Sonya Chung on Race, Risk & Reinvention

Sion Dayson talks with the author of The Loved Ones

I first met Sonya Chung over crêpes in Paris’ eleventh arrondissement a couple years ago. I was immediately struck by her thoughtfulness, intellectual rigor, and wide-ranging curiosity, all qualities reflected in her work as a staff writer for The Millions and editor of the literary site Bloom.

In our subsequent meetings at a corner café on the Left Bank and at Maison Harlem in New York (yes, there’s a running theme here), we delved into discussions about race and literature, the frustrations and rewards of publishing, and the role of the artist in a world that sometimes seems to be in flames.

I was delighted to read an advance copy of Chung’s second novel The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, October 2016), a rich story of family, inheritance, and love told through the dual narratives of an African American father and a Korean American teenager charged with caring for the former’s biracial children. Intergenerational trauma and tragedy haunt the two families (who are both named Lee) in a tale that feels both intimate and ambitious.

I caught Sonya over email while she was in Key West for a residency to continue our discussions on exploring sensitive material and transracial writing. As I was in the midst of moving from Paris after a decade’s residence there, I couldn’t help but touch on the French connection, too.

— Sion Dayson

Sion Dayson: One of the epigraphs that opens your novel discusses “sankofa,” and is accompanied by its two common visual representations — a bird with its head turned backward and a shape like a stylized heart. The word comes from the Twi language in Ghana (where I spent some time as an undergrad!) and is often associated with a proverb about looking to the past to understand the present, or, as one of your characters writes in a letter, “it has something to do with going back to find something, but it’s also about going forward.” How do you see this concept of sankofa informing and infusing the novel? Why does it speak to you?

Sonya Chung: The sankofa proverb has been on my radar since my senior year in college, when I had the opportunity to travel in South Africa for six weeks. This was 1994, the year of the first free elections and Mandela’s presidency — a dramatic time, both euphoric and precarious. Sankofa was invoked by many black South Africans I met who felt strongly that retribution — certainly anything in the realm of violence — should be eschewed going forward: enough oppression and death was the gist; let’s learn from past wrongs and do differently now. This noble response of course echoes Dr. King’s nonviolence.

But my own engagement with sankofa via the characters in The Loved Ones is more ambivalent — which is why I included two graphics in the epigraph that are, intriguingly, quite different from each other (also, the accompanying quotation reveals varying meanings of sankofa, including one that references “taboo”). I’ve always been skeptical, for instance, of the psychotherapeutic idea that all emotional healing comes from cathartic explorations of one’s childhood. There’s truth in that, but there is also an undersung narrative of detachment, forward motion, and reinvention. An aside: last summer I fell down the rabbit hole of Dylanology, driven by my fascination with Bob Dylan as consummate self-reinventor — always evolving forward and dodging his background (family, geography, generation). The Loved Ones is in part about this: we are and we are not who our blood roots predetermine us to be.

Dayson: Yes, I can read those threads in The Loved Ones now that I hear you talk about them. You’ve evoked the word “taboo” here, too, which I wanted to ask about. A couple love stories in the novel, including the central one, are illicit, yet they don’t read as taboo. I credit the sensitivity of the writing, the full humanity you bring to your characters. How do you approach writing about delicate material?

Chung: Thank you for the kind words; I appreciate hearing that, because I did have concerns about the taboo. But a main “approach” was to silence those concerns — to follow the characters, and what was interesting to me about their connection, as faithfully and nonjudgmentally as possible. This wasn’t too hard, because my relationship with the characters had developed over a long period of time; I knew them, and when you know characters well enough, you are with them as opposed to standing over them. As with people.

A very useful comment I once received from a writing teacher was, “Where’s the danger?” There has to be danger — for the writer, the characters, the reader — in order for story to gain momentum and depth. So the delicacy was in fact a driving energy in the writing.

Dayson: Speaking of delicate or dangerous material, you’re a Korean American woman writing from the perspective of an African American man. Did this feel risky to you? Why did you make this decision for the novel?

Chung: It’s interesting to be asked “why” in regards to a creative impulse. In another context I might dodge and prevaricate: WHY? Why did Rothko paint blurry blocks of color? But here the question is apt, and I credit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for illuminating this recently. In an open Q&A at The Guardian, an older white male asked how to write about a young Bengali girl “without cliché or stereotype,” to which Adichie responded, “I think the first question is: WHY do you want to write about a young Bengali girl? There are still wonderful stories to be told about 50-year-old white men.”

Put another way: Jia Tolentino recently wrote, in response to Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane speech, “there are all sorts of ways to borrow another person’s position: respectfully and transformatively, in ignorance, or with disdain.” Condescension is another possibility; and I think that’s what Adichie was getting at (but do read the full exchange to judge for yourself).

My own impulse to write a story that includes a black male character’s perspective has to do with what I’d call an experiential tipping point. When a long-form project comes into being, it’s like a force welling up at the dam — a critical mass of material, emotions, intellectual and moral inquiry has accumulated over time and is rising, rising.

