“Fiction became a place I made to learn for myself what we have endured”: An Interview with Joseph Han

the book cover for Nuclear Family featuring a photograph of colorful ribbons from close up

Joseph Han’s debut novel, Nuclear Family, out earlier this month, can be described in a myriad of ways—it’s a ghost story, an immigrant novel, a meditation on the legacy of the Korean War and colonialism, a multi-generational saga, an eco-Hawai’i novel, even a humorous stoner manual. Recently honored by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35” debut authors, Han deftly combines elements from all of these categories in a rollicking, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach completely his own—he even includes concrete poetry interludes in the middle of the book.

Set in 2018, the year of the accidental incoming missile alert sent by the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency, the book is centered on the Cho family, who own Korean plate lunch restaurants touted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network years ago. Son Jacob has moved to Seoul to teach English. Daughter Grace, a college senior, is perpetually stoned and works at the restaurant. Mrs. Cho, the face of Cho’s Delicatessen, suffers from debilitating back pain. Mr. Cho cooks and still holds on to hope that he will one day franchise the restaurant and achieve the American dream of upper middle-class status. Their lives are turned upside down when Jacob is caught trying to run across the Korean Demilitarized Zone, grainy footage of which has been viewed millions of times on social media. The Chos come under suspicion as North Korean sympathizers, and longtime customers stop coming in to the restaurants. The family has no idea that Jacob tried to cross the border because he is possessed by the ghost of his grandfather Tae-woo, who wishes to return to North Korea and be reunited with the family he left behind during the Korea War.

Told from multiple points of view in short, spiky chapters, Nuclear Family is a meditation on family—hence the title—with closeted Jacob “rejecting the safety and comfort of having an immediate family…for thinking he could disappear without consequence” in South Korea and stoner Grace with her “best places to get high” and “best place to eat while high” compendiums, smoking bowls and gorging on li hing mui snacks into oblivion. “Nuclear” also has broader socio-political connotations since the Cold War has lingered into the twenty-first century—the Korean War never actually ended and North Koreans are still perceived as a threat to the United States, as evidenced by the missile attack alert which for thirty-eight long minutes was considered to be true and the result of North Korea’s actions by the entire state.

At the heart of the novel is the thirty-eighth parallel, the arbitrary line the US military chose to divide Korea as a spoil of war after the Japanese surrender in 1945. The book’s epigraph, from Nora Okja Keller’s 1997 novel Comfort Woman, introduces the theme of separation at the hands of war. She likens Korea to a human body with the thirty-eighth parallel as its navel—where thousands of people, both living and dead, walk towards the center, only to be turned back, just like Tae-woo. The literal jagged line of the border is also used to break up text in sections dealing with the separation of both sides of the Cho family during the Korean War. A two-page spread of “DMZ” repeated over and over makes a wall and bisects the book in two. The preceding page declares that “Tae-woo believed the wall was a living being, for it was kept alive by the living, by indifference and simply forgetting, as if the wall itself were time.”

Other grandparents make an appearance—super-Christian Cho Halmeoni and nursing home-bound Cho Harabeoji in Hawai’i and Jeong Halmeoni, Tae-woo’s wife, in Seoul, whose first-person testimony about being separated from her sister during the Korean War forms the emotional center of the book. Jeong Halmeoni tells Jacob that she knows that the invisible wall her estranged husband is trying to traverse “was manifested by the grief it accumulated each year, longing across decades fed by each second of separation. A wall they could not cross, even in death.”

Han’s formal inventiveness and laugh-out-loud humor prevent Nuclear Family from crumbling under the weight of this intergenerational trauma and the legacy of the Korean War. There’s a lightness to his writing, a sense of fun and playfulness that pervades the book, making it truly singular and a welcome addition to Korean American literature.

Margaret Juhae Lee: I wanted to start at the beginning and ask about the epigraph of your book from Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman. Her description of Koreans being turned back at the border seems to be the perfect visual image that encompasses so many themes in your book. 

Joseph Han: Nora Okja Keller was one of the first Korean American authors that I read when I was a master’s student at the University of Hawai’i. That’s where I took my first Asian American literature class. She became one of the first models for me on how to write about our history—the Japanese occupation, war, and diaspora. Comfort Woman is set in both Korea and Hawai’i, so it was the first time that I saw representation of the Korean diaspora in Hawai’i. It’s a story told across generations with alternating perspectives of mother and daughter. The daughter became a proxy figure for me as she was learning to negotiate learning about her own mother’s history, the history of a comfort woman and the division of the peninsula. These are all things that I was learning about for the first time through Korean American literature.

