Jimin Han’s A Small Revolution was one of the most interesting and thoughtful novels of 2017. When I wrote my review last year, I described it as “a timely novel that perfectly balances a personal story with the grander historical backdrop of Korean history.” I had the chance to talk to Han about the novel and the revolutions within.
Revolutions are complicated things. How did A Small Revolution find its roots and grow into a full fledged novel?
You know how you have these experiences in your life that stay with you? Visiting Korea in 1985 and finding my cousin’s boyfriend’s photo hidden behind a photo in a frame made me wonder about the boy who was involved in the protests at the time. Why would he volunteer to jump to his death to move his country forward? Also what was really going on in Korea — this country I’d been born in and my parents had left? I’ve also been furious about the lack of legislation to keep guns out of people’s hands. These kept me from giving up on this book.
The layered structure you use, jumping from past to present, makes it feel like a rich tapestry you’re slowly unweaving. How much planning did you do for it? What were the challenges?
First novels are famous for being put into drawers as learning experiences and I wondered if I was stupidly hanging on to a story that I wasn’t capable of telling in the way it should be told. I tried entering the story at different points, from the last scene and telling it backwards, starting from when Yoona was a child and moving forward chronologically. Kathy Fish inspired me with her flash fiction that engages the readers with all the white space she employs in her stories. Her stories always make me lean in a little more as the reader, try to figure out what’s going on. I was also inspired by David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary which used letters of the alphabet to organize his telling of a relationship’s demise. I loved how stories like these give you space to imagine what isn’t said. The most difficult part was trying to keep an open mind about the possibilities I could be exploring and not letting it be an endless process because every idea at one point seems like the best idea.
Can you talk about your research process for the historical elements? What was the most unusual aspects you researched?
In Paris several years ago we found ourselves accidently in a political protest. I was there on spring break with my kids and a friend of ours with her daughter. My first reaction was to get as far away from it as I could– my kids were young and I imagined all kinds of chaos, but it was remarkably calm and orderly– families with little kids in strollers, store owners closing shops in solidarity and actually on the streets peacefully marching to President Sarkozy’s cuts to measures that helped workers. I remember being struck by how my assumptions had been wrong but then later that night there were emails from friends asking me how I was because they’d heard about a violent protest in Paris. So I checked news from the United States and there were articles implying that people had been in danger during the protest. The protest apparently had the support of most of Paris and there could have been things I didn’t see– we didn’t stay for hours and hours– but my experience was radically different from what had been conveyed in the media. And that’s sort of the approach I took with my novel too. Hearing first-hand accounts from family and friends– talking to people when I was in Korea and afterward was the best part of the experience of gathering information for the book. I read what the experts said too– those are acknowledged in the novel–and I compared that with what people told me. My cousin’s wife, in particular, helped me a great deal– explaining things to me because she spoke both Korean and English.
That’s very interesting about the misrepresentation of the peaceful protest you took part in. What are your thoughts on the role of writers/story-tellers in this era where even the very idea of “truth” seems to be under attack?
You ask great questions. There is a truth and it’s substantiated by facts. Science matters, history matters. Without that truth we have nothing but propaganda. As writers it’s more important than ever to cut through the bullshit, especially with this president in the White House.
Were there any ideas or concepts that got discarded that you wished you could include?
I have to think about that a bit. I discarded pages and pages of scenes in Korea. In terms of ideas or concepts, I think I had to let go of guilt, regret, and other reverberations of the aftermath of the hostage taking. Pages and pages of that were cut along the way.
You mentioned how planning is tough and you shuffled through hundreds of files. Can you talk a little about your writing process for A Small Revolution? Do you write on schedule, or in bursts? Did you do lots of revisions? Was there a discovery process in the editing or did you have a pretty clear idea of where you were going in the initial draft?
I’m terribly indecisive. Growing up as an immigrant with parents who survived colonization and war has made me cautious about everything. I weigh consequences constantly. It can be paralyzing. One way around it is to write a lot knowing that I’m not committing to anything. One draft in this direction and then another whole draft in another and just see where it goes. So yes — a zillion revisions. There are so many possibilities for a book, right? It’s hard for me to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say because it’s not until I write it that I know that’s it. A lot of digging– an archaeological expedition is the better metaphor. Digging and then sorting what I find and digging some more. I schedule thinking about the writing (which is less pressure!) because so much else is going on, raising a family, the dog, important but small things about living in a house, stocking the fridge (which I hate!), teaching. So it’s in bursts more than writing every day but I’m getting better at devoting more time to being messy at the writing, not worry as much, but write.
Science matters, history matters. Without that truth we have nothing but propaganda.
Now that the book has been out for a bit, is there anything you’ve learned or anything you’d change about the book?
There are always words to change here and there, aren’t there? Does the editing ever stop? (laughing) To answer your question, I have to say that I’ve been most moved by the response to the book. Going to book clubs, book stores, colleges, festivals, and other events has been more fun than I imagined. People have been incredibly kind. I found that people cared — they had strong opinions about the choices Yoona made, about Lloyd’s motivations, about the friendship among the students in that room. I’ve talked passionately about books I’ve read but didn’t imagine that anyone would talk that way about something I’d written. It felt as if I hadn’t written the book they were talking about at all. They owned it now– does that make sense? It was their experience of reading that mattered. Maybe the scale gave me this impression. I’d never before had so many people talk about something I’d written. I’m deeply grateful.
Finally, what’s next for you?
Revising a novel right now that I’m excited about. I want to hurry because so many people I met this past year have invited me back and I want to see them again. And I want to think about more ways of supporting writers. Doing what you’re doing– interviews and other writing– to bring attention to other writers. My friend and director of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, Patricia Dunn, started The Wrexham Road Reading Series and she’s asked me to help her organize it. In addition to sharing work, writers talk about issues they care about. It’s important to have these larger conversations.