A Novel About Race, Class, and Gender Set on the Oil Fields of North Dakota
Jung Yun, author of "O Beautiful," on corporate colonialism and the perils of being a woman in a hypermasculine environment
In O Beautiful, Elinor is a 42-year-old ex-model from North Dakota on assignment in the Bakken, a career-making offer that comes unexpectedly from her grad school mentor and former lover. Though Elinor lands not far from where she grew up, she is—just as in childhood—often made to feel foreign by local white residents because of her biracial identity. The images in O Beautiful that most stay with us feel like metonyms of a Midwest that is both rapidly changing and refusing change: a gas station with a cartoon eagle on a wooden sign, pump jacks bobbing their heads across a field, a fading mural of a football player, caravans of tourists eager to see what Teddy Roosevelt once saw. Yun raises questions of who has the right to this land, a question that grows in complexity the longer Elinor stays.
Jung Yun’s novel is not simply a narrative about corporate colonialism and corruption, but of the deep divisions between Americans that are fueled by racism and capitalism and which, because they often remain unspoken, loom insidiously in our national consciousness. This book asks us to reckon with how unreconcilable truths occupy the same space—as good a definition for America as any I can think of.
In its thematic considerations of the American Dream, regionalism, racism, and insularity, O Beautiful might be in the lineage of Grapes of Wrath, yet this novel is unwaveringly feminist. Yun, who has been compared to Egan and Gaitskill, writes the leering of men page after page, mimicking what women experience all day long, whether in the oil fields of Dakota or on the streets of New York City. Yun just as insistently considers how women undermine and scrutinize each other, and she grapples with the impulses of competition, distrust, judgement; the women in this book, all too familiar with sexual aggression, never doubt the stories of rape and unwanted touch they hear in the camps and work sites—nonetheless, in supreme acts of cognitive dissonance, they condemn the women who tell those stories.
Jung Yun and I met to discuss her novel in Washington, D.C. near George Washington University, where we both teach. We spoke about the male gaze, white insularity, and the potential of truth.
Annie Liontas: What did it mean to you to dedicate this novel to your parents, who emigrated from South Korea to the United States and “chose a strange and wondrous place to call home?”
Jung Yun: So much of my life as a writer and so much of who I am as a human being was shaped by the fact that my parents chose North Dakota to move to when I was four. I worry sometimes that people in North Dakota will think, “she hates this place and she’s putting the state in such a terrible light,” when really what I want is for this small fictional town in North Dakota to serve as a microcosm of a much larger country and state of affairs. I love North Dakota, it was the making of me as a person. Everything I care about started because I lived there, which is not to say it was a perfect, happy childhood. It certainly taught me to be observant. I like to write fiction about how people treat each other. That’s not a mistake or an accident.
AL: Elinor, your main character, is an ex-model working in journalism. She is half white and half Asian, and though she grew up not too far from the Bakken, she is constantly perceived as foreign by locals who are insularly white even when they don’t identify politically as white separatists. Do you see Elinor’s role as an insider-outsider?
JY: Returning reactivates memories that she finds difficult and upsetting and even rage-provoking. She is an insider at times—that’s why she was sent there, supposedly—but she’s constantly having that sense of belonging questioned by the very people who are her neighbors, her schoolmates, her father’s friends. In actuality, she is an insider in name only: she’s never felt it. That creates a lot of resentment in her that she carries throughout her lifetime. She’s a very elbows-out character, trying to make her own space.
AL: I wonder if Elinor knows what to look at, what to see, because of that?
JY: I think she’s rediscovering how to see. She is realizing she has been looking at things one way for a long time, that she is a product of her community, her culture, especially as her eye goes to the case of this missing white woman. Like so many people, she is conditioned to pay attention to this smiling beautiful face and not really think about all the other faces that you never get a chance to see, that people don’t think about enough, that people don’t talk about. She’s realizing that the way she has been taught how to see is incredibly flawed.
AL: What did inhabiting the perspective of a former model open up to you? How were you able to see the world—especially this world—in a new light?
JY: This was a nod to my twelve-year-old self growing up in North Dakota and thinking my life would be so much better if I were pretty like the other girls. I was too young and too unformed as a human being to understand how twisted that was and how I was aspiring to a very European model of beauty I was never going to fit into. It wasn’t until much later in my life when I started asking “Who defines these standards of beauty?” and “Who does it omit?” and “What does it mean to omit other definitions and ideas and norms of beauty?”
On some level, I was trying to signal a much younger version of myself to say, “It’s all going to be ok, it’s not what you think it is.” And here’s this fictional person who is beautiful enough to have made her living from her appearance, and she is really struggling. Being an attractive person in this society is often seen as an asset, and when you go to the Bakken at the height of the oil boom and you’re surrounded by men, it’s very much a liability. You can’t blend in, you can’t be invisible. You just stand out for a host of reasons you don’t want to, and I thought that was an interesting premise to work with.
AL: The unrelenting male gaze is a real force of threat and tension in this book. We are confronted by it page after page, much the way women in real life, day after day, deal with unwanted male attention.
