The Outlook Interview: Yong Ik Kim Talks to Yearn Choi; Yong Ik Kim, 65, is an American literary success story. Arriving in the United States in 1948, speaking only broken English, Kim has become a major writer of American fiction. Born and raised in the seaport town of Choongmoo in South Korea, Kim bases his stories on his experiences in his native South Korea or the experiences of Orientals in the United States. After studying English literature in Tokyo in the early 1940s, he resisted his father's wish that he become a lawyer and came to the United States to continue his study of English literature at Florida Southern College and then at the University of Kentucky and the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. Kim identifies himself as a "misfit" in a bureaucratic and mechanical society, although he says he tries hard to be an "adjusted misfit." In his work -- which is published in English and includes roughly 30 published short stories, four novels, two one-act plays and a full-length drama -- he says he is "drawn to life untouched by modern mechanism and conformity and standardization." He neither owns nor knows how to drive a car, did not have a phone until 12 years ago or a television until 10 years ago. His work often involves simple tales of people who could be his relatives, looking for universal meaning in faraway provincial settings. In addition to writing, Kim has taught fiction writing at the University of California at Berkeley. He now teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Kim became an American citizen in 1976. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Hudson Review and the Sewanee Review. In 1985 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kim lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. Yearn Hong Choi, a professor of management at the University of the District of Columbia, is a poet and writer.
Q: Did you have any difficulty coming to the United States in 1948?
A: In those days there was no jet plane so my plane stopped at the Aleutian Islands and it was dark and damp in Alaska, Anchorage (where) we stopped and then the plane flew into Chicago -- a city which I'd only seen (in) American gangster movies in Korea. Upon reaching the street, I saw a man who had a scar on his cheek, hand in his pocket, who reminded me of the American gangsters movie in Korea, so I was frightened and I returned to the airport and waited for another plane to fly to Florida.
I was hungry, but I hesitated to enter the restaurant because in Korea American places are off limits to Koreans, so after a long hesitation I finally entered the restaurant. I did not know where to sit. I was a little bit self-conscious. A man was reading Reader's Digest and he was reading "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met." In Korea I read the Reader's Digest so I sat beside him and a waitress came over. "What do you like to have?"
"Ice cream," I said. "I would like to have one ice cream."
"Vanilla? Chocolate? Strawberry?" and so on. These very difficult for Oriental to pronounce so I said, "Strawberry, please." Not because I liked, I never had a strawberry. Ever since that time I tend to order strawberry. When I say vanilla, sometime waitress ask me, "Sir?" So I developed my liking for strawberry somehow.
I flew into Jacksonville, Florida and there I was invited (to give a talk) by American high school teacher. When I had a breakfast a little boy sat beside me. He picked something small and green. Later I learned it was an olive. I pick it up and it tasted terrible so I swallowed it very quickly -- almost tears came out, but I got my throat. This schoolteacher said, "Kim likes American food very much." I said, "Yes." That was my first lie in America.
I talked too long, for an hour actually in my broken English -- perhaps no one understood my speech. As soon as I finished talking an old woman (from) way back came over. Everybody hurried out except her. She came over (and said), "Young man. You did a finest speech. I enjoyed it very much." So I was conceited. The conceit made me cordial. I said, "Ma'am, are you a tourist or living in town?" She said, "Excuse me. I am hard of hearing," cupping her ear with her hand. My first speech was loved by a lady who was hard of hearing.
Q: Did you have a great ambition at that time to be a writer in the United States?
A: No. I never thought about becoming a professional writer. In this country I had adjustment problem and I was very lonely so every morning I got up and I started write -- three hours every day. My roommate asked me, "What are you doing?" (I said) "I am writing a book." He said, "If you get your work published in America I'll give you $500. Even for American writers, it's very hard to break into that racket." But I didn't listen to him inside. I wrote every morning about three hours and more or less I wrote three hours all my life.
Q: What did you write at that time?
A: I missed my home town so I tried to capture the emotion and passion of the Korean children through my work.
I write what I feel and my playmates in my childhood come to me very natural. They were poor people even by Korean standards. Some didn't have fathers. Their mothers are out all day peddling homegrown bean sprouts. Some are retarded. But we chased the runaway kites under the blue sky. We sometimes slipped and fell in cow dung, but we always got up laughing, chasing those kites. I like my hometown largely because they are untouched (by) modern mechanism and conformity. I remember one of those boys showing me a picture card of (a) great painting which he had bought at the store. Why didn't he buy goodies instead of those pictures?
Q: What was the first story you published?
A: I wrote about "The Wedding Shoes." A butcher's son falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the shoemaker who refused the marriage proposal from the young man.
When you write a story in this country, a story of Korea, you have to have some universal appeal. Although my father was not (a) butcher, I felt that I was a butcher's son. When you start think about when (the) first Americans came to this country, they had to fight Indians and so on. All of us are butcher's sons. So I thought perhaps American readers can understand the Korean themes, the beautiful wedding shoes from the butcher's son's point of view.
Q: How long did you spend writing and rewriting the story?
A: Actually that story took two months. I was working on one book, "The Happy Days" and I finished it and sent it to New York but it always returned to me. One day I was so discouraged and so I just listened to music the whole day and I didn't eat. Somehow the image of wedding shoes came to my mind. I thought if I capture that wedding shoes, the elusive wedding shoes, maybe I can write a real story.
But I felt very hungry so I went to a grocery store and after spending so much money sending my manuscript I didn't have much money. I went to meat counter and I said a few slices of meat please. He picked a huge hunk of meat and wrap it up and marked it 30 cents. I said I only ask you for two slices, three slices. He said, "Oh, that's okay." I went to the cashier, the cashier look at the package and look at me, but she didn't say anything.
