By Cord Brooks THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE is what the American Dream is predicated on but much harder to capture, and yet in The Last Story of Mina Lee Nancy Jooyoun Kim has done it while highlighting all the nuances that could get lost in translation, particularly our ways of creating joy, pleasure, friendship and desire within it. A novel set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, The Last Story of Mina Lee begins with Margot finding the dead body of her mother, Mina, in the apartment she grew up in. What unfolds is a narrative of dualities and translations between Korean immigration and Korean American diaspora: a mystery, a horror, a romance, a friendship. I had the opportunity to discuss with Nancy the craft of friendship in literature, crafting the great American nightmare, and literary mystery.
CORINNE MANNING: You and I have a friendship that is very dear to me, and I feel lucky that it is based in the world as well as the mutual act of writing. I learned so much about friendship from your book. Friendships are rarely seen as a principal relationship in novels (or life), but Margot has her friend Miguel with her the whole time and Mina stumbles upon the (in many ways) life-altering friendship of Mrs. Baek. How do you craft a novel that pivots around friendship?
NANCY JOOYOUN KIM: I think often of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels — that dark beauty, the ferocity of that central friendship between Lenù and Lila. Both girls, and later women, are trapped within this very oppressive system that values women by their relationships to men; women are carriers of suffering and pain, their own and everyone else’s too. The pivotal friendships in my novel — Margot and Miguel and Mina and Mrs. Baek — create bonds through and because of their marginality, their outsider-ness within their families and society at large. Margot and Miguel are the only people of color in their workplace; they are also from immigrant families. While Mina and Mrs. Baek, single working-class women, live in the margins of an already marginalized immigrant group, which often places a lot of importance on family.
So in a way both Margot and Miguel and Mina and Mrs. Baek, in these friendships, have constructed their own families out of necessity. They exchange resources, and their intimacy, their bonds are partially born out of a mutual sense of shame that these characters feel for most of their lives. There’s an openness in these relationships, a lack of judgment that’s very beautiful. Maybe this is because friends don’t generally feel like they play a role in creating each other, so they aren’t mirrors for one another, the way Margot and her mother are. There’s less pressure, and therefore, less shame. It feels like friendship takes on a certain kind of sacredness in modern life.
Do you feel the need to trick the reader into feeling the importance of friendship?
I’ve never felt the need to trick the reader into anything! The importance of friendship is measured in my book by the volume that the relationship is given, and the agency of each individual, in the story. Neither Margot nor Mina, the main characters, would’ve gotten into as much trouble or truth if they didn’t have their friends with them along the way. Friendship makes this story, and life itself, possible in so many ways.
The book alternates between Mina’s and Margot’s narratives — each of them given equal weight and their perspectives entirely focused on the life at hand. What does it mean for characters to be able to stand on their own in this way?
The structure, the dual narrative of this book, is a dialogue, an impossible conversation that Margot and Mina could never have. The two story lines are separate but “speak with each other” in various ways, just as the past, the present, and the future are always in conversation as well.
We see how both Margot and Mina, in separate narratives, are at turning points in their lives; they are both thrust into new narratives about themselves, new ways of being in this world. What story should they each tell now about who they are?
But back to your question, the separate story lines, this impossible conversation between Margot and Mina that the structure creates, reflect that perhaps we can never know each other fully. Our lives as individuals intersect in so many interesting ways, and yet we will always remain strangers on some level. Once we realize this, on a practical level, maybe we’d be a lot less disappointed in one another.
Speaking of connections, let’s talk about translation, which is a theme that is deeply compelling in this book. Margot and Mina don’t speak the same language, but neither does Margot and the cop helping her on the murder case; in some instances, neither does Mina with her lover. There is the Los Angeles that her best friend experiences that is so different from the Los Angeles that Margot grew up experiencing. There is a desperation to be understood and what it would take to connect feels impossible …
Much of our sorrow is about missed connections, right? I mean, there’s a whole Craigslist section dedicated to that. At the opening of the novel, Margot recalls a seemingly banal conversation with her mother that was only half-understood, because Margot doesn’t speak enough Korean and her mother doesn’t speak enough English to convey all their needs and wants.
