A Story of Family History, Korean Style
With Frances Park and Ginger Park
Authors, "To Swim Across the World"
Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2001; Noon EDT
Based on fact but imagined and recreated by their children, "To Swim Across the World," is a tribute to the parents of sister
authors Frances and Ginger Park, and tells the story of a man and a woman who meet in a divided Korea and struggle to stay together while their country falls apart.
The Parks were online Wednesday, Aug. 29, at Noon EDT, to take your questions and comments about their latest book and the importance of family history.
To Swim Across the World
Park and Park have collaborated on two previous books, "My Freedom Trip: A Child's Escape from North Korea" and "The Royal Bee." Frances is also the author of "When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon." The sisters co-own a confectionary boutique, Chocolate, Chocolate, in Washington, D.C.
A transcript follows.
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Frances Park and Ginger Park: First of all, we'd like to thank each and every one of you for joining us - maybe you're eating your lunch at your desk - to talk about our novel "To Swim Across the World". We're delighted to be here but are technically challenged, so with each word we're typing, we're also praying nothing goes wrong!
Writing "To Swim Across the World" was a labor of love. Yes, we wrote it out of honor for our parents. But we also had a desire to know them better, who they were before they became our Americanized parents taking us to Sears and watching Bonanza; we wanted to peer into the worlds they came from, worlds so far removed from our own.
As children - long before we ever heard of the word 'multiculturalism', if indeed it even was a word back then - we listened to our parents' stories, but always at arm's length. The terrible past of a country we supposedly came from halfway around the globe not only didn't interest us, but it didn't seem real to us. Then... we grew up... our father passed away... we grew up some more... we began to work on this novel... and fell into another time and place.
What would your father have to say if he read this book?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: If our father were alive today, he would be celebrating not just the publication of our novel, but what it symbolizes: That Frances and Ginger - his all-American daughters - are writing about and embracing their Korean heritage.
How do you think your work appeals to other ethnic Americans?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: I think our book appeals to all Americans. After all, we all came from some place. "To Swim Across the World" takes place in Korea, but the themes of love, loss, war and separation are universal.
Your book really opened my eyes to that period of history. How have American audiences taken to your story?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: Writing the novel was an eye-opening experience for us for us, too. We learned so much about our Korean heritage, and the rich history of our parents' homeland. The reception from American readers has been overwhelming, probably because we personalized history. They could walk in our characters's shoes and journey with them.
I enjoy your children's books as well. Do you plan on writing more of them?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: Yes, and we actually have several more forthcoming. Just released is a humorous account of a Korean boy's search for a New York bagel. It's titled "Where On Earth Is My Bagel?".
Might your book be made into a movie? I see that it's a Talk Miramax publication.
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: There's been no decision from Talk Miramax, although they do currently own the option rights. Every single reader of the novel who has approached us has said, THIS HAS GOT TO BE A MOVIE!!!
FP: Let's keep our fingers crossed...
When did you decide to write a book about your parents? Did you have to do a lot of historical research? What is the general response of the book? Thanks!
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: Emotionally the book began in the aftermath of our father's untimely death in 1979. I was a lost teenager, an empty soul. I needed an anchor in my life; an identity. So began the mission... There was tremendous research involved; and many many talks with our mother.
FP: Ginger approached me with the idea and I was up for the challenge. I like to be transported to other worlds. Working on "To Swim Across the World" was the most Korean I ever felt. The response has been phenomenal. Everyone is asking for a sequel.
Did your parents come from North Korea or from South Korea?
Were you born in the U.S.A?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: Our dad was an impoverished boy from the South who was lucky enough to have rice at his meals; our mom was a privileged girl from the north who stopped for treats at the tea house every day after school. Their backgrounds determined the quality of their survival during the Japanese Occupation, World War II, and the Korean War.
GP: Yes. Frances was born in Cambridge, MA; and I was born in Washington, DC.
German Emergency Doctor, before Pyongyang, now Seoul.:
Any "crazy" ideas how we can realize reunification in Korea like in Germany?
And : Wish you all the best for your next book projects!
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: Hi, Norbert! Keep doing what you're doing. I'm very proud of you.
Two sisters collaborating on three books that
are best sellers is a tribute to that extra
special tie that binds them together. I thought it is an exemplary example. Francis, however, authored the successful" When My Sister was Cleopatra Moon" and to date, Ginger has none to claim by herself. Ginger,
is there a truth to the rumor that being a tennis addict, you are secretly writing the book "Tennis for Dummies?".
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: Sure, can I use you as a reference source?
Can you describe some of the process of eliciting your history from your mother and how that has effected your relationship with her?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: At times it was a painful experience for our mother. Sometimes it's easier for her to forget. But I did sit her down for many casual sessions of heart-to-heart talk. We really bonded in a way that made me feel closer to her, and my father. Because she spoke of things she shielded from me growing up. Now when I look at my mother I can see the young woman who left North Korea and everything she loved behind.
FP: Yes, and in a way, she has never really left that experience behind.
