Granta interviewed Catherine Chung, author of the novel, Forgotten Country.
Catherine Chung was one of Granta’s New Voices in 2010. Her first book, the novel Forgotten Country, is published this month by Riverhead.Granta’s Patrick Ryan talks with the author about the inception of her novel, and how stories from the past, a fascination with sisterhood and math came into play.
PR: What is the ‘forgotten country’ in the book? Is there more than one possible meaning in the title?
CC: I came up with this title around the time when I was doing a lot of research into the Korean War, which is also sometimes called the Forgotten War. The idea of that blew my mind – just how something as large as a war can be forgotten, and how in forgetting it you’re also forgetting the country that fought it and was divided by it – the title came from that and then seemed to resonate with the history of the particular family in Forgotten Country.
They’ve lost their homeland – not just the Korea they leave behind, but also the Korea that existed and was lost before it: before the split from the Korean War and before Japanese Occupation, when it was still a whole country. That initial loss echoes in all the others. In a similar way, I liked how the histories of the family – the national and the personal ones – are encompassed by this title, which is also – I think – about the lost unity of the family itself.
Sibling rivalry plays a large part in the novel. One of the major arcs involves the narrator and her sister and their struggle to come to terms with both their past and present. How important was it to you that this rivalry be resolved? And do you have a sister?
I don’t have a sister – I have an older brother, but I have always been really interested in sisterhood, which is filled with such complexity of emotion. There’s the possibility of so much intimacy, but also competitiveness and dependency and blame. It’s so fraught.
It was important to me that the rivalry or the issues between Janie and Hannah be engaged, that they would both be forced to face up to One day my aunt disappeared, and my family thought she’d been kidnapped by North Koreans who were raiding dorms and taking girls.their longing for closeness as well as the ways in which they’ve both made it so difficult for their family to be together – but I don’t know if I ever expected an actual resolution to come out of that, not in the sense that everything is good now between them. I don’t believe that real relationships between anyone actually work like that. I wanted there to be hope for that though, for the possibility of it to be real and clear between them.
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