[INTERVIEW] Novelist Jimin Han explores grief, aging and her own life in 'The Apology'

Author Jimin Han, right, and the cover of her book "The Apology" released in August [JIMIN HAN, LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY]

Death and the afterlife are a chance to right wrongs for the centenarian in author Jimin Han's latest novel, “The Apology.”

Called a “sweeping intergenerational saga” by fellow author Kristen Chen, “The Apology” (Little, Brown and Company) follows 105-year-old Korean matriarch Hak Jeonga as she voyages to the United States with her two 100-plus sisters to visit their estranged sister’s great-grandson, who is very sick. The journey is filled with “darkly humorous bickering, worrying over anti-aging skin care and designer clothes,” wrote the New York Times, but Jeonga endures it all because she has her own hidden reason for the trip: to make sure family secrets locked up for decades remain secret to protect her family’s reputation. However, she dies mid-book, and the latter half takes place in Jeonga’s afterlife, where she becomes aware that all her wrong decisions will curse her family.

The book tackles themes of grief, loss, aging and separation, drawn from the author’s own bifurcated past and the stories of her family, who fled to the South from North Korea during the Korean War. Han said she was also dealing with the loss of her mother, the imminent death of a close friend and the uncertainty of Covid-19 while writing the book.

But also prevalent throughout “The Apology” is piercing humor. Han’s protagonist notes how picky old people can be about food, saying, “I’d read that the gustatory modality is the last of the five senses to diminish with age, and my sisters proved it.” In her afterlife, she discovers that the man she thought was her life's love had only left her “one-fifth of himself.” He responds, to her face no less, “You don’t love me with all of yourself either, let’s be honest.”

The book wraps up with Jeonga's titular apology, but it requires some work from the readers’ end: they need to forgive her for this story to come to a proper close.

Jeonga, unfortunately for the readers, is by no means a charming character, nor is she wise, despite being over a hundred years old. Instead, she is painfully human. She embodies many negative clichés that young people have against older women: she is overbearing and controlling, to the point her son is estranged from her; she is overly judgmental and challenging; and worst of all, she believes she is always right.

Still, the author's thorough yet entertaining breakdown of the character’s past, present and her afterlife earns the readers’ sympathy for not only Jeonga but also possibly for their own family member and even older people everywhere.

Below are edited excerpts from the Korea JoongAng Daily’s video interview with Han on Sept. 20, facilitated by dbBOOKS.

What motivated you to tell this story?

My family came to the United States when I was four years old. I had these feelings of missing someone, likely my grandmother, that I didn’t quite remember. My mother told me lots of stories about my grandmother and Korea, and I came to harbor this feeling that someone was watching over me — just always with me in a way. I wrote about these feelings in fragments throughout my life. My mom died in 2016 and that is when I really tried to do something with all the built-up materials. My writers’ group encouraged me to keep on with the story, of the feeling of missing someone, looking for someone and wondering what happened to them. As I was writing, I also used my memory of my great-aunt years ago, who I saw at her son’s funeral. Dressed in this beautiful white Chanel suit, she just collapsed and cried. And Koreans can cry like no one else. But then she picked herself up and seemed fine. I don't know her story, but I used that image for the story. I was able to combine that with my feelings of missing my mom with the initial fragment of missing my grandmother.

How was the writing process?

The book really began to take shape in 2019, during Covid. I was at home, had time and was teaching online. I then found out during that time that my friend was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. He used to do standup and had this great sense of humor. We had published our first books around the same time, so I shared that I was writing a new book, and he replied that he was actually writing something as well. We met every week through Zoom and wrote together. He finished an entire memoir before dying a year and a half later. That is also how long it took me to finish my book.

“The Apology” contains some funny parts, but I don’t tend to be funny. I did try to make him laugh. The whole section of the afterlife — we would make jokes about it. In reality, it was an incredibly scary time. He was dying, essentially, but I could die of Covid before him. Nobody knew what was going to happen.

In “The Apology,” there are authentic depictions of Korean families, motherhood and sisterhood. How were you able to capture the essence of Korean culture and family dynamics?

For me, it’s really just listening to my mom. Her younger sister is also a big storyteller. Sometimes, they would talk because they thought I wouldn’t understand their Korean! I grew up listening to all these stories and asking lots of questions.

I’ve also always been fascinated with shamanism. I’ve been reading about them for a long time, watching movies and dramas like “Along with the Gods” 1 and 2.

An apology works as a final solution in your novel. Was this decided from the start, or did you land on it as you were working on the book?

For me, it started from what Jeonga was setting out to do: trying to reach her sister. I didn’t know where this would end up. I didn’t know if she would succeed or how it would happen. And for me, it would have been boring writing it if I had known before, so it was fun to go on the journey with her and discover what would happen.

You've been telling these Korean American stories throughout your writing career. Have you ever felt frustrated because the subject was seen as unrelatable to wider English-speaking audiences or too personal? If so, how did you keep yourself from becoming discouraged?

It kept me from writing when I was younger. But now that we have social media and the internet, there are communities. I love finding out about Korean American writers. What helps is that there are a lot of people looking to read these stories. My cousins are my ideal readers. I think about how much I wanted to read those types of books. So I just think that I am writing books for people like me, my cousins, kids, nieces and my brothers. I’m not trying to write a book for everyone. I am hoping that some people find it to be worthwhile.
I am also very lucky to have an Asian American editor who really understands me and my stories. We are always on the same page. It’s important that there are Asian Americans working in fields like publishing and journalism because it is how our stories get out to the world.

What is the key to telling a very personal yet universal story?

When you hear two people talking on a bus or subway, and you eavesdrop, and they say certain things that make you pay more attention. So I don’t see my job as one that is delivering a message, like, “Here’s a story that I am trying to tell you must listen.” It is “Here’s a story I overheard. What do you think about this? Does it make you think about things? And let's have a conversation about that.”

“The Apology” is available on dbBOOKS' official website.