Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Last Story of Mina Lee

  The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author:  Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0778310175 / 978-0778310174

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Margot's final conversation with her mother had seemed so uneventful, so ordinary - another choppy bilingual plod."

Favorite Quote:  "She wondered how many women had been trapped - in terrible marriages, terrible jobs, unbearable circumstances - simply because the world hadn't been designed to allow them to thrive on their own. Their decisions would always be scrutinized by the lives at which they were able to sacrifice themselves, their bodies, their pleasures and desires. A woman who imagined her own way out would always be ostracized for her own strength."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Mina Lee is an immigrant who comes to the United States alone from Korea at the age of forty-one. Margot Lee is her daughter. Mother and daughter love each other, and yet Margot wants that separation from her mother, from Koreatown in Los Angeles, and from the lifetime of growing up "different" as immigrants are often labeled. Mina continues to live in Koreatown; Margot has built a life in Seattle. Unfortunately, Margot discovers that her mother has died. The book then goes back and forth between Mina and Margot's perspectives to reveal how and why.

This premise sets up what should be a powerful story of the immigrant experience - both first and second generation. The book does tell that story to an extent. The book makes several statements about the immigrant and the American experience. "All of it would be shattered, too. Because their life would be part of the lie that this country repeated to live with itself - that fairness would prevail; that he laws protected everyone equally; that this land wasn't stolen from Native peoples; that this wealth wasn't built by industrious white men, "our" founders; that hardworking immigrants proved this was a meritocracy; that history should only be told from one point of view, that of those who won and still have power. So the city raged. Immolation was always a statement." Statements such as this are all true and all relevant, but they remain statements rather than woven into what should be an emotional story.

This premise also sets up what should be an emotional story of the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Again, the book does tell that story to an extent. "But if she allowed that story to continue to be told, over and over again - that her mother was a nobody, anonymous, an immigrant who couldn't speak the language, another immigrant who worked a job that no one else wanted, another casualty of more important people - she would be letting them win, wouldn't see? She would be allowing them to sweep her mother away like dirt and dust." It is clear that mother and daughter love each other. However, Mina's chapters are primarily from before Margot's birth or with a baby, and Margot's chapters are after Mina's death. So, the readers hears the relationship but at the same time the relationship does not fully realize because the perspectives do not overlap.

Mina is a single mother, and Margot's father has never been part of her life. In fact, she does not even know who her father is. This premise sets up a story of women, more so than I could have imagined from the book description. Again, it has the potential to be a story of strength and survival. Yet, again, somehow, it does not ultimately leave that lasting impression. 

Finally, there is the mystery of Mina's death. What happened, and which of the themes of the book does her death relate to. The ending, once it comes, leaves with a question. Really? With all the buildup and the potential, this is what happened. Let's just say it is anticlimactic and veers away from all the themes of the book.

Ultimately, the story had amazing potential, but somehow manages to stay at a distance in all its themes. It feels like the story is told not lived. Passages such as the following contribute to that reaction. "Beauty is a construct, but theory is not at the reality we live, she thought. Theory didn't live in the bones. Theory didn't erase the years of self-scrutiny in a mirror and not seeing anyone at all, not a protagonist or a beauty, one a television sidekick, a speechless creature, who at best was 'exotic,' desirable but simple and foreign." The emotion of the story - which should have packed quite a punch - remains just out of reach. It leaves me sad because it was a missed opportunity.

Author Bio

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love (or Live Cargo),” was performed for NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts in 2017 with stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Phil Klay, and Etgar Keret. THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE is her first novel.

About the Book

THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE (on sale: September 1, 2020; Park Row Books; Hardcover; $27.99 US/ $34.99 CAN). opens when Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, doesn’t return her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous and invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.

Interwoven with Margot's present-day search is Mina's story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she's barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.

Author Q&A

1. What was your inspiration for writing The Last Story of Mina Lee?
I wanted to write a story that I had never seen before, a story that explored the complicated interdependence between an immigrant mother and her American-born daughter, the ways in which they love, need, and sometimes resent each other. For example, as the only child of an immigrant single mother, the protagonist Margot loves her mother more than anyone in this world. She needs her. But at the same time, she resents how, growing up, she has to work at her mother’s store over the weekends and during school breaks. She resents how her mother refuses to talk much about her past, and Margot’s father, her origins as well. I also wanted to write a story that centered women, in particular marginalized women, and show how they not only live but lead extraordinary lives. Although this novel begins with a tragic ending for Mina, she is nonetheless very much the hero and the heart of this story—a woman who took risks and created change, a life for herself in surprising and unconventional ways.

2. Did you have to do any research during the writing process?
I didn’t need to do much research while writing this book because I’m very much a product of the communities that I write about. I might’ve asked friends or people I know some questions about Korea and Korean culture, but it was all very casual.

3. Korean food is mentioned throughout your book. Was this done intentionally?
As Margot tries to figure out what happened to her mother on the night of her death, she experiences Koreatown as an adult for the first time in her life. As she goes out to eat at Korean restaurants with her friend Miguel and spends time in her mother’s apartment by herself, Margot realizes that food was not only a way for her mother to show love; it was a way of teaching Margot how to nourish and take care of herself in a world that is often harsh.

