Interview With an Author: Lee Geum-yi

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Lee Geum-yi and her first novel, The Picture Bride, to be translated into English
Author Lee Geum-yi and her novel, The Picture Bride

Lee Geum-yi was born in 1962, in her grandmother's house in the small, mountainous village of Chungcheongbuk-do, Korea. She became enthralled with the charms of storytelling early on, having spent her childhood under the influence of her grandmother's bedtime stories. Since then, Lee has published over fifty books in South Korea, and her work has been translated around the world. Beloved by readers and literary critics alike, many of her books have been adapted into TV series, musicals, and webtoons. Lee Geum-yi lives in Seoul, South Korea, with her husband, son, and her old rescue dog, Lulu. The Picture Bride is her first novel to be translated into English and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Picture Bride?

Can I Go Instead? was published in Korea, in 2016, before The Picture Bride came out. Both are set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, and also explore the immigrant lives of Korean women in the U.S., New York, and San Francisco, respectively. During my research for Can I Go Instead?, I came across a book about Korean American immigration history. I was captivated by this picture of three women in a chapter about Korean immigrant laborers who left for Hawaii and their picture brides. Those young women were looking straight ahead, each with a fan, flowers, and an umbrella in hand. I was suddenly curious if the photographer picked out and handed them the props, or if these women selected what to hold in the picture. As I imagined them chatting before the camera, these women leapt off the page that categorized them as "the picture brides from a hundred years ago," suddenly individuals with dreams and desires.

three picture brides in an old black and white photo
출처: 100년을 울린 갤릭호의 고동소리(현실문화연구,2007) / Century-Resounding Whistle of RMS Gaelic (Reality Culture Study, 2007)

Of these three picture brides who grew up in the same town, only the one in the middle had a name, and apart from that, there was no personal information about them, not even their age. There was no record of their lives before the photograph or after when they would have arrived in Hawaii. I was seized by an inconsolable desire to bring these women, stuck permanently in a black and white photo, back to life.

Are Willow, Hongju, Songwa, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

The biggest influence was the photo I mentioned above. But I couldn’t find any detailed historical record of those particular women. But I think even if I managed to find out more, I wouldn’t have reflected those historical facts all that much. I wanted to pour the story brewing inside me into the soul of these women, so to speak.

At first, my main focus was on the personal backstories of three main characters and what circumstances pushed them to make the decisions to become picture brides. I needed a drastic circumstance that would have called for such a drastic measure. I studied Korean history with my focus in women’s right and social standing at the time, the records about immigrant laborers in Hawaii and their picture brides, off which I based my three main characters. Willow, whose father fought the Japanese for Korean Independence to death, Hongju, who became a widow as soon as she got married, and Songhwa, who, as a granddaughter to a shaman, belonged in the lowest of the castes—they all had no future in Korea under Japanese colonial rule. They’re fictional characters I thought up, sure, but at the same time, they’re the very history of Korean women that is breathing inside, and through me still. What these characters experience in Hawaii borrows a lot from the historical records of what Korean immigrant laborers went through in Hawaii.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I wrote this novel with young adult readers in mind. My Korean editors reviewed primarily with that readership in mind as well. The first version of the novel contained an additional chapter depicting Willow and her family life before her trip to Hawaii, but my Korean editor wanted a faster-paced beginning, for example, even to start the story right off the bat, with their arrival in Hawaii. But I thought their trip itself was of narrative significance, so we ended up just condensing the chapter about Willow’s family. Throughout the novel, at first, there were more scenes about the picture brides raising their children, but my editors suggested that I edit out some of them, in order to not disinterest younger audiences. But I don’t think, in the end, those parts that were edited out or condensed were lost; I think those parts were just necessary journeys for me to take in order to understand my characters in more depth.

How familiar were you with the early 20th-century history of Korea and Hawaii prior to writing the novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Picture Bride?

While researching for Can I Go Instead?, I came across an inspiration for The Picture Bride as well. In 2007, I bought said book with the photo. Ever since I’ve been doing my research sporadically. Two books are set around the same time period, so The Picture Bride benefited from my earlier research for Can I Go Instead? Unfortunately, though, I also discovered that there’s not much historical or cultural data about picture brides, especially in Korea. With this many hurdles in research alone, I found much help and insight in a book written by an actual picture bride, <하와이 사진신부 천 연희의 이야기> (일조각, 2017) / Story of the Hawaii Picture Bride, Cheon Yunhee (Iljogak, 2017).

