It’s Up to a 105-Year-Old South Korean Matriarch to Break a Family Curse
Jimin Han turns her family history of the Korean war into a ghost story in "The Apology"
Jimin Han is a master of telling unique and compelling tales through fascinating storytelling techniques. Author of A Small Revolution, Han’s latest offering is part ghost story, part mystery, part family epic, and part humorous travel adventure.
In The Apology, 105-year-old Jeonga has a bone to pick with almost everyone. Having sacrificed her own love and happiness as a younger woman to save the family’s reputation in Seoul during the Korean War, now Jeonga clings to the walls of safety she’s built with clenched hands.
So when she receives a letter from a grand-niece in America that threatens to destroy the family’s reputation and excavate long-buried secrets, Jeonga springs into action, traveling the U.S. to avert disaster.
Yet when she is hit by a bus and sent spluttering into the afterlife, Jeonga must attempt to communicate with the living and save her youngest progeny from a terrible fate. To do so, she must relinquish her obsession with controlling other members of her family, and apologize once and for all for creating this tangled legacy of secrets.
I spoke to Jimin Han about her familial history of the Korean war, writing a ghost story, and the discourse around Asian American literature.
Kim Liao: I have to ask about your daring choice to kill the main character, Jeonga, in the first chapter. Much of the book plays out after her death, moving forwards and backwards in time. I was curious, why did you decide to do this?
Jimin Han: I have this memory from when I was a girl of my great aunt at a cemetery, crying, and I didn’t understand how she was connected to our family. I knew that she was at her son’s grave and that he had died in an accident. And I didn’t know anything about it. But that memory stayed with me.
I was writing what I thought would become a memoir about my grandmother, who was separated from the rest of our family in North Korea. I learned later that this great aunt was her sister, and that my grandmother was disinherited from her family because of her choice to marry my grandfather and go to what’s now North Korea.
However, because of the Korean War, this man my grandmother left her family for was forced to leave the northern part of the peninsula to avoid conscription into the army. So she lost both the man that she loved and her birth family in South Korea. I always thought there was a story there.
After my mother died and A Small Revolution was published, I was looking for something else to write. COVID hit and all of a sudden we were all talking a lot more about the possibility of death. It was all around us. A friend of mine had a brain tumor, and was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer—and he was also working on his second novel. We started to meet on Zoom each week, and the idea of the afterlife came from these conversations we had. We were all sort of like living with this threat every day.
By making Jeonga 105 years old, it was a way to make death less threatening in some ways, to be less frightening. I mean, we feel sad if a 105-year-old dies, but not in the same way we would if somebody were younger. That was my way of trying to work around my fears, and trying to face those thoughts after my mother died and feeling scared for my friend facing mortality.
KL: In The Apology, the legacy of family secrets plays out over several generations in both Korea and America. I’m curious about how you feel like that act of immigrating affects these types of family dynamics. Is there something about being on two different continents that shifts things?
JH: For a big chunk of my childhood, it was hard to travel to Korea, where I was born. My first time back was when I was 18. My mother had been a doctor in Korea, and she couldn’t continue her practice when she was here because of the cost of travel. We also didn’t have the support of extended family. But she had a friend who was a doctor, and her friend would go to Korea and practice medicine for half the year and live with her family for half a year. I remember hearing in my mother’s voice that she wished she could have had the same thing because she loved being a doctor.
So what strikes me is how that has changed, and how these days, depending on where you are, there are more flights back. It’s more possible for people to go back and forth more.
Our world is much smaller now. I had a teacher from high school who when she turned 70, her best friend gave her an airline ticket to Tanzania. Her whole world had previously just been confined to the States. But because she got this airline ticket, she went to Tanzania with her friend. She came back and started learning Arabic. Then, she started tutoring English and had an Arabic language exchange with a young man, and helped someone in her city studying from Kenya. She eventually went back to Tanzania. It completely changed her outlook. She even climbed Kilimanjaro. That was all at 70 years old.
This makes me think there’s never a time when it’s too late to travel or do something new. If Jeonga is 105, then it’s never too late. Actually, along those lines, she’s still trying to affect the outcome of her legacy, trying to right some of these wrongs in the family.
KL: Yeah, there are a lot of questions in this book about karma, legacies, and redemption. Do you think that redemption is always possible?
JH: I have mixed feelings about it. We don’t know. But as long as someone’s willing to try, then that’s something. This was one of the last things my mother said when my father ended up taking her to Korea after she got sick. It was hard for us to accept that decision he made because it meant we wouldn’t be with her when she died.
But this idea makes me think that it doesn’t mean it’s already decided—like fate. It may mean that some things are in your control and some things are not in your control. I like to think that you can do more, that there’s more change that you can actually make.
