to the financial office before getting him hospitalized for a seizure study. My father also comped a lot of people and now, not only would that be difficult to do, it could even be illegal if categorized as a kickback.

This infrastructure gave me an insight into the working parts of Yungman’s character. Yungman himself is resistant and irascible, which gives him a lot of his charm. My parents, especially my father, were deeply in love with western culture and assimilation, to the point of wanting to forget we were Korean.

Similarly, being a doctor gave my father social but not racial capital. I made Yungman into an OB because I wanted him to be highly skilled but also a primary care physician, to set up his rivalry with the surgeon who thinks a little too much of himself.

JC: Dr. Kwak is forced into retirement when his small rural hospital shuts down and begins a time of reflection about his life, including a reckoning with secrets back in his homeland. From time to time we are reminded of a breach in his marriage by the letters that he hides, unread, and even keeps from his Korean wife, Young-ae, also trained as a doctor. Has this hidden aspect of his life in his homeland always been part of your plot?

MOL: I like to tell my Columbia students that writing fiction is about “information control.” I was trying to render the unpredictability of memory and the will to erase unsavory aspects of one’s past (and the magical thinking that this is possible) in the narrative, which is full of cross-cuts and diversions; similar to the way I have seen memory and trauma work with my parents—as much as they try to suppress things, things erupt at the weirdest times and the most seemingly unrelated associations.

My mother suffered from her own trauma as well. She pretty much lost her whole family during the partition, so after that, she never felt safe.

The secret letters were always there, but narratively making it “a secret” was added later. I was rejecting Platonic rising-action-climax-denouement for a more Asian kind of juxtaposition and circularity to create narrative momentum (I only discovered this after reading Gish Jen’s terrific book on Eastern versus Western attitudes and philosophies on narrative, Tiger Writing). Adding the secret as a slow reveal acted as a tensile thread that could move throughout the whole narrative—but unlike a western explosion of “catharsis,” would lead to more circularity.

JC: Connected by his doctor son Einstein, an aspirational medical businessman whose attitude toward being a doctor is much different than his father’s, Dr. Kwak begins a new job, as a trainee at Depilation Nation (“Where unwanted hair comes to die.”). His son is MDiety: Chief of Aesthetic Vaginal Surgery. Is this Minnesota medical facility, The HoSPAtal at the Mall of America? for real? If not, it seems just on the verge of reality Where did you get the idea for this satiric approach to health care practices?!

MOL: Part of the research I did (and one of the reasons this book took so long) was gaining access to inner sanctum medical spaces, operating rooms, and medical school. As a professor at Brown in an interdisciplinary center (The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas), I finally managed to connect to the OB-GYN department—which had previously rebuffed me—where the head of OB-GYN education was not an MD and also a voracious reader of fiction. He allowed me to embed with the third-year students on their OB-GYN clinical clerkships. I sort of achieved my father’s dream for me to go to med school!

Getting a hospital ID as a professor/instructor led to an unsolicited email, “Dr. Lee! Would you like to monetize your OB-GYN practice?” I jumped on a plane to Las Vegas to check it out. I was amazed by the Tony Robins-ish hucksterism of this conference before I was outed and kicked out. I landed at a different meeting that was even better. I had also done research in several hospitals for the indigent as well as some high-end ones. What I saw was appalling to the extreme that it seemed satire was the only way to render it in a readable narrative form, including the complex narrative of how private equity and other financial structures are undermining actual on-the-ground patient care

Getting access to these spaces that are usually closed off to “civilians” meant I had too much information and found myself jamming it into the narrative because the details were so hard-won. I have learned that “upcycling” into nonfiction is a helpful answer. My nonfiction renderings/offloading are here and here .

JC: Midway through the novel you flash back to Yungman’s youth in Korea. In June 1950, when Yungman, the First Son, is ten, “on a date all Koreans remember as 6-25, the Communist People’s Army, led by Kim Il-sung, crossed the 38th Parallel”—the line the Americans had drawn—and headed south. As his paternal grandfather, a village elder, puts it, “wars do not start, they come.” His agronomist father is in prison for subversive activity—“teaching farmers how they deserved the land the Japanese took away from them.” Yungman, his mother and brother begin the long trek to Seoul, then Pusan. What were your best sources for the details of this grueling evacuation?

MOL: Thank you for asking! If I was going to portray the Korean War, it needed to be accurate, i.e., everything that is verifiable needed to be verified. Of course, I read a lot and interviewed and took oral histories of as many people as I could. My parents are at least a decade older than Yungman, so their particular war experience doesn’t figure that much. Koreans are also big on ancestors—westerners might call it “ghosts” but in these eighteen years, I went from being a science-based rationalist to understanding some stories just want to be told.

It took many years, but I was eventually able to go to North Korea. I was leading a research trip—a half-hour after our guides told us no one in North Korea steals, a student’s wallet was stolen.

For instance, in many pictures I’ve seen of the evacuation of Seoul in the winter, people were only wearing straw shoes—they are open shoes. It was hard for me to believe they could trek so many miles like that. A few months earlier, my husband, kind of as a joke and related to the book he was writing (which you reviewed!), had us both do those genetic ancestry tests. Mine seemed boring (100 percent Asian), but someone contacted me and said we were pretty close cousins.