After reading this and Francis's earlier books (Hotline and Cleopatra Moon), I'm struck by the way you're able to educate the reader while maintaining an accessible, emotionally impactful style. Three questions about your writing: What writers have influenced you the most? Who do you visualize as your "listener" when you tell your story? And how do you write -- does it all spill out or are you a heavy rewriter?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: I've always been in love with sheer beauty of language. For me, it's music, my way of playing an instrument which, try as I might, I was never able to do. I've been writing since I was 10. And over the years I just wrote and wrote and wrote until one day the words began to flow almost effortlessly. But if I think too much about what I'm writing or if I revise too much, then the rawness and passion of language is lost to mechanics. I think writing should come from the deepest, most confused part of the soul where little makes sense at the time, but be all the more profound for it.
I like John Cheever's epiphanic writing, among others.
New York, N.Y.:
How did you go about co-authoring a novel? It seems a difficult process? How did your relationship as sisters affect the process?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: It's fascinating to look back on it now. Because we just dove in deep and did it. But to intellectualize what we did... well, it must have happened like this: We were both on some silent, separate missions - we didn't sit together and write a single word. We communicated on paper via edits and scribbles and queries in margins. It's like the noise of contemporary life would interfere with our re-creation of Korea a half-century ago. We rarely discussed the novel; the only voice we heard was our fathers'.
First of all, I really enjoyed reading your book and especially, as a Korean-American, I really appreciate your work describing about the sufferings Koreans went through during the era of Korea being under Japanese occupation. One question though ... Nabi, that sounds like a fictional name whereas Sinuiji isn't. What was a real name of the village Sei-Young is from and was there any reason a fictional name was used instead of real name.
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: You're absolutely correct. Nabi, which means 'butterfly', was in fact fictionalized. Our father was born in Seoul and spent the better part of his boyhood in the village of Yong Pyong. But why we fictionalized it is a good example of why we're fiction writers. We wanted to incorporate an analogy of good luck butterflies here. And also, bringing Siniuju back to life was a magical thing for us; we knew we could never go there, but we went there with our imaginations.
How much of the novel is fiction? Can you expand a bit on your father's role during the Korean War?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: That's a tough question to answer. The personalities of Sei-Young and Heisook are very much based on our parents, as are their spirits, joys and sufferings. Many times fiction is weaved into past; a character, or some traits of him/her may have been based on someone who actually lived, but not wholly resurrected.
Our father was the personal secretary to First President-elect Syngman Rhee. This role was expanded during the Korean War when few Koreans spoke impeccable English, as our father did. He made the first call to General Douglas MacArthur's quarters, pleading for aid.
"The most Korean I ever felt," you said. Can you tell us what it means to "feel Korean," and what that feeling has meant to your life since you finished the book?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: When I was growing up, I didn't identify with Korea at all. There were no Koreans in our neighborhood and, naturally, no Korean shops, restaurants, churches. Nothing to feel anchored to. In my every day life, there were Korean meals, my mother's accent, my father's calligraphy, but for some reason they didn't serve as reminders; this was just the way we were. And maybe I preferred it that way. I remember wishing my mom would give my teachers gifts of Avon instead of silk pouches. But working on this book was self-evolutionary. I put myself in Heisook's shoes - her hanbok - and felt Korean in a most celebratory way.
Did you find any one particular portion of the book to be especially difficult to write? It is a beautiful work, and I was curious as to whether one portion might have been the subject of a greater number of revisions and rethinking than the rest.
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: Maybe the historical aspects were more difficult. Like talking about the war. Also, re-inventing the painful experiences and struggles of our parents. For example, when Heisook bids her farewell to her brother who is drafted into the war. When Sei-Young must bury his younger brother. These were portions of the book that we wanted to convey with near-pinpoint accuracy.
New York, N.Y.:
This was obviously a difficult time for your mother. What has been her reaction to the book? Were Heisook's trials crossing the 38th Parallel your mother's?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: GP: To be brutally honest, our mother finds it too painful to read about her life. She is proud of us, and was forthcoming with details of her life in North Korea.
Heisook's escape across the 38th Parallel was true-to-life.
Vienna, Va. :
I think your book is an inspiration, especially to Korean Americans. Do young K.A.'s approach you at your store and do you give book talks? What advice do you have for a young K.A. that wants to write about family history as well?
Frances Park and Ginger Park: FP: Yes, people of all races come to our shop on an every day basis to chat about our books. This is so affirming to us. We pack up their truffles, then talk books. I would offer any writer, Korean American or otherwise, to draw upon memories and inspiration and imagination and write their hearts and souls out; and never take rejection as a measure of their self worth.
GP: It's heartwarming to be approached by young Korean Americans. I see a look in their eyes that once lived in mine. My advice? Embrace your roots and the book will come.
Frances Park and Ginger Park: It looks like our hour is already up. We hope that all of you out there have enjoyed our discussion of "To Swim Across the World" as much as we have. It's been a blast!
Look for us in the coming weeks. We'll be featured in USA WEEKEND Magazine and on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Sunday".
Peace, love & bittersweet chocolate... FP & GP
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the
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