4. How important is Korean food in your life and what is your favorite Korean meal?
I always say that “Korean food” is just “food” for me. It’s very much a part of who I am, and was perhaps, as it is in many immigrant families, one of the principal ways my mother showed me love. I don’t have a favorite Korean dish because I love so many of them depending on the occasion, the weather, the mood. But some of my favorite banchan (side dishes) include yangnyeom gejang (spicy raw crab), myeongnanjeot (fermented pollock roe), and kkaenip (pickled perilla leaves). All I need is one of those and a bowl of rice.

5. What was your favourite food-related scene to write and why?
There are so many food scenes, moments, and images that I love in this book. But the most memorable food scene for me is about three-quarters through the novel—after Mina and her friend Mrs. Baek reunite after over twenty years apart. They go to a restaurant and have soondubu jjigae together. I love the delicacy, the tenderness of this scene, how each of these two characters is attempting to rekindle and navigate this friendship with the guardedness that comes from being hurt and heartbroken so much. Mina also realizes that despite how strong and supportive Mrs. Baek has always been, Mrs. Baek needs Mina and friendship just like everyone else. Mina played and can play a large role in Mrs. Baek’s life and her survival too.

6. Which character in the book do you relate to the most?
I like to believe that I am both all of my characters and none of them at the same time. But I’m closest to Margot in age and certainly I know the challenges of being the daughter of an immigrant single mother. I also know how difficult it can be in your twenties. That was actually a terrible time for me because I found myself being pulled, or pulling myself in so many different directions. But I had to make all those mistakes to get to where I am today. I’m glad that decade is over!

7. Even though the Korean War technically ended in 1953, major turmoil still exists today between the North and South. How has Korea's past and present situation directly impacted your life?
Both sides of my family come from what is now North Korea. As children, my parents fled the north during the war. So at the age of 13, my father left his home in advance of his mother and siblings, not knowing that a permanent border would forever keep them apart. For his entire life, he never knew what had happened to them, if they survived the war or if they continued to live behind the border, a border that continues to divide not only a culture and country but real families whose lives and identities have been shattered.

There were so many painful things, worries and regrets, traumas, that my father and mother did not talk about when I was growing up. Silence was a form of protecting us, and themselves. But the silences in my family also left me with a lack of understanding of my parents, just as Margot never quite knows her mother’s story, even if the reader does. It’s these silences that I’m attempting to capture and write through and out of in my work. I think one of the beauties of fiction is how it can bring together the impossible in one story. For me, the conversations that would and could never happen in my life happen in this book.

8. "Movement for her mother was essentially an experience of loss that Margot, American-born, could never imagine. And Yet, Margot herself had inherited the same anxiety about driving fast, particularly on freeways. She thought too much about the experience of speed itself, its danger, rather than getting somewhere at last." Can you speak to the experience of movement for both women?
What I really love about the structure, the dual narrative, of this book is that we experience how both Margot and Mina, are at turning points in their lives; they are both thrust into new narratives about themselves, new ways of being alive. For example, the book begins for Margot with the death of her mother which forces her to question who she is without her. (Who is Margot if she is not someone’s daughter?) While the book begins for Mina when she enters the United States in order to start a new life after the death of her husband and daughter. (Who is she now without being someone’s mother or wife?) Both of them are in mourning, mourning the dead as well as their past identities and lives. They are both terrifyingly unmoored and free to reinvent themselves. What story should they each tell now about who they are? So movement is very much tied to identity in this book.

9. Why did Margot resist embracing her past so much?
It’s important to note that Margot never experiences the Mina that we, as readers, see, know, and love throughout this book. Margot never witnesses her mother fall in love. She never knows the full story of why she had fled to America. Although her mother clearly makes so many sacrifices for her, Margot views her mother as often harsh, secretive, inaccessible. For this reason and in the context of a society that often doesn’t fully embrace other cultures, as an adult, Margot resents her mother; she is ashamed of what her mother represents because she has internalized some of the mainstream views, even xenophobia and racism against her. She judges her mother by the standards of the larger culture: “Why didn’t her mother learn to speak English?” Of course, this is only until her mother dies, which opens up the opportunity to finally get to know her mother, not only as a mother, but as a woman with an extraordinary story and life.

10. What is the number one take away you want your readers to leave with after finishing Mina's story?
I hope this books sparks conversation about the mysteries, the secrets, and the silences within our own families. I hope this story encourages readers to ask the questions they’ve always wanted ask of the people whom they love the most. I hope we risk discomfort more.

11. At one point, she said that "the fear of hell kept her alive." How much did religion play a role in Mina's life?
Religion and places of worship play an important role in immigrant communities, often serving as resource centers where people find each other and themselves. For Mina, church is a place where she can simply insert herself every Sunday and feel as if she belongs through sermon and song. For the most part, she doesn’t involve herself too much socially in the church, but she finds solace once in a week in the crowd.

12. Do you have plans for another novel? If so, can you share with us any details?
Yes, of course! I’m writing my next novel which also takes place near Los Angeles’ Koreatown and centers on the life of a Korean American family still grieving the mysterious death of the mother five years ago. Since I live in California where the housing crisis is very real and ongoing, the book explores issues of gentrification and homelessness through the lens of an immigrant family, struggling in their own ways to belong.

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