Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones is a story of families and family histories, of love and entanglements and also of loss and coping. Chung matches language to plot with sparse elegance. This multi-generational, multi-cultural saga never loses sight of the individual human beings at the center of the narrative. An interracial couple, Charles and Alice Lee, live in DC with their children, Veda and Benny, and employ a babysitter Hannah Lee (no relation). Their choices play out in the larger context of community and culture, raising key questions about parental obligations, emotional intimacy between spouses, and redemption after tragic choices. Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Sonya Chung via email about The Loved Ones, cultural contexts, social expectations around identity and the struggles of keeping a heterogeneous perspective.
The Loved Ones offers a complicated backstory for Hannah’s parents, very effectively pulling them out of stereotype territory. The theme of a taboo love and a grand passion runs through more than one plot line in this novel. In exploring love and loved ones, were you also thinking about the price families and communities pay for some individual choices? I hadn’t thought of it consciously while writing, but yes, there is indeed often a cost to individuality relative to a clan or a culture. A college student asked me at a reading recently whether I felt pressured to write “ethnic stories,” and my answer was no, not really. But I thought about that for a while afterwards: I suppose I answered no because, so far, the stories I’ve been compelled to writehave involved Korean and Korean American characters. But at some point—my next novel, in fact—I will be interested in writing outside of my own ethnic identity; and we’ll see if there is a “price” to pay for that. I bring this up because I think what we all desire and hope for—as artists, as human beings—is the freedom to be fully dimensional, including but not confined to racial or cultural identities or expectations. We don’t want the imperative to “represent” or conform to come from an external mandate. We are shaped and nurtured by our families and communities, and that’s a good thing; we are also unique, odd, creative, passionate individuals.
As you wrote The Loved Ones, did you start at the beginning or the end? Did you focus on creating characters or the plot? I did not have an endpoint in mind at all. In fact, the later revision stage was extremely difficult, because I knew that earlier drafts had not seen the characters through to satisfying ends. The inception of the novel was more speculative, as in, what happens to these particular people if they collide in this particular way, and then disperse? Once I determined the nature of the collision(s)—no spoilers here—the rest of the novel, which was two-thirds of it, was all about getting to know the characters as fully as possible so I could follow them as they coped and changed. Speaking of characters colliding, you’ve created some striking cross-cultural relationships in this book. Given the circumscribed lives many of us live, either by choice or chance, the way you’ve crafted the intersection of these lives is remarkable. What is your perspective on these racial and social intersections?
Since most of the novel is set during the 1980s, it was an interesting challenge to consider how a Korean immigrant family living in suburban Maryland and an interracial couple living in a black neighborhood in northwest DC were going to intersect in a meaningful way—which was my primary interest. I had a sense that there was going to be something unusual about that intersection, and also that I would need to craft the plot in order for it to happen credibly—because my experience growing up in that time and place was that black families and Korean families rooted in their respective worlds/cultures did not typically mix, apart from business transactions. I also felt it was somehow important that the interracial couple—Charles, who is black, and Alice, who is white—would have some previous, complicated experience with Korean culture; so as young adults, Charles was in the Army, stationed in Seoul, and Alice worked for the Department of Defense Education department as a teaching assistant on the Army base there, and that’s where they met. Alice learned some Korean language while in Seoul, so when she decides to go back to work after her children have grown older, she happens to be the exact right candidate for a position at a Korean nursing home, where Hannah Lee’s mother works as a nurse. Teenage Hannah becomes the babysitter for Charles’ and Alice’s children by virtue of her parents not knowing that Charles is black: they assume that since Alice is white her family is white. Also Charles and Alice live adjacent to a neighborhood in DC that is gentrifying, so it’s easy for Hannah’s parents to assume that Hannah will be spending her afternoons in a mostly white, affluent neighborhood. Behind all this of course is the wariness and racism of Korean immigrants toward African-Americans that has been common, generally speaking. But Hannah is an odd girl, estranged from her parents, who has not inherited that wariness or racism.
If the novel were set in 2016, I may not have had to do quite so much finagling. But then again, gentrification is creating a new resegregation pattern—cities are becoming more white and affluent, people of color and the poor are being priced out. Jeff Chang and Rebecca Solnit are two writers I know of who are using this term, “resegregation,” in place of the gentler “gentrification.” And I think it is an apt linguistic shift that we need to pay attention to.
In these post-election days, as we all struggle with recalibrating and looking anew at those around us, there seems to be a renewed need to look beyond our immediate milieu. As an author, what are your tools for avoiding the insularity trap? I guess I would reframe the question to be “as a human being,” because that’s the framework in which we are at risk of insulating ourselves, first and foremost. I’ve been lucky to have discovered early in life that I am most alive and productive in heterogeneous, dynamic environments. I get very itchy in any context where sameness prevails—even when the sameness is a quality I appreciate. So I naturally seek out difference—from myself and my “milieu,” whatever that happens to be at the moment. I seek it in what I read and consume culturally, who I connect with personally, where I live and conduct my daily tasks. My mantra these days is #notwokebutwaking, which I’m hoping will catch on!
The tricky thing now is that the one quality I do value is this shared recognition of the power and importance of heterogeneity; and we seem to have entered into a political climate in which that very value is at issue. I find myself in the conundrum of being insulated from that way of thinking—xenophobia, immigrant-blaming and targeting, regression to a more homogeneous America, etc. As a matter of pragmatism and strategy, I have started seeking out conservative thinkers on social media from whom I can gain insight into the nitty-gritty of how this battle will play out and how I can participate for the good. I also find myself asking anyone I meet, who is directly affected by liberal politics and policies in a negative way, to tell me in more detail what their issues are.
Do you think in terms of an ideal reader–the one you assume will find your book interesting? I suppose my ideal reader for this book would share the values and ideals in my answer to your first question. Or at least be open to them if they hadn’t thought about life and love in that way previously. I did (and do still) have concerns about editors or readers who would simply be put off by the choices these characters make and by what makes them tick—would judge them and thus check out from their story. I think it’s a live-time question, actually—can readers with, say, more conservative values than I have care about these characters and stay with them through their unexpected journeys? I hope so. But you can’t appeal to everyone; we don’t all see things the same way or value the same things.