That book basically blew my world open and unlocked my imagination to see the kind of work that I wished to pursue in my own creative life. I couldn’t get that image out of my head. It was also a starting point for my own investigation into my family’s history and the connection to the Korean War—of what forces made it possible for us to come to Hawai’i as part of a larger trajectory of Koreans immigrating here. It helped me find the connections between Hawai’i and Korea, since both places have been occupied by the United States and are still experiencing ongoing US militarization. The image that she presents of the living and the dead reaching the navel and not knowing that they would have to turn back suggested to me that there was more to the DMZ that we are able to perceive in this reality alone. It suggested that the effects of Korea’s division reverberate across time and space, across this life and the next. It helped me to understand how to honor the memories of those who were directly impacted by the war—the generation that is currently passing—who wish to return to the northern Peninsula to see loved ones they haven’t seen since the Korean War. That image just forever stuck with me. And it motivated me to read as much Korean American literature as possible thereafter.

MJL: I’m curious to know about your personal experience in coming to Hawai’i and how it informed your book.

JH: I was born prematurely in South Korea. My grandmother on my father’s side is very Christian, and the way that she frames my origin story is that “God saved my life.” The family rallied together and prayed after I was born. As a prematurely born child, I was prone to getting sick. My grandmother insisted that South Korea was no place for me to be raised, and that I needed a healthier climate and better air—that’s why she insisted that I be raised with her in Hawaii.

My name was bestowed upon me by my grandmother. I believe I am the first person in my family to have a Christian English name. Even the way she had me learn about the story of Joseph and the journey of our immigration to Hawai’i became entangled in her Christian worldview. She chose to raise and educate me with these Christian stories rather than tell me about her life and the stories of our family, which I still don’t know too well. This is why fiction became a place I made to learn for myself what we have endured. These stories were secrets kept from me when I was raised in Hawai’i. This is why I’m so grateful for books like Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me being so detailed about the experiences of the Korean War, experiences inspired by stories of her grandmother.

My grandmother was following a precedent of Korean immigrants moving to Hawai’i and finding community around churches, which dates back to the first arrival of Koreans as laborers. I was raised by my grandparents in Hawaii while my parents remained in South Korea. Just recently, my parents were able to visit me and my grandmother told them, “You know, the reason why Joseph was able to write this book is because he had to endure living apart from you for so long.” [Laughs] I guess she wasn’t wrong, but it’s not right for me to hear that.

MJL: It took me a while to figure out what the squiggly line that separates different sections of your book signifies. I realized halfway through that it’s the thirty-eighth parallel. I appreciate you playing with typography and the surprise of it, especially in the middle of the book with the King Fool and DMZ concrete poetry sections. How did you decide to play with form in this way?

JH: I had to tackle this task of writing the Korean DMZ with the same kind of tenacity and willpower as the character Tae-woo does in the book. I think, in a way, his drive to return to the northern peninsula inspired my own drive to figure out a way of how to address and depict the DMZ as a force beyond the physical and into spiritual realm. I took it upon myself to write it in a way that we were seeing, feeling, and hearing the DMZ and all of its manifestations visually on the page with those section breaks.

There’s always a loop that we have to make between one scene ending and moving to another scene. I wanted to create these moments of disruption where, as a reader, you are forced to—no, moved to—come up against a block in the text that you have to transverse in your push to understand these characters and what kind of barriers they pulled up within themselves, across their own relationships, and also in the way they are separated across chapters and come together in the book as a family or as siblings. I also wanted to play, ironically, on the way in which the Korean War is framed and remembered as the “forgotten war.” With all of these visual and formal elements in play in the book, I wanted to create unforgettable moments that take us back to confronting the DMZ as an unsettling force that can just come up out of nowhere.

MJL: I’m wondering what your influences were with your play with formal elements.

JH: Don Mee Choi’s poetry, absolutely. Hardly War and DMZ Colony are huge influences on why I wanted to have that spread come up in the middle of the book where you have to pass through the DMZ in the way that Tae-woo and Jacob are attempting to. And also Douglas Kearney. His poetry visually inspired the way I created the “King Fool” pileup pages in the book. Poetry inspired the way I understood how to move forward with this narrative.

MJL: Do you write poetry as well?

JH: I did for a while. It was actually the way in which I started to create a lexicon for understanding how to write about the history of the Korean War and its division. There are so many metaphors I’ve encountered through reading Korean American literature, poetry and fiction about the division, starting with Nora Okja Keller’s image of the navel at the center of the peninsula. I wanted to write the “spiritual” wall as part of that lineage of how Korean writers have metaphorized the division in ways that make it palpable and felt deeply.

MJL: You write in very short chapters from multiple points of view using the third person, second person, collective “we,” and even the first person. I feel like they work really well together and I’m wondering how you decided to organize your novel in this way.

JH: Since this is a book about a Korean plate lunch restaurant, I thought it was only appropriate that the novel itself functioned as a plate with all these different kinds of fixings and options and choices, a bit of something for everyone. Also, it was the way in which I wanted to have fun in the process of writing. I found that I couldn’t commit to just one mode or direction.