Every time I return somehow the package seems to grow bigger, but still he charge me 30 cents. For two months when I was working on that wedding shoes I had a very high protein diet. Before that I used to eat only doughnuts and coffee. He was a butcher and I wrote the story from butcher's son's point of view.
Q: Did that butcher know about your story? Did he read it?
A: After Harper's Bazaar bought it and an amateur ballet group in Iowa City danced that wedding shoes, that advertisement (was) pasted on electric board in front of that grocery store. I'm not sure whether he noticed. I was too shy to -- I didn't tell him about it.
Q: Was your book finally published?
A: Yes, by Little Brown. I remember when I worked on "Happy Days" at the University of Kentucky I (also) used to work in the precious book section. I thought some day if I get my book published maybe my book will be like this. I was waxing leather-bound books and alone in that huge room so I was little bored. I used to read poems because (to read) short stories and novels I had to turn pages. My hands are full of wax so I couldn't turn the pages.
One day a librarian came by and looked at me. The library is very strict about students reading the books during working hours. I thought I might be fired. Instead of chiding me or scolding me he turned the pages for me. I was reading Robert Frost's "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." And the last line, I remember, "That made all the difference." I remember that poem.
When "Happy Days" was published the editor of Little, Brown sent me a book bound in leather. I really appreciated that gift.
Q: Did you celebrate?
A: Of course I was happy, but I felt very sad because at that time I was in Iowa and I had no one to share my joy with. I got more homesick because I was happy but I felt like talking to my friends.
Q: T.S. Eliot went to England and become a subject and never returned to the United States. Do you think you can stay the rest of your life in this country? Do you plan to die in this country?
A: To me it doesn't matter where you live. I always think about Korea and I write about Korea mainly and what's the difference whether I stay in Korean mountain to write about Korea or living in America writing about Korea? I don't see any difference, because my mind returns to Korea always. Actually I shouldn't say return because my playmates in my hometown are always within me. And these people actually inspire me, not the books.
Q: You are now a famous writer. Are you rich?
A: This year I received a fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts and also I was commissioned to work on my teleplay. I made money but I don't know, when I think about my Korean village, my playmates came from very poor homes. My father was a small landlord and they used to call my family rich. Of course, when I went to Seoul and Japan and America, my family was not that rich. This materialistic aspect of life doesn't interest me that much. Just to write.
When I write one good short story, I'm always excited and that story I created comes back to me again and again. I write about human success in the rapture of darkness. This is my happy times. Every time I write I feel good.
Q: So you are not really materialistic man?
A: No. (When) I bought a small house I was excited because I never owned a house for a long, long time. But that excitement doesn't last long. But one short story and one line I wrote excite me sometimes, turns me on.
Q: I recently read an article saying that Korean immigrants first faced United States as a kind of a dream country and then move up quickly to the middle class and with hard work and extensive family effort they have gained some fortunes. Later they are frustrated because they realize racial barriers exist. Have you ever experienced any barriers as a Korean?
A: Oh no. If you are interested in materialistic possessions only, youre bound to get disappointed. But when you write every day, you live within, and so I don't feel up and down. Of course, my wife get sick -- this kind of things happen, then I get, I feel depressed. But I only think about one or two scenes (for) tomorrow morning.
People don't think too much of Oriental people and racial prejudice. I don't think too much about it. It's wonderful thing about writing -- it doesn't matter black or Oriental or white. Just like a dollar. Black man's dollar is as good as white man's dollar, in the South a long time ago the blacks are segregated but still banks was open to accept the black man's dollar. So if a story is good, the readers don't care whether you are Oriental or this or that.
Q: United States has changed dramatically since 1948. What have been the most dramatic changes you have noticed?
A: First, as a teacher I noticed change. During the Vietnam war I started to teach in America. When I gave grade D or F, my students behind my back called me "that damned gook." But now they're interested in Oriental culture and would like to learn something about Oriental people.
As a writer, publishers and editors talk about serious literature, but when you and I look at the books at the store it is only a lip service. For some commercial reason they are not interested in publishing stories that settings are Korean villages because they feel that they cannot make money perhaps.
Q: You spent several years in your early college life in Japan. What was that like?
A: I went to a college in Tokyo, Japan during the Second World War. The first American air attack -- I criticize the Japanese war effort and was put in jail. Four or five days later, when the Japanese chief of police passed my cell, I told him, "I've been in here for four days without even being questioned." When the chief of police left the jail, I heard him asking the guard, "What is his name?" The guard said, "He's a Korean." The chief didn't say anything further. After that, the guard came over with a bucketful of cold water and threatened me to pour the water into my cell. It was a cold winter. I had to sleep on the wooden floor. My cellmate, a Japanese vagrant caught stealing money from a donation box, hit me and asked me to apologize to the guard. I was frightened. I apologized to the guard. After I came out the jail, I felt very bad about saying, "Sorry" to that guard and I realized I would never become a hero.
Q: Why do you live here, even though you miss and love your home country?
A: I always like a strange town where no one knows me and (I can) run around seeing strange place and meeting strange people. Also, in small countries like Korea and Japan, human relations are so tightly knitted that I wanted to be liberated.
But away from Korea, I always think of Korea. When I returned to my home town three years ago, I lost my way to the home in which I grew up and had to ask someone how to get there. With all sorts of new buildings and new paved roads, the town has changed a great deal. After that experience, I don't get homesick as much as I used to and I begin to realize that Pittsburgh is my home.
Sometimes my relatives in my home town send me a package of Korean food. When I open the package and find the squids and kelp, anchovy, bracken shoots and ginseng, I can smell my home town seafront. I can smell the Korean earth. Then I laugh and sigh.