As for the locational setting for The Picture Bride, Hawaii, I only knew it as an international tourist hotspot and a popular destination for Korean honeymooners, so a lot of research was required. Haunani-Kay Trask’s From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii was of big help. I also looked up a lot of video materials filmed in Hawaii so I could get the sense of Hawaii of a hundred years ago.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

The versatility of Korean immigrants’ lives. Back then, it was common for a Korean to live and die in one’s hometown. A woman who married into the family living in a place outside her hometown moved to her husband’s and settled there for life. But the Korean migrant workers in Hawaii moved from island to island, fighting for a better life, even though they were not only wanting all resources and connections in general but also convenient transport to begin with.

I was also pleasantly surprised to come across the Independence Movement activist, Park Yong-man, whose name our "victor’s history" seems to have forgotten altogether. He dedicated his entire life to Korea’s independence, but only one book has ever been written about him—so little is known of him. I tried to cast some light upon this crucial historical figure and follow his footsteps by connecting him and Willow’s husband, Taewan.

Same questions for the experiences of mail order or picture brides. Did you have to do research on them? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I could have used more data, to be honest, but I tried to examine historical figures and context as thoroughly as possible with what little data I could gather. Many picture brides found themselves in despair once they arrived in Hawaii and found out their husband-to-bes couldn’t be more different from what they were told. Their lives afterward was also one rocky road of many hardships. But the picture brides were true trailblazers to pave their own way with incredible resilience and drive for a better life. I spent a lot of time trying to bring to the pages that very driving force—their will to live piercing the thick of their despair and sorrow and shining through.

Korean women of the time were coerced into the life of "삼종지도," which means a woman must obey her father as a girl, her husband as a wife, and then her son as a widow. Compared with the Korean women who were subjected to this culture in Korea, these picture brides led surprisingly active, dynamic, and progressive lives, worked various jobs, and played important roles in Korea’s Independence Movement abroad. And these picture brides adopted the Korean tradition of gye—a community-based network for financial and social connections and assistance—and formed a community of female solidarity. I was deeply moved by all facets of these picture brides’ lives, every single step of my research and writing endeavors.

Do you know if there are/were any picture brides in your family?

No actual picture bride. But my own grandmother was born around the time these picture brides were. Her family wasn’t well-off, and she married a villager with little means and financially struggled her entire life. So of course, she couldn’t afford formal education and never learned how to read, something she always lamented. She was a wonderful storyteller, and I always think she would have become a writer well before I could ever dream of, if she only had the chance. Probably Willow is my grandmother’s fictional twin–who would choose to marry a strange man just for a chance to study.

While you’ve written over fifty books in South Korea, and your works have been translated into other languages, The Picture Bride is your first work translated into English. Did knowing that alter how you work/write? Was it a different experience working with an English translator than the other times you’ve worked with different translators?

Last summer, I met my translator, An Seonjae, who translated The Picture Bride into English, and got to dine and chat for a little. I have communicated with many of my translators—who worked on different editions of my book—by email, but he was the first for me to meet in person. Most of my translators are based outside South Korea, but Professor An, while born in England, is now living in the country and actually a naturalized Korean, so I had the honor of making his acquaintance.

Writers often compare their work to children, as you know, and it was such an odd experience to meet my English translator, since I felt as if I’d met a co-custodial parent of my book, so to speak. Haha. It was also a special experience to just sit and talk with a translator of mine at long last. My WEL debut still feels pretty surreal, and I can’t wait to find out how this will affect the future of my writing life, however it will change it.

In your Author’s Note, you mention seeing a photo in a book of Korean-American immigration history of three women who were identified as picture brides. If you could ask them something, what would it be? If you could tell them something, what would it be?

I would love to ask them if my novel’s done their story justice. No, before asking anything, I’d love to listen to all their life stories. And then I’ll tell them that they are inspiring adventurers and visionaries who relentlessly pursued dreams.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I usually read more fiction, but of late, I’ve been reading more in Sociology and Psychology, such as Strangely Normal Family (Kim Heekyung, DongAsia, 2022) and Melody Beattie’s Codependent No MoreStrangely Normal Family explores what changes should be made to the limited laws and policies that have to do with children’s rights and family policy in Korea, where a family unit of parents and their single children, largely speaking, is the only "normal" family. Codependent No More was a recommendation from my daughter, who said Melody Beattie right now is one of the most beloved writers in America. The book brought to light how I’m also codependent in a lot of ways, and I’m making my way through both books with interest.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Johanna Spyri
Park Gyongni
Hermann Hesse
Astrid Lindgren
Isabel Allende

