Debut novelist Catherine Chung talks about her moving first novel Forgotten Country—our Top Pick in Fiction for March.
The title of your book is intriguing. Which is the country that is forgotten, Korea or the United States? Or is it a metaphor for what an immigrant has to leave behind?
The title worked in a few different ways that I liked. It refers to Korea—not only the Korea that the family in the book leaves behind, but the Korea that was lost when it was divided. In my book, I wanted the break between the sisters to be a kind of echo of that split—and for the family’s exile from their homeland (where they belonged, where they felt whole) to be an echo of the loss of that older Korea. On a metaphorical level, the title also refers to the sisters’ estrangement—so the forgotten country is their childhood closeness, their innocence and the past.
You have a degree in mathematics as well as creative writing. What effect, if any, does math have on your writing?
It’s funny: When I was a math major in college I wrote stories all the time, and now whenever I write, I’m always sneaking in some math. I love both disciplines because it seems to me that they’re both ultimately about learning how to make sense of the world, trying to organize the chaos and describe and communicate it in a meaningful and beautiful way.
Siblings play such an important role in your book. Do you have siblings, and what makes that relationship so special?
I have one older brother, and he’s the best. We shared toys and stuffed animals, and we wrote and made books together! The thing about being a younger sibling is that your older sibling is so much more important and large in your world than you are in theirs when you’re kids. Despite my best efforts to be just like him, we’re very different. Still, all the ways that we’re similar make me feel a sense of belonging that I don’t have with anyone else. He knows where I’m from, and he’s the only one in the world who’s from there too. So I feel lucky and happy to have him.
Janie discovers some secrets about an aunt that she thought had died in Korea. This is based on an incident in your own family—can you tell us about it?
I found out in college that my father had a sister I’d never known about, and that she had disappeared when he was a child. I still know almost nothing about what really happened. The North Koreans used to raid dorms and kidnap girls, and this is what my father’s family thought had happened to her, but they didn’t talk about it—at least not to us kids. I think my way of exploring that marked-off territory was to make up stories about the parts of it that interested me.
I love the way the folktales that are told in the novel reinforce some of its themes, such as obedience and sacrifice.
Thanks! Growing up, my parents told me so many stories, night after night—and I loved all of them: folktales, and fairy tales, legends and myths from all different cultures. They shaped my view of the world and my place in it, and they instilled certain expectations and values in me. I still love all those stories, and that’s part of why they’re in the book, but I also wanted to engage with them a little more and push back.
Read a review of Forgotten Country.