When a long-form project comes into being, it’s like a force welling up at the dam.

I was born in Prince George’s County, MD, a predominantly African American area, where our family lived for about six years; then we moved to the more affluent, white Montgomery County, while my father’s medical practice remained in Prince George’s. 99% of his patients were African American. As in many Asian immigrant families, there was negative, racist talk in our household (and extended Korean community) about black people; my parents lived in that complicated tension of being in and among black people every day, servicing and transacting and being rather intimate, and yet also wary and in conflict.

Fast forward to my young adulthood, as I developed my own world view and politics: for five years I lived in a (nongentrified) racially diverse neighborhood in South Seattle, three of those working full-time at a community development organization whose mission was to “serve and strengthen African American families.” The leadership and staff of the organization were primarily African American, and they, along with their families, as well as clients and volunteers and members of the partner church, became friends and mentors. These two formative, and vastly different, experiences began to layer for me in complex ways, as you can imagine.

More recently — and I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but — The Wire, which I’ve watched backwards and forwards several times, has been a usefully synthesizing touchstone (though it’s not until this interview that I’ve reflected on why I was so obsessed with it). What The Wire did for non-black viewers is show vividly and memorably that there are as many possible representations of black people as there are human beings. It’s horrifying that a TV series had to do that work — countering both historical racism and decades of media stereotypes — but it did, and I think it was successful. I’d also like to give a shout-out to the NPR news program “Tell Me More,” with Michel Martin, which I listened to daily during its seven-year run: when you get your news from a source whose journalists are primarily people of color, and majority African American, your world view is shaped in a specific, valuable way. I still lament the canceling of that program.

There was also that summer I spent in South Africa. Too much to say about that, but it’s in the mix of experience.

So, the “why”: all that welling up at the dam. And feeling like there was something particular I might bring to my characters, and to the collision of an African American character (and his family) and a Korean American character (and her family) — something real, dimensional, perhaps surprising.

Then the Asian Americans for Black Lives Matter movement emerged this past summer, and it was like the leaky, rumbling dam totally burst! Hats off to Christina Xu and everyone who made that happen (fist-to-chest thump, peace sign).

Dayson: This all provides such illuminating context. It’s amazing to learn of these deep, varied experiences and to imagine them bumping up against each other. You’ve touched on Lionel Shriver’s speech here, too, and I wonder if we should talk more about that. There have been so many conversations lately related to writing across race. When I read your novel this summer, there was a lot of attention at that time focused on Ben H. Winters, the white author whose latest book features a black narrator, a former slave turned bounty hunter. As I write to you now in September, it’s a week when the Internet lit up following Shriver’s remarks. Not to make a parallel of those two cases as I think the authors displayed vastly different levels of awareness and responsiveness, but I’m interested on your thoughts about the topic itself. You must have considered the issue as you were writing your book, and it seems not insignificant that you are a writer of color writing across race.

Chung: Insightful, important responses have already been written about both controversies. I refer readers to the initial critical piece in Slate by J. Holtham, which includes Winters’s own response. And I would say this: Winters’s expressed writerly motive — “I wanted to explore a painful history and a painful present. And I wanted to ask white readers to think about these things as deeply as black people are forced to think about them” — along with wide praise for the work itself, has rightly redirected criticism to the ignorance of the NY Times reviewer who lauded him for his “courage” in writing from the perspective of a former slave — effectively erasing the courage of numerous African American writers who came before him. However, Winters will likely continue to benefit from this purported/perceived courage in ways that equally talented writers of color mining the same subject matter have not; there is some responsibility, I believe, to think about these inequities — in publishing, media attention, and financial opportunities that spawn from success — “as deeply as black people are forced to think about them.”

With regard to Shriver, I refer readers in particular to Jia Tolentino, Ken Kalfus, Danielle Evans’s twitter response, and Kaitlyn Greenidge. Greenidge writes about Bill Cheng, a Chinese American writer and author of Southern Dog the Cross, whose protagonist is a young black man on an odyssey through the deep south in 1927. She defends Cheng’s “right” to tell this story — to write a lynching scene in particular — “Because he was a good writer, a thoughtful writer.” She does not speak specifically to the fact that Cheng is Asian American, only that he is not black. Does it make a difference that Cheng is not white? Does it make a difference that I am an Asian American female writing a black male? If so, how so? I’m interested in these questions and am eager to engage in the continuing discussion; but I can’t say I have categorical answers.

Greenidge reminds us that we all have blind spots and must work hard at empathy when inhabiting characters outside our own experience: she uses herself, a black author who struggled with writing a white character, as an example. I completely agree, but I would also add: if you are a white American, and your social and professional world is largely white, your work in this area may be harder, your blind spots more numerous.

Dayson: It’s not just in the literary sphere that it feels we’re at a heightened cultural moment where we’re really talking about race — whether it be related to the criminal justice system, policing, systemic racism in many realms. Your novel is set before this contemporary time (spanning the years 1951 to 2005) and doesn’t speak explicitly about these issues, but the characters’ origins are important. What do you think a literary novel can lend to this current moment as we reckon with race? Or maybe that’s not its job?