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I’d like to carefully mention to those dreaming of an international debut that a writer should never tailor her aesthetic or subject for global readers. What matters is to hone your craft and polish the story that you can genuinely get behind and write best. This is especially true for Korean writers whose work has Korea-specific elements since I believe universality can emerge from a very culturally saturated issue, attracting a wider readership outside its country of origin.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I read in elementary school. I spent most of my childhood with my grandmother in her countryside house, and then started living with my parents only when it was time for me to go to school. Heidi comforted me in the homesick months leading up to the summer break when I’d go back to the countryside. I pictured the Alpine landscapes and related deeply with Heidi who found happiness in the Alps with her grandfather, and learned how stories could console the scarred soul of a child, and I wanted to grow up and write stories just like that.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Graphic novels, definitely. When I was a little kid, Korean parents had this mindset of thinking of all graphic novels as junk foods of literature. Every town had a graphic novel rental place where you could also read graphic novels, and although I frequented one in my town whenever I had some pocket money to spare, I never got to borrow and bring one home; I’d just sit there until nightfall reading graphic novels. So I was just as happy when my daughter debuted as a graphic novelist as I myself became a writer.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

There weren’t a lot of books for children in Korea when I was growing up. I read translated foreign literature for children when I was in elementary school, then in junior high, I transitioned to the collection of translated world literature–a set of seventy or so translated canons from all over the world. The set included Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and so on. These were serious literature, of course, that could prove challenging to teenagers. I remember skipping ahead from time to time, reading only interesting parts, and pretending to have read them in their entirety.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Well, a lot. If you mean most recently, I should say Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. I already have both, but a special re-covered set edition came out, so I couldn’t resist.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Park Kyongni’s Land. It became a paragon of how-to-write–being an epic series of twenty books—for me, who hasn’t had the chance to formally study Literature or go to college, and the first edition’s author’s notes provided much guidance in what being a writer actually means. I was in eighth grade when I first read the book, and only six in the series had come out by that point. I reread and reread those first six books, and the author’s note at the beginning in particular moved me in a different way from how the books themselves shaped me as a writer.

Said author’s note mentions that Park kept writing, just out of the hospital and only eight days after a big surgery, her bandages not even removed, in order to meet the serialization deadline. I should have probably taken it with a grain of salt and realized Park might have also been deploring a writer’s sickly relationship with the act of writing, but I, as an impressionable teenager, interpreted it as a writer’s divine dedication to her work, her promise to her readers. Because up to that point, I’d vaguely thought a writer was someone cool and interesting. Ever since I’ve held what I read to be "a true writer’s spirit" close to heart, and that spirit’s fed my writing life of over forty years now.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and A Long Petal of the Sea.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The books I didn't read from start to finish but pretended to have finished. Some of them I reread later, but there are definitely books I haven’t really given a thorough read and might still be thinking I’ve actually read them when I just know the plot.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I love going to the theatre. With the boom of OTT platforms offering a lot of content to enjoy at home and the influence of the pandemic, I surely don’t go to the movies as often as I used to. But recently, I watched Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave. I wanted to watch it on the big theater screen with the sound system since I’ve always loved Tang Wei. I loved the movie, and it definitely lingered long, so I sat throughout the entire ending credits savoring the resounding echoes of the beautiful OST.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I think a day I spent just being myself is the perfect day now. Of course, I love spending time with my friends and fellow writers, going to the movies, or going on short trips together, but those feel more like special treats than everyday life. With my children now grown up, and especially after my daughter got married, I feel quality time with my family of four also has become more and more like a special event. I think my regular perfect day would be the kind of day I spend working on building a narrative world where the characters I created go through their moments of happiness and sadness, which allows me to feel a sense of perfect fulfillment and happiness.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

Haha, this question I actually have never got before. Truth be told, either in lectures or interviews, I always encounter questions of insight and depth beyond what I could have imagined beforehand, which can get quite overwhelming in itself. So I don’t think I’ve ever really "wanted" someone to ask more or particular questions.

What are you working on now?

I have just finished off and sent a fresh manuscript to my Korean editor, actually. It’s about a kid editing a friend’s YouTube content. We’re living in an era of one-person media—and the lives of strangers we come across through SNS these days are mostly heavily edited. I wanted to explore what becomes intentionally or unconsciously edited out, omitted, and cut off against the backdrop of a burgeoning COVID pandemic.

My next novel to be introduced to English readers is Can’t I Go Instead?, a work of historical fiction set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule. The story unfurls across five different countries—Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and finally the U.S.—and is about how Chaeryeong, a daughter to a Korean aristocrat whose close political ties with Japan, earned him every advantage in life, including his title, and her maid, Sunam, step into a bigger world and fight the brutal gusts of their fate. It’s coming out early next year, and I hope readers of The Picture Bride will also enjoy reading their stories.

Book cover for The Picture Bride
The Picture Bride
Yi, Kŭm-i