Conflicts Erupt Between a Traditional Mother and Her Queer Daughter in a Small Korean Apartment
Author Kim Hye-jin and translator Jamie Chang on complicated family dynamics in the novel "Concerning My Daughter"
What do you say, when your 30-something daughter asks to move back into your small apartment? What do you say, as a person who isn’t comfortable uttering the word “gay,” when she brings along her long-term partner—another woman? What do you say, when confronted with new ways of living, protesting, loving, and taking up space? These are questions that the narrator in Concerning My Daughter grapples with. Kim Hye-jin’s novel, translated by Jamie Chang, centers the experience of being the mother of a queer child.
The mother tries her best to live a socially acceptable life: she works as a caretaker in a nursing home, donates some money to church, and—crucially—feels that she has done everything to dutifully raise her daughter. Her daughter Green, on the other hand, is an adjunct professor and keeps getting involved with campus protests. Green’s choices are indecipherable to her mother, who desperately wishes for Green to get married to a man. Meanwhile, Green’s girlfriend, Lane, keeps attempting to make conversation; home tensions escalate quickly. At her workplace, the mother grows increasingly concerned and attached to Jen, an elderly woman left without any family. Concerning My Daughter is a fascinating look at the double-edged nature of acceptance: on the one hand, the mother struggles to accept her daughter’s sexuality and life choices. On the other hand, she also desperately craves others’ acceptance, so as not to be perceived as an outlier in society. Kim doesn’t offer straightforward answers, but instead presents differing perspectives with nuance and heart.
Editor’s note: This interview was translated by Jamie Chang and Jaeyeon Yoo.
Jaeyeon Yoo: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the publisher called this work “a mother’s coming-of-age novel.” How did you decide on the narrator for this book? What do you think we learn about ourselves—and our capacity for change—as we grow older?
Kim Hye-jin: The novel’s main narrative is about the experience of a mother struggling to accept her queer daughter’s life, but broadly speaking, it is a story about understanding. It is also a question of if we ever fully understand one another. If I had chosen the daughter to be the narrator, it would have been much more obvious what the novel was trying to say. But I wanted to point out that not all processes of understanding are achieved as immediately, as easily as we think. I wanted to follow the process of having difficulty with understanding—of refusing, hesitating, fearing, being frustrated, and yet not giving up. Because everyone’s individual experience is different, I think that one also experiences change differently as we age. In my case, I’ve found myself getting a little more flexible as I age. When I was younger, I only recognized my life as solely my own, and believed that I could control my entire life through my own willpower and effort. But since accepting that this is impossible, there’s been an aspect of comfort. Whereas I was only focusing on myself until now, it seems to me like I’m gradually seeing more of the world outside me.
JY: I was so struck by the depictions of the nursing home facilities. They were very painful and vivid, forcing readers to confront scenes we’d prefer not to think about. What made you focus on nursing homes?
KH: Is there any place that can show the life of the elderly as honestly and nakedly as a nursing home? This is probably not a story only limited to South Korea. The nursing home in the novel is the mother’s workplace, and a place where she thinks of her own old age, worries about her daughter’s old age. The miserable elderly lives of herself and her daughter—I thought, isn’t this the most fundamental fear of the mother, perhaps? Korean nursing homes appear frequently in the media, [and] I remember visiting my grandmother in the nursing home with my parents. There are definitely nursing homes that exist outside this model, but I think that the majority of nursing homes do not fully respect or take care of/comfort the elderly.
JY: What drew you to write about the social issues in Concerning My Daughter? What roles do contemporary news and/or activism play in your work?
KH: Issues—such as elderly care, generational conflict, LGBTQ+ rights—are problems that people living in contemporary Korean society face directly or indirectly. I too can’t help but worry about these issues, and they affect my writing. Of course it differs amongst individuals, but I wanted to talk about how these social issues affect an individual’s life, and how complex and multi-layered they are. If you look at this novel from within, it is about a mother in her mid 60s wrestling to understand the life of her 30-something-year-old daughter. But if you look at the novel from the outside, it is also a text written by me in my mid 30s, trying to understand my mother’s generation.