I like to think that there’s always something that could happen that could be done. We just might not have thought of it yet. We don’t know what to do today, but maybe we’ll think of it tomorrow. How could we possibly know everything?
KL: There is a compelling mystery in the book about what happened to Jeonga’s younger sister Seona, after she ran away from the family and eloped to North Korea. How did you research this? Was this common for families to be separated and then have the border close during the Korean War and never see each other again?
JH: In terms of families being separated, I think about my uncle’s family. My uncle’s family had one brother who lived in the northern part of the peninsula, close to what would become the DMZ. His younger siblings were in Seoul. When they started to hear rumblings about fighting and the border closing, they all moved together as a whole family. But then when they saw that the U.N. forces were going to bring all this firepower they all moved back across the border, to the north side.
There was so much uncertainty. There was so much news changing every day. Then the family moved back to the south side. By the second or third time they had gone back and forth, it became clear that the U.N. was going to support the U.S. forces, and they didn’t want to support the communist political factions that were trying to get support from China and Russia.
But then when the fighting increased again and the DMZ border was moved south, it was too late for my uncle’s family to move. Which side were they on? They were on the northern side! His uncle came and took him as a 15-year-old boy, and they walked to get through the border back to the southern side. So he never saw his family again. I think there were a lot of those kinds of stories.
With my father and his father, they didn’t move back and forth as much. They didn’t have the economic means. They waited till the last minute and realized they didn’t want to fight on the side of the communists. So my father and his father, they also walked south very late in the conflict, and they saw people dying on the side of the road. He had to leave his mother and sister behind—my grandmother and her daughter. So I’ve always wondered about them.
Thinking about the legacy of the border and the DMZ and this sort of uncertainty, I had all of this material and, and I wondered about what it might be like for someone whose mother was now not only cut off from the man she left her family for, but also was isolated in this place. And I’ve always been told that I look like my grandmother. So I was thinking about borders, boundaries, death, and what it’s like to feel cut off.
KL: One image that really stuck with me was the persimmon with the bite taken out of it that Jeonga finds. What’s the importance of persimmons for you?
JH: My mother loved persimmons and I have a love-hate relationship with them. I’ve always wanted to like them, but she loves them. There were a lot of Korean foods where my mother would say, “Here’s something you’ll love.” And sometimes I loved those things, but other times I couldn’t understand why she liked them.
With persimmons, it’s very important how ripe they are, because an unripe persimmon can really hurt your mouth. It’s really hard to get it just right. There’s a moment when it’s good, and the next moment it’s mushy.
She was that way about melons, too. My mother always knew in the grocery store exactly when a melon was right. So there was a bit of a metaphor there, perhaps there’s something about having it just right and being able to be fooled—like I feel like I’m being fooled in some ways. Jeonga is a difficult character, so I was thinking about ways that she might be fooled, and ways that everyone could be fooled.
KL: What might you want to speak to about shifting perceptions of Korean American identities or how the community has evolved over time? Do you feel like there’s a difference in how younger generations think about Korean American identity versus, say, when you first arrived in America?
JH: I’m relieved to hear more and more conversations about the complexity of being Korean American. Other people in this country have been afforded that complexity. I think that the more stories we can have out there, it will add to this notion that there’s an intersectionality to every aspect of identity. People think that they know somebody else and can make decisions about them, and about the value of human life. I’m glad to be having these conversations even as they are really difficult.
I’ve always felt like an outsider in every way. I didn’t grow up in a large Korean American community, so I don’t always feel like I’ve got my finger on the pulse of what that is, but I also love being with other Korean Americans because then there’s other things we have in common.
There have been conversations recently about how there are more books about Asian Americans published. But are they all getting the marketing and publicity and support that they should? Like, could there be tokenizing? I feel like there are a lot of stories, but then still only a few get amplified. But it’s exciting to see more Korean American novels out there. I just hope that continues.
KL: Jeonga doesn’t feel like a traditional ghost to me. And this doesn’t feel like a classic ghost story. How do you feel about ghosts?
JH: You know, for my mother, the boundary between life and death seemed much more pleasant. I guess it just seemed much more permeable. The way my mother would talk about it, ghosts shouldn’t be feared, but just accepted as part of our lives. Again, it goes back to what we know. Why do we think we know everything?
So I wanted Jeonga to not be a scary ghost. Anyone could be afraid when they feel her trying to make contact with them, but she’s just trying to help. I thought she would be so mad to have died before she could finish doing what she needed to do.
I’ve had dreams of my mother since she died and they were comforting. In the dream, I was always so happy to see my mom. So I hope she comes back; I hope I dream about her more, because every time, I feel like she’s right there in front of me again.