This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.
As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless. “Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said.
At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.
The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.
The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening.
When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own.
It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.
“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.