Chung: The question is in fact a live wire for me, because the novel I’m working on now wades deep into these waters: the characters are confronted directly with questions about art’s relevance, and its obligations, in a context of racial injustice. My interest is in exploring these questions through characters whose gut relationship to both art and racism make the moral quandary complicated, personally and intellectually.

But I’m early on in the project and definitely don’t feel qualified to make pronouncements about The Novel or its potential to effect social change. I admire my artist-activist friends so much, while also having learned over time that I am more useful — most myself, and thus most truthful — at the desk, on the page, than on social media or at a rally. This sometimes feels like a personal inadequacy, especially at times like this (as of this writing, the video of Keith Scott’s shooting has just been released); but, I think what I can do, try to do at least, is bring human depth and complexity into a reader’s consciousness. Even supposedly literary readers — myself included — internalize static, unnuanced ideas of people and of life. Fixed, tidy perceptions — especially unconscious ones — are arch enemies of human dignity, transformative exchanges, and justice; they fuel fear, and fear is what fuels violence.

Fixed, tidy perceptions — especially unconscious ones — are arch enemies of human dignity, transformative exchanges, and justice…

Dayson: I am constantly grappling with these questions, vacillating between whether I best serve in a more direct, active way, or if my most effective role is as a writer. It’s helpful to hear your thoughts on this. I do want to return to your novel specifically and ask about the role of place. The Loved Ones is largely grounded in Washington, DC (and one house in NW, in particular) and in Korea. Can you talk about that and how your background may have come to bear on the novel?

Chung: I’ll back up and mention that The Loved Ones is my second published novel but the third I’ve written. That second novel is in a drawer (a box, actually, on a shelf); I’d spent nearly three years on it. It was rather sprawling and took place in multiple settings, none of which were places I knew from direct experience. When I recovered from that failure — which was devastating — I was gun shy and needed to start modestly. So I started closer to home, literally.

I spent most of my childhood in suburban Maryland, not far outside the city. But I knew DC more as a proximal outsider than an insider — and so imagining (and researching) a place that was already familiar generated good fictional energy. I think there’s a kind of sweet spot where fiction ignites most powerfully, and it has something to do with the way imagination and experience — fiction and fact — meld and dance and morph into something new. The same could be said for Korea: I was not born there, but it’s my parents’ native land, and I’ve visited several times as an adult. The imagination/experience layering happens very differently in this case — Korea is somehow simultaneously further from and closer to my psyche — but the idea is similar.

In retrospect, I suspect the imagination/experience balance was probably tipped too far away from experience with that second novel. As time goes on, though, it’s clear to me that the “failure” was extremely productive: craft lessons abound out of what I tried and what didn’t work. It’s like a tough writing class that just keeps on giving.

Dayson: Before we wrap up, I can’t help but ask about Paris and the influence of French, too, as that’s how we connected, and they feature in your novel, as well. The book is divided into three sections — les proches, les bien aimés, l’essence — and later Paris becomes one of the novel’s locales. I loved when Hannah notes “no one in Paris ever asked, So what’s your story?” As a long-time resident of the city, that remark rang true. I know Paris is an important place for you. Why does it speak to you as a writer, this place where people do not ask your story?

Chung: I sense in your question that perhaps “love” of that moment is tinged with irony? As in, Ah, Parisian aloofness! I guess Hannah is young enough that the disinterest doesn’t bother her; she’s reinventing, detaching and moving forward, Dylan-style. When I visit Paris, I’m there to sink into the city’s simple pleasures and to write, so I’m content to be anonymous; I can imagine that living there and trying to really connect is much more difficult.

But Parisians do value their artists more than Americans do. The expat writer Jake Lamar has said that when you mention you’re a writer to a French person, he won’t ask, “Have I heard of you?” or “What have you published?” but rather, “What are you working on?” What matters most, or at least more, is the act of creation, the fact of creation.

In an earlier draft, the epigraph to The Loved Ones was a quote from Susan Sontag’s journals: “Americans are obsessed with personal history; Europeans with expressions of essence.” So I’m looping back to my sankofa ambivalence here: it’s not always about your past, there is “essence” that is irrespective of personal history. And I especially love the wordplay of essence, which in French can mean soul or nature, as in English, but it can also mean gasoline — fuel for forward motion.

It’s not always about your past, there is “essence” that is irrespective of personal history.

Dayson: That seems like a perfect note to end on — fuel for forward motion! Thank you, Sonya.

I encourage everyone to go forth and pick up a copy of The Loved Ones, on bookshelves October 18.

About the Interviewer

Sion Dayson spent the last decade living in Paris where she chronicled the City of Light’s less glamorous side on paris (im)perfect. Her work has appeared in The Writer, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, and several anthologies, among other venues. Her debut novel, When Things Were Green, will be published in 2017.

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