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Interview with Korean-American Writer Sonya Chung, Author of Long for This World

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Sonya Chung is the author of Long For This World, published in March 2010 by Scribner.

Tell us a little about yourself? When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I consider myself a “late bloomer” as a writer. I didn’t start writing seriously until my late 20s. Before that, I was still learning to read — meaning , both what to read, and also how to read with my whole self, in the way that a writer needs to read in order to develop as a writer. I like what Marilynne Robinson says about this label: you are a “writer” when you are writing. Apart from that, the word is meaningless.

So did you come from a family of readers? How did your environment or upbringing foster your interest in your writing?

I didn’t grow up in a creative environment, so the idea of being a writer was not really on my radar. On a whim, I applied to a few MFA programs in my early 20s, and I got into one. But again, even during those years, I really did not consider myself a writer (even though I published a handful of short pieces, and won a few awards and honorable mentions). It took a long time for me to think of writing as my work, my core vocation.

For me I think the most significant influence of my Korean upbringing is language. Even though I’m not nearly as bilingual as I wish I was, there is something about growing up around two languages that makes one very attuned to the sounds and expressions and nuances of language. I always knew that language was power — if you could articulate and express something, people listened. I also knew that language was play — I think my sisters and I always loved to play with accents and impersonations because we were always hearing the different ways of saying the same thing and recognized how much fun could be had, and what dramatically different messages you could convey depending on how you expressed something. This started with English and Korean, but we easily extended our play into all kinds of languages and accents.

As a side note, a writer who greatly influenced me was Ha Jin, his novel Waiting in particular. Reading that book was a revelation to me; Ha Jin writes in English, but his characters are understood to be speaking a Chinese language. I saw the possibilities of writing characters who speak English with an Asian intonation, so that the English-speaking reader hears the tones and rhythms of a different language in both the narration and dialogue.

When I finished Long for This World, I suppose, was when I started to sense that I was not only putting my feet into the writer’s shoes, but also walking down the road in them.

Nice! Yes, I saw on your website that you made a trip to Korea and along the way you became convinced that the story needed to be told in a novel. So, how did the story come to you?

On my first trip to Korea (I was born in Washington, DC; my parents are both Korean-born immigrants), I spent a couple of days with one of my aunts by marriage on my father’s side. She played tour guide and was very generous with her time. But she speaks very little English, and my Korean is elementary at best, so, given how little we communicated in speech, I had a chance to observe and get a sense for her in other ways, and she intrigued me; she seemed like a woman with a story. I still to this day know very little about her (this is not uncommon in a Korean family, for a wife’s personal history to be unspoken once she marries)

Wow, that’s interesting. That’s the kind of thing that sets a writer’s mind spinning. . .  and imagining.

Yes, my curiosity about her became the seed for the novel’s first character, Han Jung-joo. From there, the story spun out in many directions (I filled a few notebooks with scribbles and notes). I knew the novel would include both native Korean characters and Korean American characters, traditional cultures and contemporary ones (and everything in between); and I also knew the story would have both global and intimate (domestic) concerns. Given the broad canvas, it seemed clear to me that this was going to be a novel.

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