Munday: “Person of Korea” follows Maksim, an abandoned teenager living in his recently deceased uncle’s home, as he sets off to confront his father, who lives on Sakhalin Island. Maksim’s journey can be read as a riff on the hero’s journey, and as he ventures through the fog-ridden landscape and across the sea, the story takes on a kind of mythic tinge. Can you talk a little about the narrative influences at play?
Yoon: I grew up devouring those journey stories! All of them, all the well-known ones, so I won’t go into them here. Instead, I’ll mention one of my favorite novelists, Nadeem Aslam, and his novel The Blind Man’s Garden, which focuses on Pakistan and Afghanistan post-9/11. It’s an exquisitely heartbreaking tapestry of a book—one thread follows two brothers on a very long journey that goes very sideways. What will always stay with me is how the narrative uses variations of the environment—we move from vast, barren settings to tight, claustrophobic ones—and we get to see how that affects the emotional journey of these brothers.
I was also thinking a lot about a Russian film called The Return, by Andrey Zvyagintsev, about the return of a father who has been gone for many years. That film is all mood, tone, silence, color scheme, in the best, most inspiring ways—that is, all the building blocks I often think about when composing fiction.
Munday: “Person of Korea” explores legacy in its many forms: political, familial, and most crucially, the legacy of violence. Throughout the story, Maksim maintains an interest in the story of his deceased grandfather, who was once imprisoned at the facility where Maksim’s father currently works as a guard. What is Maksim searching for in his family’s history?
Yoon: There is still so much of my epic and violent family history that I know so little about. I know I will die knowing very little about it. Part of why I write is to imagine this line, this thread, not only the history but, quite literally, family. I think no matter who or what I am writing about, I am creating a family for myself. I don’t know if that comes out as selfish. Like Maksim, there are relatives I have never met, and never will; there are aunts and cousins I met once and never will again; there are no doubt relatives who exist somewhere who don’t know I exist. This is all to say I think Maksim carries this absence always. I gave him that burden, for better or worse! (I’m sorry, Maksim!)
Munday: The story is written in beautifully terse prose that embodies Maksim’s teenage stoicism well. How naturally did this narrative voice emerge?
Yoon: I’ve lately been interested in how to express something emotionally vast and epic and loud, but in the most minimal way possible. So I think at first the terseness of the prose came naturally, but the challenge was how to sustain it! That was really hard because as his environment changes, and as he keeps meeting new people and challenges arise, I had to keep that note steady. And I wanted to keep it steady, because I thought it would be a great way to explore not only his youth, but also his fear and his sense of feeling lost—that lack of a sense of belonging. I thought that the steadier the tone was in the story, perhaps, at times, the story could achieve the opposite by not addressing things directly. If the surface is steadier, maybe what’s underneath is more tumultuous.