Crystal Hana Kim is the author of If You Leave Me, which was named a best book of 2018 by over a dozen publications. Kim is the recipient of the 2022 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award and is a 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize winner. Currently, she is the Visiting Assistant Professor at Queens College and a contributing editor at Apogee Journal. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Her second novel, The Stone Home, will be published in April 2024.
“Devastation and Hope,” an interview with Crystal Hana Kim
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Carolyn Combs. Of the process she said “Crystal Hana Kim does a wonderful job of delving into complexities of a survivor’s experience in The Stone Home. She seeks to unravel the motivations of those imprisoned, the psychological effects of trauma, and the driving forces that lead to both connection and devastation simultaneously. Her care and empathy for these characters is felt throughout the narrative, as Kim reveals how cruelty can be cyclical and the lifelong effects trauma can have.” In this interview Crystal Hana Kim discusses her research into Korean reformatory institutions, the psychological, and her motivations for the relationships she explores in The Stone Home.
Superstition Review: I read that The Stone Home was based on the very real social purification projects that took place in the 1980s before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. What was the research like, unraveling this not so widely known history?
Crystal Hana Kim: The research was difficult and illuminating. I first encountered this subject in 2016, when I read the Associated Press’s exposé on these Korean “reformatory institutions,” a sanitized term for what were really internment camps and prisons. Much of this operation was shrouded in secrecy, deliberately veiled by the government, so information was difficult to obtain. What material I could find was emotionally devastating. I found photos of children corralled in trucks, laboring outdoors, assembling shoes in dark workshops. I scoured through testimonials of traumatized adults who had once been imprisoned for no reason at all, for being houseless, for being on the wrong street at the wrong time.
SR: You also spoke with survivors such as Han Jong-sun who endured this brutality in the Brothers’ Home. How did these first-hand accounts contribute to your writing process?
CHK: I had the privilege of speaking to Han Jong-Sun, a vocal activist and survivor of the Brothers Home, in 2018. Though we only spent a day together, our conversation was transformative. He patiently answered the questions I had about the Brothers Home, but more than that, he shared how his adulthood had been shaped by those imprisoned years, the lasting emotional and psychological terror of these institutions. Speaking with Han Jong-sun allowed me to understand how I could write about this topic with care and respect. I’m mindful of not wanting to speak for any of these survivors. He allowed me a space to learn and wished me luck, which released me. It felt like the blessing I needed to continue writing.
SR: I was really intrigued by the character Sangchul, whose perspective was third-person and was the only view the reader gets to see outside of Eunju’s. He deals with extreme turmoil throughout the narrative, and goes from being a victim of the Stone Home himself to one of the five Keepers who lead and inflict pain upon others. What led to your decision to show his perspective as opposed to just Eunju’s?
CHK: In order to truly reveal the reality of the institution, I needed to show both extremes: devastation and hope. Eunju and Sangchul are similar in temperament, but their actions lead them on two drastically different paths of survival. Eunju chooses community, while Sangchul chooses competition. Still, I wanted to prioritize Eunju’s narrative, which is why it is in first person, while Sangchul’s is in third person. Ostensibly, his narrative is being told through Eunju, so there are multiple layers of storytelling here. As Eunju has to extend her imagination and empathy to fill in Sangchul’s perspective, so do we.
On a craft level, when I begin writing a book, I’m spurred by questions I want to explore. One of the questions this time was about the sociological phenomenon of the oppressed becoming the oppressor in contained environments of sustained violence. How does that happen, and why? I knew that I could use Sangchul to examine this cruel and human impulse.
SR: To this day, there is still a lack of accountability from the Korean government for all of the social injustice within correctional facilities. Only recently have they admitted that the state did take part in human rights violations. What were some of the things you hoped to bring to light by writing The Stone Home?
CHK: Thank you for this question. My heart burns for all those imprisoned who have been fighting for recognition, apology, reparation. By writing The Stone Home I wanted to call attention to this atrocity. At the same time, I hoped to bring to light humanity’s fallibility. These Korean institutions actually continued a legacy started under Japanese colonial rule. Similar institutions have been created before worldwide—they’ve targeted Indigenous Australians, First Nations children in Canada, and Black Americans. State-sanctioned violence happens time and again across countries and cultures. How do we create change?
