Kyung’s shell is punctured when his parents are the victims of a dramatic crime. He’s forced to confront everyone he’s kept at arm’s length: his parents, his in-laws, his church group, and even his toddler son, until his most tender parts are revealed to the world. Shelter is a powerful debut, full of thrills, secrets waiting to be discovered, and lies unwrapped.
Inspired by the trials of her own immigration from Korea and, later, the Cheshire home invasion trial, Yun started flirting with Shelter’s premise 12 years ago, after leaving a career in public service and pursuing her passion for writing. Now Yun has returned to her MFA program as a faculty developer, and teaches an introductory creative writing course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
JANE GAYDUK: Tell me about the path to your debut novel.
JUNG YUN: I was born South Korea, and I grew up in North Dakota, where I spent 14-plus years of my life. I fled North Dakota when it was time to go to college, and I’ve been on the East Coast ever since. I think I was really motivated to have that “American Dream” — the career, the education. I spent about a decade working in Philadelphia and New York, and then decided I really didn’t want to do the things that I had been trained to do with my life.
I had always loved reading and always aspired to write, but I’d never really sat down for very long periods of time to do any writing. So when I was 30, I went back to get my MFA and ended up at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which is where I still live. I started the book, writing the first couple of lines in 2004, then I put it away until 2007, and then revisited it again briefly, and then put it away again until about 2010. So three-and-a-half years of actual writing, but the incubation period was pretty long.
Did you start this novel in your MFA program?
Not at all. I was about two-thirds of the way through the MFA program [when I started it in 2004], but I really didn’t think of it as a novel back then. I was basically doing what writers do — jotting down some ideas — but I had no idea what it added up to. I guess I did think about it during the MFA program, but I didn’t really conceive of it as a novel until well after I had graduated.
One of the most prominent themes is parenting — both good and bad — and the anxiety surrounding parenting. Are you a parent?
I’m not. I live in an area surrounded by colleges and a lot of really well-educated people, and it’s interesting to see my friends entering into parenthood: how many books they read, how many articles they exchange with each other, the conversations they have within couples, and also with other parents. Have you read this? Have you read that?
It was more about observation than it was real research. I was thinking about how many choices parents have, and how that could be overwhelming. When are you doing the right thing? When are you doing the wrong thing? What is the right thing? So I think part of that angle of parenting was being surrounded by a lot of young parents who are doing this for the first time and trying to figure it out. Watching the things that they were going through, and thinking, “Wow, those are some dizzying choices you have in front of you, that really do have some impact.”
The limited third-person point of view is very interesting, because the reader often feels as clueless as Kyung, the main character, about his relationships with other characters. How did you make that narrative choice?
You know, that felt right to me from the beginning. I like that term: “clueless.” I was going for a very intentional emotional detachment with Kyung. This is someone for whom emotion is scary, because as a child he saw how it could go out of control so quickly. In many ways he kept himself to the narrowest part of his range — he deadens himself to the good in life, but also the bad. That protects him from feeling things that are potentially dangerous. He keeps himself in that narrow band in the middle.
There are so many things going on around him that he’s not open to seeing. He doesn’t want to see them; he doesn’t want that connection with his parents. He wants to know, quite frankly, as little as possible in the beginning. So that limited third felt right from the start, because this is a person who’s just trying to get by with his average life, and that’s what keeps him safe from harm. No wild swings of the pendulum. He just wants to be right in the middle, where nothing gets at him too much. That’s an interesting character type, because he’s seen the wild variation — his father’s — and he doesn’t want to be that, but he doesn’t know what else he can be.
So his wife, Gillian, becomes a mediating force, interpreting his parents’ actions for him.
Kyung is naturally drawn to Gillian because she’s a really good person — she tries, and she gives people the benefit of the doubt. She makes an interesting foil to Kyung, who doesn’t want to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, ever. So there are moments where you’re intended to not know if his parents are trying or not trying, but it is equally plausible depending on which point of view you lean toward.
So it’s a test for pessimists and optimists?
A little bit.
It seems, from this story, that Asian men have so few emotional outlets — or spaces to be vulnerable — inside of a Western culture. Like they often retreat into themselves.
Because Kyung came to [the United States] when he was very young this tendency is particularly acute; he still has one foot in this culture, one foot in another. Having grown up with Asian-American immigrant parents who are very much about that model of filial piety, he’s really struggling with those cultural norms which are more his parents’ than his own. It’s that conflict that a lot of recent immigrants feel, when what’s normative here is simply not what they’ve grown up with. I can’t really speak to that Asian male experience. My own father is just not a good example, because he’s buoyant and effusive, and so not that particular type. But I hear what you’re saying, and I know that type as well.
How did your own experience of straddling two different cultures influence this novel? What did you struggle with most?
My parents chose North Dakota mostly for the economic opportunity. It was, at times, a really pleasant place to grow up. But I tend to remember things that were more complicated and hard. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am or the writer I am had I grown up somewhere else, particularly with other Korean Americans. But that was not North Dakota.