In the earliest drafts of the book, I actually wrote in alternating first-person perspectives between Jacob and Grace. Their voices got out of control, and it felt like they were competing. I thought a lot about the title and how I wanted to oscillate between different family members and depict their internal lives being pulled into their understanding of the larger nuclear family dynamic, but also to depict the ways in which they’re each in themselves being pulled in different directions internally. For example, the Umma character, though she very much belongs to the Cho family in Hawai’i, her relations stretch across the diaspora to the Jeong family she left behind in South Korea. Likewise, her own family has experienced its own emotions being disrupted across the peninsula with Jeong Halmeoni’s character and her ties to her own siblings who she hasn’t seen since the war.

I wanted to write these characters and give them each their own chapters, going back to the way I was raised and how I was educated reading the books of the Bible. You approach the lives of my characters in “books” and get glimpses and insights into them in the ways they collide—in how individual narratives come into tension with how they are supposed to fit together as the Cho family. This is especially true with Jacob not seeing himself as a part of a heteropatriarchal framework, which prompted his leaving [for Korea]. Also with Grace questioning to what extent she will continue to be a part of this family.

MJL: I wanted to ask about the Korean ghost story, with Tae-woo’s spirit inhabiting his grandson Jacob’s body, and also the mudang scene with Jacob visiting the Korean shaman. What was your inspiration with inserting these elements of Korean folklore?

JH: The shaman/mudang scene is inspired by the way spirits haunted in the film The Wailing, which was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember the last time I felt so disturbed after viewing a film, and unsettled. It’s a story about a ghost lingering in our physical realm because of some kind of unresolved trauma or a will to see something come into fruition in a vengeful sense or with a sense of justice. That’s how I conceptualized why there are countless ghosts that linger around, going back to that image Nora Okja Keller inspired. The ghosts stuck around with the hope that they would be able to see their loved ones. Their will kept them around for so long, but also kept them suffering in the afterlife to the point that when or if they are forgotten, they lose their sense of self and who they are in terms of their relations to their families and loved ones, but also to the Korean community more broadly across the peninsula.

This scene is connected to my learning about ancestral rites and performing jesa as a ritual of honoring and remembering one’s ancestors and family to ensure that not only are they not forgotten but that they’re well-fed. It ties directly to the Korean War being the forgotten war and the book wanting to account for the countless dead who need to be accounted for because we, in this life, are still facing the consequences of war. The war is ongoing, and that condition continues to shape generations to come, unless we find a way to create peace for our ancestors’ lives and our own simultaneously.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the way in which the Korean Christian diaspora always relegates reuniting with one’s loved ones to meeting again in heaven. It made me think, why are we waiting until death in order to find rest and peace? Why is our reunification deferred? Why can’t it be now, as the war continues and as these generations continue to pass? Our reunification continues to be deferred and disrupted because of Korea’s division. That was primarily the story I wanted to tell with the overall arc of Tae-woo’s narrative.

MJL: I wanted to ask about your inclusion of the 2018 North Korean missile alert in the last section of the book. You talked about the title Nuclear Family pertaining to the characters and their journeys, but it has another connotation—the Cold War. Is the false alarm something you experienced first-hand?

JH: Yes, I was here when it happened. That event reshaped the whole novel. I realized I needed to write toward that moment and unravel what it meant and to understand how and why it was possible for the entire island to fear for our lives. Not because North Korea poses a threat, but that we are made to constantly believe that the greater threat is always elsewhere. The US is occupying Hawai’i, and Hawai’i is meant to be hit first before the continental US. In this way, the Hawaiian land is seen as disposable and our lives expendable.

Regarding the title of the book, I found it a way to address how Koreans have been made suspect regarding our allegiances to the US. I remember being asked as an immigrant to Hawai’i whether I was from South Korea or North Korea, which is an absurd question. How would I be here if I was from North Korea? Or they find out you have ties to the Northern peninsula, you are considered a threat or potential threat. And that just goes along with the larger American anxiety of invasion, which becomes the justification for military stationed in the name of security and taking whatever measures possible to ensure our freedom when it comes at the cost of our health, our very lives. So are we really free in that way? It’s so insidious.

MJL: For me, the most heart-wrenching scene in the book was the one with Jeong Halmeoni telling Jacob about being separated from her sister during the Korean War. It seems like the emotional center of the book.

JH: Absolutely. For that reason, it’s why I wanted it to be the only first-person narration in the book. The story of separation very much follows Tae-woo and all of his antics throughout the book. I wanted to redirect the attention to the matrilineal story and Jacob and Grace’s connection to their grandmother—what they didn’t know about her, what she endures and what she is beginning to forget with her dementia. Jeong Halmeoni is very much inspired by the various grandmothers in my own life, my maternal grandmother, who passed away recently, and my grand aunt. Her story partly shaped Jeong Halmeoni’s narrative of being separated from her siblings. Though it feels uniquely personal, unfortunately, the story is not uncommon. There are countless stories exactly like Jeong Halmeoni’s that many Koreans in diaspora and in Korea have. War and division continue to reverberate throughout their lives. Though it’s one story serving as the emotional center of this book, it’s one of many. It was my way of honoring the older generation in Korean American literature, because I find that we don’t see too many stories about halmeonis and harabeogis. I loved writing these grandparent figures and wanted to give them their moments as well.

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