How an Epic and Violent Family History Fuels Fiction

Paul Yoon on writing to recover what’s lost to the past

A portrait of Paul Yoon
Peter Yoon
Editor’s Note: Read Paul Yoon’s new short story, “Person of Korea.”

“Person of Korea” is a new short story by Paul Yoon. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Yoon and Oliver Munday, a design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your short story “Person of Korea” is set partially in a village of Korean laborers near the southeastern edge of Russia. It takes place shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. What about this location and time period drew your interest?

Paul Yoon: When I was growing up, the Korean diaspora was always shadowed by the Korean War and the effects that war had on migration and emigration—mainly because my grandfather’s and my father’s lives were directly impacted by that conflict. It’s taken me this long to open the curtain a bit wider and explore the greater and older history of Koreans who either were forcibly relocated or chose to find another country and place to start over again, live better, keep living.

I wrote a story called “Vladivostok Station” about five years ago, and that was the first domino. I think also living in Florida these days, I find myself suddenly in an environment that feels like the edge, as you call it. It’s an extreme place, in so many ways; this morning, I took a run and spotted five manatees chilling in the lake, and also an alligator. (What?!) I think I could only have written this story here: What the protagonist is going through is what I’m going through, not literally, of course, but spiritually.

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.

Munday: At several different points in “Person of Korea,” Maksim’s identity is questioned. The story’s deadpan title derives from one of these exchanges. The porous national borders in the story allow many cultures to converge, and as a result questions about identity arise. How much of Maksim’s own identity is imposed by others, and how much is he seeking to define himself?

Yoon: That was the age when I was lost in myself, but also a complete sponge. I moved a lot when I was young, so I was constantly trying to fit into new environments and do so quickly. I became good at figuring out what the cool backpack or bicycle or sneaker was and trying to mimic them, even when I couldn’t afford to get it. But the more I did this, I think it felt like I was growing further away from myself as well. I wanted Maksim to be a kind of reflection of this. I wanted him to be on the edge. He misses his father, but doesn’t want to be with him. He is comfortable being on his own, but is also completely lost on his own. He is both confident and completely naive. Perhaps by the end of the story, I wanted to amplify this duality of feeling. I honestly don’t know what will happen to Maksim. Will he and Sofia reunite? Does he say, “The hell with this,” and head north and live a life on the island? Does he go to Vladivostok and meet up with the workers on the farm? Does he go home? I honestly don’t know. And that felt like the perfect moment to end—Maksim at that intersection. It’s up to him now.

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