Because we were the only nonwhite family for miles and miles, I grew up being very acutely aware of difference — in terms of race, but also in terms of class, how women were treated differently than men, how the elderly were treated differently than the young. I just grew up looking and observing. And that followed me through my adult life and has probably helped me quite a bit in my writing.
There are things I look back on that are sort of comic; you could put them into a sitcom script and they would work. And then there were things that were just a little bit difficult. We came to this country really poor and then my parents did fairly well. And I always say: There’s only one thing worse than being a poor Korean-American family in North Dakota, which is being a rich Korean-American family in North Dakota. But all of this has been really productive and rich for my own writing. I don’t look back and regret any of it.
What were some of the comic experiences?
My father was a naturalized American citizen earlier than my mother; my mother became a naturalized citizen when I was nine. Both of them had been operating under Americanized names, they just found it easier to deal with. So they gave my older sister and me the option of Americanizing our names. We were probably too young for that responsibility. This says so much about where my head was at the time, but I became fixated on three names: Tiffany, Stephanie, and Heather.
That was who I was going to be. That was going to be my new American identity. The weirdest part, when I look back on it, was I really wanted one of those plastic combs for your hair that you can buy with your name on it. Of course, there’s no comb in the world with my name on it! I was fixated on having a comb with my name on it. I remember going to school and telling all of my friends proudly that these were my choices and asking if they wanted to vote. I can still remember how hilarious that concept was, that I was going to be a Tiffany, to my nine-year-old friends. They were beside themselves.
In the grand scheme of things, that turned out well. I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I been a Heather or something to that effect, so they probably saved me.
What do your parents do?
My parents are retired now, but they were both small business owners for most of their working lives. My dad was a tae kwon do instructor. That’s why we ended up in Fargo, North Dakota. He wanted to open a school in the Midwest, somewhere that didn’t have a lot of competing schools already. Originally, he planned to settle in Chicago, but Chicago in the 1970s was too expensive, too rough, and not a place where he could see raising a family. Someone told him about Fargo, and he liked it when he visited, so that’s where we met him a year later when we arrived in the US. It turned out to be a good decision financially because his business really thrived there. By the end of his career, he had a network of affiliated schools around the Midwest, and he’s still one of a handful of 10th degree Great Grandmasters of tae kwon do in the world.
My mom owned and operated a retirement home in Minnesota, just over the border from Fargo. She bought the place when I was nine, and when I went there, some of the residents would sort of attach themselves to me, and I got the sense that they didn’t see their children or grandchildren very often. That seemed strange because my beloved grandfather lived with us at home until he passed away, and most of the kids I knew in Seoul had at least one grandparent living at home too. It didn’t matter if they were nice or mean grandparents — that’s just the way it was typically done back then in Korea. So a retirement home, as a concept, seemed very different and American to me. Something I thought about while writing Shelter was how my mom did really extraordinary work, caring for so many elderly people — often in cooperation with their families, but sometimes as a surrogate for their families.
What was the most challenging part about writing Shelter?
The most challenging section of the book is the one that has actually changed the least over multiple edits: when Kyung finds out exactly what happened to his parents, and the home invasion and the crime itself. Because Kyung has a strange relationship with his parents, I knew there were no narratively honest circumstances in which his father or his mother would tell him what actually happened to them. So there’s one narrative break in the story where he is basically hearing from his father-in-law, who heard from his parents, what happened. The narrative shifts into third-person past, and it’s almost omniscient. It brings together various viewpoints of what happened, and there’s almost a quality of reportage to it. That was hard for me, because I was dealing with a lot of violence. It was hard to figure out the right way to go about it, but once I actually drafted it and revised it a couple of times, that was what felt exactly right. But it took a long time to get to that point — it wasn’t appropriate for Kyung to go on without knowing what happened. He had to know somehow.
Did you research trauma victims and how they react to their experiences?
I did. When I started writing this story in earnest in 2010, it was at the tail end of the Cheshire home invasion trial. That case that got a lot of media attention; it was an absolutely terrible crime. The mother and her two daughters were sexually assaulted, and they died when the men set the house on fire. The only person who survived was the father. I read the court transcripts of that case, read court transcripts of other cases, and did research on victims of rape and sexual assault.
Someone recently asked me if did any self-care during this research period and I realized I really didn’t. I probably should have done much more, but that wasn’t really on my mind at the time. I write first thing in the morning. When I was researching, I was up at 4:30 in the morning, so this was how I was starting my day — thinking about unpleasant, difficult, uncomfortable things.
Who are some of the writers that inspire you?
Richard Yates and John Cheever are two whose work I really love. They have that ability to take uncomfortable domestic issues and build whole stories, sometimes whole novels, around them. I really love their work […] and I adore William Styron. I know that I’m talking about a lot of white men right now.
Well they’re the most represented group in literature. They’re everywhere.
They are everywhere. Honestly, that’s who I read coming into my graduate program. I don’t know if you saw the article in The Atlantic on MFA programs and what they actually do — but one of the great things about being in an MFA program is that I was exposed to a lot of writers who I may not have discovered on my own.
Jane Gayduk is a Brooklyn-based journalist and photographer.