I was intrigued but a little suspicious; however, when he outlined his family, they came from the same area in North Korea as my parents did. When I asked him if he knew how his parents evacuated, he said indeed, they went barefoot when their shoes wore out. In the snow! It was a combination of finding some fantastic archival materials like photos (some from Korean sites), trolling eBay, and these voluminous oral histories.

JC: You give vivid descriptions of the Exchange Market Zone—a strip less than a mile from Water Project Village, south of the 38th Parallel, a “real, living market” where “Koreans could be Koreans again.” Yungman’s ever resourceful mother sets up a small shop selling “lucky” gourd dippers. These scenes give a glimpse of how this conflict could have been resolved.

But by the July 1953 Armistice, the US and ROK military pound-in signs calling this area a “Military Demarcation Line” and prohibiting occupancy—a ruling enforced by military might with untold civilian casualties. (“How could a little boy leading his ox be bombed in broad daylight?” as you write.) Was this Exchange Market Zone a reality during the war? And what can you say about the civilian toll of this area?

MOL: Yes, it’s real! In some archival footage, there was some small mention of a strip of land in Kaesong, and they had pictures of soldiers playing together, and it made you realize just how young they were—on the US side too. There were a lot of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds not knowing why they were in Korea, while on the other side, you had the problem of forced conscription. I’d heard stories of people being kidnapped by North and South armies repeatedly; they would be shooting their brothers.

It took many years, but I was eventually able to go to North Korea. I was leading a research trip, and Kaesong wasn’t a stop. A half-hour after our guides told us no one in North Korea steals, a student’s wallet was stolen. This was a huge glitch in the trip, and instead of taking us to the co-operative farm, they pivoted and brought us to Kaesong, which, because of its location, has turned into this sort of free-trade zone where the north and south are doing some commercial industrial things together.

JC: Yungman’s hometown Water Project Village, circa 1949, is a Korean village. But after the Armistice, it has been designated as belonging to North Korea—a move that divides families. “Global Cold War moved on,” you write. How has this splitting resonated for Korean families like Yungman’s over the years?

MOL: There are more than three million what are called in Korean i-san gajok, “separated and divided families”—a specific word for people split by the partition and war. I don’t think the US has reckoned with the destruction its partition of Korea caused, followed by the war. Of course, both sides of my family are split, and we have almost no extended family. Probably any Korean American of my generation you meet is part of a split family. My father, like Yungman, joined several missionary groups bringing medical supplies to North Korea. But unlike Yungman, he did it because he wanted to see his homeland again.

For whatever reason, every time, the white doctors would be allowed to go ahead, but he was denied a visa. He was very depressed about not being able to ever go home (he was a first son, like Yungman) and eventually ended up taking his own life. My mother suffered from her own trauma as well. She pretty much lost her whole family during the partition, so after that, she never felt safe. As kids, we didn’t understand what we might now call an anxiety disorder. It was hard on us, too.

JC: How did your background as a journalist help you research the novel—especially the scenes set in Korea during the war and in North Korea now?

MOL: What’s funny is North Korea does not allow journalists in. I think we were not allowed to bring in notebooks, either. But one thing I am good at is catching dialogue and details and memorizing them even if I don’t have notes. But being at a university with a lot of access to archival materials and having some skills in reporting and taking oral histories helped me create an accurate background.

Interestingly, I discussed this with Nicholson Baker, who wrote that book on FOIA. He’d asked me how I knew about the US’s use of chemical weapons during the War (he’d FOIAed all that). Instead of using FOIA and those kinds of materials (which I did use, to some degree), I centered my journalistic interviewing of survivors and came to the same conclusion—people talked about powder falling from the air. And also, by centering the narrative on the survivors’ experience, I have different signposts than a regular journalist would.

For instance, I watch a lot of Korean media and movies. In Bong Jun-Ho’s movie The Host , which is a parable about the US involvement in Korea, there’s a whole scene where there’s this weird gas, and people are falling but being told they are all right. Basically, for the survivors of the war, the use of chemical weapons is part of the cultural memory. We are told the US didn’t do it—ironically that’s part of the propaganda.

JC: What are you working on next?

MOL: After my first novel, the YA Finding My Voice , was magically reissued for the third time, more than a decade after I’d written what I thought would be my last YA novel ( Necessary Roughness ), it got me in the mood to write another one. Hurt You , an a-neurotypical Korean American-centered retelling of Of Mice and Men, is coming out in 2023. I am also working on what I think is going to be a reported memoir, of my father’s life. How he overcame so many odds but that the trauma of displacement and racism he’d experienced here was too much and led to his suicide.

JC: How sad and upsetting. What happened?

MOL: This is actually part of the project I am working on, a reported memoir called American Dream . Unlike Yungman, my father really did believe in the work-hard-and-you-will-be-rewarded myth of the American dream. I don’t want to hide it so I mention it, but I am not really in a position to go into it in detail either.

Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire, is a former National Book Critics Circle president (and current NBCC vice president/events), and a member of the Writers Grotto. Her reviews, interviews and cultural criticism have appeared in NPR, BBC Culture, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Bookforum, Paris Review, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.





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