to Hard Truth
The transition between writing software and writing fiction is a big one… Lee’s ideas, developed from life experiences both as a child and as an adult, about resisting hatred, believing in self-determination, and feeling the grind of poverty, all made it into her first novel, Princess June. Download full review in PDF format
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Daniel & Daniel Author Interview
Well, not any one particular person or one particular event, but a number of people and a series of events over a very long period of time led me to create this story.
But the most important person by far was the one special nanny that I had in my childhood. I grew up in South Korea. And when I was growing up, almost every middle-class household over there had a live-in maid who doubled as a nanny. You just couldn’t manage without one, really, because the housekeeping and cooking traditions were so fussy. Anyway, this one nanny came into my life when I was about eight and she made a big impact on me. She was the kind of person who makes such a strong impression on you that you cannot forget even after a brief encounter. Looking back, I realize that it was the force of her whole person rather than just her looks that made her unforgettable. I also remember her being intelligent and multi-talented, even though she didn’t have much formal education at all. And she was a free spirit. By contrast, I was an extremely shy and tentative child. So I was really impressed with that boldness in her, you know, not caring about what other people say or think – just living as she believed in, doing things as she pleased. She had that sureness of herself. She seemed to know exactly who she was. The amazing thing was that she wasn’t even an adult yet, still in her mid-teens at the time. But even more incredible than that, she knew how to love. She was loving, generous, and compassionate - not just toward me but toward almost everyone. That was what’s called an unconditional love, I realize that now. That kind of love is so hard to find. I feel really blessed and fortunate to have experienced that.
She stayed with us for a few years. But one day, her older brother and father showed up in our house. It turned out that they were gangsters, criminals, and she had run away from them. We only found out about that when our house was robbed while she was alone in the house. Her father and brother were the ones who did it. In retrospect, there were many tell-tale signs of how much she must have suffered at their hands - you know, marks and bruises which she said were from falling from a tree. She used to have bouts of dark moods also. Anyway, that very night, she slipped out of our house while we were sleeping. She left her entire savings behind. We tried to find her, but couldn’t.
The two extremes in her life have always haunted and intrigued me. How was it that such a loving person could have emerged from such an ugly and brutal environment? In this story, I have attempted to answer that question. You could say that my nanny is the inspiration behind my novel. The heroine of my story, Junee, is based on her, in terms of her appearance, her personality, her circumstances and how she conducted herself.
But there were also many other events that led me to write this story. There was my experience of the red-light district near the American Army base. I was about thirteen years old when my family moved into that neighborhood. That district appears as Keechun-dong in my novel. My mother was a pediatrician and many of her patients were so-called “Yankee Prostitutes” raising Amerasian children by themselves. So through my mother, I got to hear many heart-breaking stories on how they ended up in that district. Ironically enough, my beloved nanny may have ended up in that same district, too. She may have even died there. I have a good reason to believe it and that possibility served to preserve her memories in my mind all these years.
And then there was that plane ride when I emigrated to the U.S.A. I was twenty years old at the time. The airplane was overbooked. So I agreed to care for a baby who was on his way to his adoptive parents in America. He was tiny – barely a week old. As I looked into his sleeping face that day, I couldn’t help wondering about his birth mother and about his future in America. What circumstances would force a mother to put up her own baby for adoption? What a difficult thing that must have been? How would this child fare in America as he grows up? He might possibly be the only Asian face in the entire school. My heart ached for that little guy, perhaps because I, too, was feeling intense anxieties about my own uncertain future in a foreign country.
For the first several years in America as an immigrant, I was in a “survival” mode – you know, trying to learn the new language, going to school, establishing a career and finding love. So I had no time to think much about the past, about my nanny. But my memories of my nanny rekindled at one point because of all the talks of “nannies” that I suddenly seemed to be hearing. It seemed that with the advent of yuppies, the live-in nannies were suddenly popular. I will never forget overhearing discussions that went something like this:
“The Mexicans are getting way too expensive nowadays.”
“Try El Salvadorans or Guatemalans. You can save at least $100, even $200 a month.”
“The problem is that they all speak Spanish. Wouldn’t your baby end up speaking broken English?”
As if human beings can be priced by the color of their skins, by their birth places. Listening to them, I couldn’t help but think about my nanny. And I was glad that I met her when I was still young, before I was exposed to the society’s way of looking at people – by labels, by categories.
Right about the same time, I heard another contrasting story. A Hollywood executive living in Beverly Hills was going through a bitter divorce. The couple had a five-year-old boy. This child was so traumatized by all the fights around the house that he locked himself in a closet clutching a photo of his nanny. She was a Guatemalan school teacher who had cared for him for the first few years of his life. The nanny eventually left the family to go back to her home country. This boy refused to come out of the closet for days, crying that he wanted to go to Guatemala to live with his nanny. Now that story confirmed a child’s perspective on the same issue in my mind.
And then a few years ago, I watched a TV movie – A Thousand Men and A Baby, I think it was called. Based on a true story, the movie was about a thousand American service men falling in love with an abandoned Amerasian boy that they rescued. It all happened on a ship as they were coming home from Korea after the war. I loved the movie. It was a very touching story, except for one thing that left a sour taste in my mouth. Scene after scene, I heard the condemnations of “that Korean woman who abandoned the baby.” Yet I didn’t hear a single mention of the American father of the baby. None of those men really knew the story behind the woman, yet they were all so righteous, so condemning. As touching as the story was, I couldn’t help thinking about many other truly heroic Americans – people who adopted not only the Amerasians but full-blooded Korean orphans, even severely handicapped children. If anyone deserves to be portrayed as a hero, shouldn’t those adoptive parents be the ones? Also, it kindled my desire to one day tell the story from the other side – from the perspective of a birth mother who was forced to give up her own baby.
But it was a family crisis that happened several years ago that directly motivated me to write this novel. This crisis involving a member of my original family was severe enough to flip my life upside down for quite awhile. The whole trauma made me reevaluate my life. Until then, I never thought of myself as unusual. I never thought of my achievements in life as anything special. But witnessing what another member of my family was going through, I realized for the first time in my life that it was indeed special and even miraculous that I’d turned out a healthy, warm and productive person. I don’t mean to suggest that my childhood circumstances were that extreme. But there were enough to deal with – mental illnesses and violence in the family. And I was vulnerable because of what runs in my family and because of my temperament – my excessive sensitivity and intensity. So how did I manage to avoid the trap, I began to ask myself. As I back-traced my life, I could pinpoint the exact time when I decided that I wasn’t going to follow my family’s footsteps - at age eleven. It was a very deliberate and conscious decision on my part, and from that point on I began to chart my own path, according to what my heart seemed to tell me, according to my own feelings and beliefs. In other words, I made my nanny a role model in my mind. I’d decided that I would be like her. By that, I don’t mean her profession, which is how a lot of grownups define themselves. I don’t mean that I’d decided to become a maid. I’d decided to become the kind of person she was. Children have that way of seeing. As a child, I didn’t see a poor and uneducated “maid” in my nanny, which is how the general society would have judged her to be. Instead, I was able to see the real core of her being – loving and compassionate, yet bold and free to act as she believed. That inspiration by example was her ultimate gift to me, I realized. And it was my desire to share that gift with others which led me to finally write this novel.