After her mother dies, the missing words, those missing phrases are like holes in Margot’s mind. Margot feels that she would find all the answers to every burning question she has — about who she is, who her father was, what happened to her mother in those blank spaces. But what she realizes over the course of the book is that despite their different languages, her mother was always speaking to her in some way, in particular through food and the meals she would prepare for Margot, which Margot found to be repetitive and dull. Instead of jjigae and banchan, Margot wanted to eat all the foods she saw on television (hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza). As she is investigating the death of her mother, and spending more time in her mother’s spaces, eating at one particular Korean restaurant with a connection to her mother’s past, Margot observes how her mother was not only teaching her how to be resourceful, and how to survive through food, but how to find some comfort and joy in the everyday since the world is so harsh and unwelcoming to them both.
“Her mother was just another nobody, another casualty of this city, of this country that lured you with a scintillating lie,” Margot says. What is the literary craft of the American Nightmare, and how does that differ from how you’ve seen novelists construct the American Dream?
When I was writing this book, I often thought of the words, “American nightmare.” In my book, I was meditating on this sense of entrapment that both Margot and Mina feel all their lives, as if they are trapped in very specific and deeply unsatisfying narratives. Part of the task of the book is to allow them to grow out of these stories and these formulas in a way that both surprises and feels inevitable within the framework of the book.
For many, and I think this is something we’ve all been experiencing these days, America is the nightmare. And so I find the American nightmare to be more relevant to our conversations about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.
When we think and talk about the construction of the American Dream in the novel, we are often referring to representations of flawed individuals, individuals who just need to grow or work harder, within a mostly well-designed system. But since I write from the point of view of marginalized people, in particular, women of color and immigrants, yes, the flaws of the individual exist, but the system itself is deeply broken.
I hope to write work that is at times uncomfortable for how it mirrors the reader or mirrors the world that the reader invests so much in their daily lives. I hope that the audience is conscious of themselves on some level while reading my work. Maybe this is why I like a lot of genre, in particular self-aware work that plays with different tones, different lenses and expectations, such as shows like Killing Eve or films like Get Out and Parasite.
I remember when you began the first draft of this book years ago. You were 80 pages in and you said that you were writing a mystery, and you absolutely succeeded in that form. I gasped at the end! Talk to me about mystery and how you wielded this genre within literary fiction.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, I took this incredible African American Detective Fiction course and for the first time, I had really immersed myself in genre. We read classics by Walter Mosley and Chester Himes and books by brilliant women writers that I had never heard of until then, such as Barbara Neely and Paula Woods. We learned about how genre was used historically to talk about often impossible topics. In a way, the comfort of the formulas of genre allowed writers to criticize the status quo while delving into issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The Last Story of Mina Lee doesn’t move at the pace of a traditional mystery because it is so introspective and emotional, but it is a literary novel with elements of mystery. When I started writing this novel, I began with the image of a young woman calling her mother in Los Angeles who doesn’t pick up the phone, the same mother she had moved to Seattle to get away from. And as I started to unpack the image, I knew that very early on in this story we had to know that the mother was dead, which is a both nightmare and a wish fulfillment for Margot, who is ashamed of yet also constantly worried about and psychologically dependent upon the existence of her mother. Who is Margot if she doesn’t have her mother to resent? When you begin a story with a dead body, you create a narrative of how the protagonist struggles through her grief internally, and enacts and survives grief in various ways through the world, or you have the protagonist figure out what happened to the dead through plot, through investigation, revelation — or you do both, which is what I did in this novel.
Corinne Manning is the author of the debut story collection We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 2020) Their stories and essays have been published widely, including in Toward an Ethics of Activism and Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivors of Sexual Assault.
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