JY: I noticed the use of nicknames in this book, such as “Jen,” “Green,” and “Lane” (which are written in transliterated English in the Korean original). Was there any significant reasoning behind the nicknames?
KH: Green and Lane are nicknames commonly used by women in their mid-30s within the community. There is much more of this type of tendency these days, where people no longer live by the one name they were given at birth. In this manner, Green and Lane are people who want to live by names they have chosen themselves, not the names given to them by others. The name Jen came from an abbreviation for the name “Jaehee” (Lee Jaehee). At some point, a reader told me that the symbolism of the Chinese character “jen” (禪) means “to head towards good” in Buddhism. I remember being surprised by how that symbolism was strangely similar to the novel’s Jen.
JY: Another theme in Concerning My Daughter is the role of food. The narrator often frames an inability to “digest” certain knowledges, and offering rice is her way of showing love. Could you talk more about your thoughts—and perhaps the connections between—the acts of digesting, caring, and understanding? How does the body offer up different ways of processing information?
KH: “Did you eat?” is one of the questions that my mother most commonly asks me. My mother is always curious about where, when, with whom, what I ate; she worries about whether I might have skipped a meal. I know very well that this is one way of showing love. That this is the most natural and direct expression of love, from a mother who isn’t accustomed to saying “I love you.” In the last scene of the novel, the mother pushes the rice and banchan to her daughter and the daughter’s lover. I thought that this, in that moment, was the most care that the mother could express. It is a way of love that I have experienced, and also a realization that, sometimes, forms of expression other than words can reach much deeper.
JY: Speaking of different ways of expressing love, how would you define “family”?
KH: In the novel, Lane asks the mother, “What is a family? Family is people who support you and are always there for you. Why is that family and not this?” Like this question, shouldn’t the family now be defined and chosen by the individual, rather than being stipulated by society, laws, or institutions? I believe that family should include not only the fixed and immutable traditional forms of family, based on blood, but also the various forms that individuals choose. If the category of family can be expanded to be more flexible than now, I think that we could find solutions to many of the problems that our society currently faces.
JY: What were some of the challenges of translating this book?
Jamie Chang: This project generated more psychic rather than technical woe: I was unnerved by how much I was sympathizing with the mother character, often chiding Green for not having her finances in order and putting her mother and partner in an impossible position. I had to do some soul searching for residual internalized homophobia.
As for technical woe, romanizing “Lane” was a bit of a challenge. Her name is spelled in Korean as 레인, which can be romanized as Lane, Rain, Lain, Rayne, etc. I thought “Rain” might be too on the nose, as the partner character is the glue that holds the tottering mother-daughter relationship together, so I chose Lane, as in Jane Lane—slightly cooler but supportive nonetheless.
JY: What would you say is distinctive about Kim Hye-jin’s prose, and how did you try to achieve a similar effect in English?
JC: Kim’s prose reminds me of Park Soo Keun’s paintings from the 1960s. When you examine it up close, all you see is texture. But if you take a few steps back and look at the whole canvas, images emerge. Kim uses uncomplicated prose to tell a deeply nuanced story, so I tried to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.
JY: In a 2019 interview, you talked about the potential of literature to help LGBTQ+ communities. There’s been a surge—at least, in the US publishing market—for translated queer Korean narratives; I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’ve noticed in current literary trends (both within South Korea and what is being translated), and queer Korean literature.
JC: I think, and Concerning My Daughter is a good example, the queer Korean narratives are starting to leave the realm of genre fiction and move toward literary fiction. With lesbian characters in particular, their narratives have been explored in the realm of young adult, fantasy, horror, or science fiction so far—teen lesbian succubus, post-apocalyptic lesbians, lesbians on Mars—as if it is inconceivable that lesbians would live down the hall from you, make your food, teach your children. I think Korean literature is just starting to imagine lesbian lives situated in contemporary Korean life, and that’s very exciting for me.
The premise of this book has all the ingredients for an excellent mother-daughter movie: impoverished lesbian activist moves in with her homophobic elderly mother and brings her partner as well. In the meantime, the mother plots to kidnap her favorite patient from the convalescent home… I really do hope someone adapts this story for the screen.