For Author Crystal Hana Kim, Fiction and Optimism Go Hand in Hand

The Korean-American author of 'The Stone Home' spoke with Observer about the darkness of politics and how literature can help us forge a path forward.

A collage of a book cover an an author photo
‘The Stone Home’ will hit shelves on April 2. Courtesy Crystal Hana Kim

Crystal Hana Kim’s The Stone Home tells a story of itinerant youths rounded up and placed in a government-run reformatory center in South Korea where they are abused and tortured. It is a work of fiction, but “homes” like the one in the novel did exist in Korea in the 1980s under the Chun Doo-hwan regime. Today, they’re more aptly termed internment camps.

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In her author’s note at the end of the novel, Kim writes, “What does it mean that state-sanctioned violence happens time and again? How do we confront our capacity for evil? Whose stories are silenced in our history, and how does that erasure contribute to future crimes against humanity?”

Told from the perspectives of two adolescent narrators—a girl named Eunju and a boy named Sangchul—The Stone Home doesn’t answer these questions and instead zooms in on the lives of the people in the Stone Home. Kim, who received the 2022 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, is unapologetic in her approach. And speaking as someone whose foundational understanding of the Korean War was gleaned through a (mostly) American lens of books, movies and TV series—notably M*A*S*H and Reply—this novel scraped off much of what I’d unknowingly internalized as Korean history.

Kim spoke with Observer about her book, slated for release on April 2, and the importance of engaging with politics as both writers and readers.

This was, to me, a deeply political novel—it grapples with the patriarchy, politics, religion, gender, capitalism, corruption, power—did you set out meaning for it to be read this way? 

I think I set out to write a political novel. I’m interested in all of the themes that you just articulated. The patriarchy, Korean politics in relation to world politics, religion and capitalism are all the pressures that we are living through now, and these are all topics that concern me deeply in the present day. Looking back at history helps us understand, unravel and untangle. When I’m writing fiction, I want it to feel immersive […] a story that’s driven by character. It makes it feel less abstract and more real. But in the end, there are these larger themes that I want the reader to have to confront or think about or linger upon.

There’s a great line in the novel that sums up the state of the world right now as well as summarizes the way the events in the novel unfold: “a week after inspection day […] everything and nothing has changed.” Do you think this is the direction we’re heading in as a society, where we’re unfazed by so much? 

I think that question of “everything and nothing has changed” feels timeless, which can be depressing or motivating. In regards to The Stone Home, the reason why I initially wanted to write a novel set in this quote-unquote “reformatory” center is because these institutions [come up] time and again. This is not a singular event that happened in Korea. This has happened to indigenous Australians, First Nations children in Canada and Black Americans, and it continues to happen across time and culture.

These institutions that were created in South Korea in the 1980s were striking to me because they were also created 40 years prior by Japanese colonialists to “reform” the children of political dissidents. So, when I first learned about these institutions in Korea, I kept thinking about history repeating itself—and that is something that can definitely be applied to now.

What role do you think literature has to play in that regard? In “unfazing” us, in a sense.

I think one role of literature is to create a path forward. It’s only when we have to truly examine ourselves and examine human patterns when we look at the difficult parts of our history that we can inform ourselves to know more about our present conditions and hopefully change something in the future. Perhaps that’s optimistic.

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I’d say it is. Would you say you’re an optimist?

I think I am an optimist. I’m drawn to dark parts of our history, so that might come as a surprise. I’m not afraid to depict gruesome parts of our history. But in my core, I think I’m an optimist because I believe that there’s a purpose to looking and investigating beyond displays of trauma. I’m trying to learn from it and to better myself in some way from it. I think that makes me an optimist.

I know you did a lot of research for this novel. Did you at any point consider writing this as creative nonfiction? 

I’m not a journalist—I don’t have that background, I didn’t think that I had a place in the realm of creative nonfiction. I find myself most comfortable in the realm of fiction, and there are activists and survivors [of real-life “reformatory” centers] right now in Korea who are sharing their stories. I didn’t want to speak for the activists. I wanted to show [readers] what one of these institutions may have felt like for individuals. I didn’t set the novel in the Brothers’ Home, which is one of the most infamous South Korean institutions—I created a fictionalized version, with fictionalized characters so that I could show readers what it may have felt like to be in one of these institutions—how characters maintain hope or cultivate community.

The novel grapples with the idea of reconciling the good with the bad, and especially zooms in on the idea of good people sometimes doing bad things. Do you think we tend to see things as too black and white nowadays, maybe more so with social media? Do words have the power to help bridge that gap? 

I think that social media has exacerbated this issue, and I think the political landscape of the United States has exacerbated this issue. [However] we do tend to see things in extremes, and I think that nuance has been lost in conversations that are happening online.

What I love about fiction, and what I love about true connections between people, is that there is space for duality and complexity—for a person to be both good and bad, for a situation to have layers of meaning. I think that one of the roles of the writer is to push readers toward complexity, in thinking towards ambiguity and sitting with ambiguity. If the reader is uncomfortable in that ambiguity, at least having them acknowledge that discomfort and question why. That’s one of the most satisfying parts of being a writer: when a reader comes to you after finishing your book and tells you that they have figured something out or formed a question that they hadn’t before.

In a piece you wrote for The Paris Review, you talk about how your writing, and your life, were influenced by your grandmother, who helped raise you. At one point in the piece, you ask your grandmother: “Which was worse – colonization or the war?” Do you have any thoughts about this after working on The Stone Home? Does your writing aim to answer this?

What I’ve learned after writing two novels, one set during the war and this one, which explores the reverberations of colonization, is that they’re all so interconnected. The question I asked my grandmother was too black and white. What I’ve learned through my writing and just by becoming older, is that there is no way to parse through these questions of “which was worse” because one could not have happened without the other. It was all of these outside political forces that created the avenue for the Korean War, which is what led to the devastation and the separation of Korea. I think that these kinds of questions of lineage and cultural memory and the way that identity and nation are formed is something that I’m always going to be writing about. I think I will never find a clear answer because it’s so complicated, but that’s why it’s so rewarding to write about and to think about through the narrative of fiction.

For Author Crystal Hana Kim, Fiction and Optimism Go Hand in Hand