“I would see thousands of people streaming from their officetels to Gangnam station, all very young, very self-possessed, very confident. I was imagining how everyone living in these officetels is very far from home.”
The last time I rode the subway into Manhattan, in early March, it was to catch up with Frances Cha. Seven or eight years had passed since we’d last seen each other face-to-face, and it felt like we had both lived entire lifetimes since our days as young, single Korean American journalists plying our trade together in Seoul. Over dim sum at Union Square’s eerily empty Tim Ho Wan, where servers were already wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves, Cha filled me in on her experience of motherhood, marriage and, of course, the writing life.
At the time, she was six weeks away from the publication of her debut novel, If I Had Your Face (Ballantine), a story about how even the most casual of female friendships can evolve into fierce bonds. Cha, who grew up in the United States, South Korea and Hong Kong, was worried that her mother and brother, who live in Seoul, wouldn’t be able to travel to New York for her book launch due to coronavirus. “Well, I’ll be there,” I reassured her as I cradled the advance reader copy that she gave me, feeling fully confident that all would proceed as planned.
Within mere weeks, of course, New York City would go “on pause,” and by the time I interviewed Cha in early May, our lives would feel drastically altered yet again. I had finished If I Had Your Face, which I treasured as an antidote to lockdown-induced isolation: Its setting in contemporary Seoul now felt like a fantasy, one I’d lived before in real life, where my East Asian face could blend into the masses rather than making me a target of racist slurs, where life could revolve around me and my dearest girlfriends as we shared gossip over a steaming pot of jjigae, where a single-payer public health system could extend care for everyone around us.
In Cha’s novel, four narrators, Ara, Miho, Kyuri, and Wonna, alternate in telling the story of how each came to live in the same apartment building. What binds these young women, aside from their address, is their experience carving out a place in hypercompetitive Korean society despite starting their lives without wealth or privilege: Ara, a hairstylist, and Miho, an emerging artist, spent their early years in an orphanage; Kyuri, who is Miho’s roommate, works in an elite room salon, a bar where women entertain rich businessmen as they make deals; Wonna, a newlywed who lives downstairs, struggles with entrenched sexism in the office and with infertility and financial stress at home.
This time, Cha spoke to me via Zoom, against a backdrop of empty batting cages in New Jersey—her in-laws, whom she was quarantining with, had closed down the small sporting complex that they run, and Cha’s young children were using the vacant space to enjoy precious outdoor time during our interview.
Hannah Bae: I read that you started working on If I Had Your Face while you were in your MFA program. What were the very early seeds of your book?
Frances Cha: When I was in my MFA, I remember reading a series of books, all fiction, that were all about white protagonists, about adultery in marriage, and I was so sick of it. For the longest time I wanted to write about Asian characters, but I had never really tried it. There was some internal hurdle. I kept writing white characters, and now I am astounded that I did that.
I had just come back from living in Korea, and I wanted to write a story about Asians who have no adultery. Instead, I focused on friendships between women, set in Korea, and I wanted it to be a very modern take that was different from the Asian American novels and memoirs that I had read, which were very historical.
HB: You chose to tell your story from four narrators’ points of view. Three of the characters, Miho, Ara, and Sujin [who is not a narrator], meet in an orphanage, and I wondered why none of them were adopted when Korea has a significant history of transnational adoption.
FC: The book actually began with five points of view. One narrator was a returned adoptee. When an editor at Random House bought the book, we cut her out completely to use in my second book. I’m very, very interested in adoptee narratives. I used to volunteer regularly at an orphanage in Korea when I was growing up, and what I saw really never left me. When I was in school in the United States, I would always be so interested when I encountered adoptees, so wanting to talk to them, but they would completely resist my advances. I didn’t understand why until I read more adoptee narratives.
In terms of my characters, I have to preface every interview by saying that these women are not representative of all women in Korea. Kyuri, for example, is on the very extreme edge of everything. How she approaches plastic surgery, the job that she has in the room salon, even her mother is unusual in that she doesn’t want to teach Kyuri how to cook for fear that her daughter will become beholden to domesticity.
When you’re writing a novel, you’re writing about interesting people. You’re not writing about the boring, middle-ground person.
HB: It’s a heightened reality. You have to crank up the tension to make it worthy of a story.
FC: Now that the book is out there, it feels like it’s out of my hands. I have no control over what readers take away from it. Sometimes they say, “Korea’s such a cool place.” Other times, they say, “What a terrible place.”
HB: Of course Korea has all these harsh realities, but so does New York. So does all of America.
FC: I’m very wary of portraying Koreans as this freakish thing. I have to say that I do feel conflicted about the way I speak about certain details when I know that I’m speaking to a non-Asian person versus an Asian person because of a bias that’s built into those perspectives.
People have all these preconceptions. When I explain room salons to American interviewers, I have to make sure to say that it’s not like a strip club. Sex is off the table. It’s not even like the women are showing cleavage. They pour liquor and talk. They are incredibly charismatic. Their personalities are the draw. Men go there to make business deals, and the women facilitate that sense of camaraderie.
HB: Your novel reads as a very detailed character study. Do you feel there are parts of you in each of these characters?
FC: Last month I wrote about how I auditioned for a role in the audiobook, the character Wonna [who, after several miscarriages, longs to carry her current pregnancy to term]. I had a very difficult postpartum period, especially with my firstborn. You often hear this saying, that when bad things happen to writers, at least they have something to write about. That was really true for me. It was so hard at the time, but in retrospect it gave me a dark place to go in the writing. Wonna is my dark place.
HB: I feel like your depiction of women’s work in Korea mirrored your real life in many ways, of quitting your job at CNN and then writing this novel in these snatches of time when you were pregnant and then raising your daughters.
FC: I don’t want people to think that Korea is such a terrible place for women to work. Yes, Korea still has the worst ratio for women in management in the developed world. That needs to change, and I’ve seen it changing in Korea—most families are now dual income, and they desperately need that dual income.
Not only in Korea, but everywhere around the world, once you have children, choosing to work becomes this huge decision. Every day I worry about child care. I was desperate for time when I wrote this book. When I was in my MFA and had all the time in the world, I wasn’t doing shit. I was reading a ton, but for the actual writing, I needed that 10 years of life experience.
HB: Setting comes through in such a strong way in this book. How did you approach writing modern-day Seoul into fiction?
FC: For my whole life, I have been living in multiple places. Right after college in the States, I did one year of grad school, then came to Korea, worked for two years, went back to Columbia for another year of the MFA, then moved back to Seoul, and then took the job at CNN.
When I return to Seoul every summer, I live near Gangnam [subway] station, and that was kind of my world. Every day, I would see thousands of people streaming from their officetels [Korean high-rises that are a mix of commercial and residential units] to Gangnam station, all very young, very self-possessed, very confident. But I felt very out of place. I was just imagining how everyone living in these officetels is very far from home—their actual family homes must be far from Seoul, otherwise they’d be living with their families, which is the norm in Korea. They’re living these very similar lives in every apartment, and I just started thinking about that a lot.
Dependence is such a huge part of everybody’s burden in Korea. In the book, every woman’s motivation is to make her life better—in Sujin’s case, it’s to support Ara, her roommate and childhood friend. In Kyuri’s case it’s to support her mother, who is sick. We feel this responsibility for other people that influences a lot of decisions.
My family is getting ready to go to Seoul in June, once we figure out quarantine. We are dual citizens, and a big reason why I take my children to Korea every summer is that it’s important to me that they understand. There’s so much that just can’t be translated directly into English.