SR: One thing you’ve spoken about to an extent is the inability to know those we love in a full capacity. Throughout the narrative, the relationship between Eunju and Umma is so close, so trusting and yet Eunju is often still in the dark when it comes to her mother’s actions. How did your own experience contribute to your writing of this relationship?
CHK: It fills me with grief that we will never truly know our parents in their full capacity. We are incapable of seeing them wholly, but there’s a sense of relief in that unknowing too, isn’t there? This is a dilemma that intrigues me, and that often appears in my writing subconsciously. Now, as a mother, I feel this uneven relationship even more keenly. My children are young—a toddler and a baby—and to them, I am only a mother.
I use my writing to investigate topics I’m emotionally, psychologically, intellectually interested in. The mother-daughter dynamic in The Stone Home is one of them. We see the narrative from Eunju’s perspective, so we never fully understand her mother, Kyungoh. They are a team, trying to escape the confines of the home, but Kyungoh wants to keep Eunju protected. As a mother would. Eunju, and thus the readers, will never know the full story there. I think this sense of mystery is apt because in real life, we have to come to terms with unanswered questions all the time.
SR: Throughout the story, we see the relationships between characters shift and change as they endure the Stone Home. I felt this was especially effective in how the women of the Stone Home in particular grow in comradery and decided to trust one another. Will you describe your inspiration for creating these close bonds?
CHK: After my conversation with Han Jong-sun and after reading Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a memoir of his time in the Nazi concentration camps, I knew it would be important for me to show hope and community. Frankl’s emphasis on survival through caring for others stayed with me. Though I gravitate toward writing about the unfathomable, the dark parts of our humanity, I am at my most essential an optimist. I am not a cynic. I believe we are capable of good when we come together.
SR: We bounce between Eunju’s narration of the 1980s and 2011, which is when Narae confronts Eunju with a knife and demands to know the events that lead to her being raised by Sangchul in the United States. Narae is an interesting character, as she grows up in the United States, knowing very little about who her father was before and Korea’s history. How did you decide on telling the story in this way?
CHK: When I started thinking about this novel, I always imagined two characters: their stories intertwined. In its earliest form, The Stone Home actually alternated between Narae and Sangchul. It was a daughter-father story. I knew I needed a character who did not live through the Stone Home to ask questions, to show the wider systemic oppression and socio-political context of these institutions. Through this character, I could also show how the home stamped the imprisoned, even into their adult years. But I realized after some months of writing that Narae shouldn’t be a central voice. I needed a foil to Sangchul who lived within the home itself. Slowly, Eunju came into being.
SR: I read you conducted research into the psychology around trauma when writing for If You Leave Me. How was the research different for The Stone Home? What were some of the psychological effects of trauma that you wanted to delve into for this story?
CHK: For The Stone Home, I researched the psychology of imprisonment, grief, and the ways in which one must maintain hope in order to survive. I also had to research the psychology of the oppressor, how one spins a narrative to absolve oneself of culpability. One invaluable text was Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience by Gitta Sereny. This book is based on the author’s interviews with Franz Stangl, a war criminal who was a commandant of Treblinka, one of the largest Nazi extermination camps. How Stangl rationalizes his actions was chilling. My research was varied overall—I read poetry, memoirs, novels, about jails from the perspective of both the imprisoned and the jailer, about the aesthetics of Korean food, sex work, and more.
SR: When reading about survivors of the Brother’s Home, I noticed a lot of similarities in stories to characters in The Stone Home, especially with Youngchul and Sangchul and how they were picked up off the street. Many of the characters in the Stone Home come from very different backgrounds. Can you talk more about your process when it came to incorporating the real historical events with the fictionalized events of the Stone Home?
CHK: I specifically chose to create a fictional space, the Stone Home, out of deference for those who were imprisoned in the Brothers Home and the other institutions. This way, I wasn’t fabricating what happened in those real places or speaking for those victims. Rather, I created an amalgam where I could reflect the circumstances of their lives through fictional narrative. I chose details that I thought would most resonate with the readers, such as the way Youngchul and Sangchul are picked up off the street for no other reason than being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My novel is, primarily, an excavation of these emotional truths.