JY: Putting an ex-model, now journalist, in an oil field filled with men was a way of exacerbating the daily realities that non-models deal with in cities and rural areas and small towns across the country—across the world—clocking every implicit and explicit aggression day after day. It was an intentional way of talking about an experience we’re often trained to ignore. Don’t talk about it, don’t roll your eyes, pick up your pace, quicken your step. Move from the source of it. But you can’t move from the source all the time!
AL: Because it’s everywhere.
JY: Because it’s everywhere. And you shouldn’t have to. I was trying to magnify something that’s very real for women and girls.
AL: Did it affect you to write it?
JY: I look back at my own teenage years—there was a point in my life when being whistled at by a guy felt like being seen. That is a kind of conditioning in my 40s I’m still thinking about and working through and deeply concerned about. Elinor is too. She’s looking back at the ways that she leaned into this behavior, not realizing that it hurt her and may have hurt others, too. Did you have that experience, yourself, Annie? Where you liked that kind of attention? Or did you never care for it?
AL: Male attention is the ultimate currency in our culture, so even as a queer woman, you know, you don’t get away unscathed. I have a very different relationship to it now, as you do, because I see the myth of that currency. But in the novel, even as you take up how men and women talk to one another—the implied, the unsaid—you just as fiercely look at how women talk to women. What did you keep bumping up against as you considered how women are socialized and how the women in this novel interact?
JY: I’m thinking about how much smarter our students are. They seem more thoughtful, more open, less judgmental. Elinor is a very judgmental person. She’s very quick to come to conclusions about people. She observes other women doing this, too, and by virtue of hearing and seeing these women, she becomes more reflective about how complicit she is in this type of behavior. She hasn’t been the best ally to other women, women of color certainly.
AL: What about the cost of relying on male violence to remedy the violence of other men?
JY: This is one of those things that Elinor recognizes towards the end of the novel that she’s going to have to live with and think about for quite some time. She knows what she’s doing, she knows what she’s allowing to happen. She is imperfect, even as she is recognizing her own power and role in all of this.
AL: This seems like a matter of justice that is not accessible any other way. There is such a failure to protect women or condemn men who are predatory. In some ways we forgive her, because it’s such a distance to cross.
JY: I was writing this during a period when we were all talking about and thinking about #MeToo. One of the comments I would hear often is, “Not guilty until guilty by a court of law.” It’s like don’t you understand courts of law have failed women, sexual assault survivors, for so long that sometimes excel spreadsheets and Twitter feel like all the justice that anyone is ever going to have? Towards the end, Elinor is grasping for whatever she can even though she knows it’s not right. But that’s how badly systems of government and law fail survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence. It doesn’t work.
Writing the book during the four years of the Trump administration, every day brought something heretofore unimaginable. Here I am writing a novel that talks about the violence done to women, to people of color, and real life is reflecting that back to me in ways that I would not have thought possible at such magnitude and such volume ten years ago.
AL: We feel erasure as an eradicating force in O Beautiful. It is not just that the environment is pillaged or that the landscape of the town changes, or that the place is overrun by newcomers. Women fear sexual assault and sexual harassment, yet often remain silent. There are disappearances of multiple Mahua Nation women from the nearby Northfork reservation, which the media, susceptible to bias, ignores. What is the cost of erasure in a country that has historically employed erasure as a tool?
JY: People are so angry. The problem comes when it is the people who have historically been in power who claim not to be seen, not to be heard. It feels like we’re talking in different languages. Do you understand history?Do you understand the values and principles and actions and deeds this country was founded on, and how many people were hurt, displaced, killed. I love this country. Yet it seems that somewhere along the way we lost the word patriotism. It became this other thing, this semi-militant, half-cocked expression. There’s part of me that wants to reclaim it, but I also want to keep asking what it means to care about this country. How we became this, acknowledging the whole truth, what was lost, and who lost what, and who lost more. This country has so much promise and so much potential, and it breaks my heart.
Part of writing this book was thinking about the individual, what one person can do. It’s not a lot. Elinor is making an effort, rather than giving into this hopelessness that I admit I sometimes feel, and she is correcting her own acts of erasure rather than giving excuses for why she behaves the way she does. Sometimes I’m too mad and too frustrated and too tired to try. Writing this book was a way to try.
AL: Elinor is determined to expose convenient falsehoods and unspoken truths, particularly racism and white separatism. What are the convenient falsehoods that you intend to keep writing about in your work?
JY: This idea of the American dream that so many people from immigrant families like ours chase. It’s not accessible to everyone for lots of reasons. This country is deeply racist from its origins. What we see unfolding on Native American reservations every day, every year—missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I don’t understand how people can look at what’s happening, at how invisible those women and girls are made to be, and think that there is not something structurally unsound about how we talk about race and gender in this country. I’m going to be chasing some variation of these threads for most of my writing life, probably without resolution.
AL: What felt empowering in writing this novel?
JY: Feeling truthful. Being honest. Recognizing that you can be this bruised—and at times broken—person who is capable of acting outside of your pain and anger and frustration. That, despite Elinor having a hard upbringing and somewhat difficult life, she is taking responsibility, and she’s not irredeemable because she’s being honest with herself about her own actions and complicity. In her own flawed way, she is trying to do better. We spend a lot of time trying to be righteous instead of doing right. She’s trying to do the right thing, she cares less about being right. That distinction matters.