Instructions for Cutting Your Heart Out: On Gina Chung’s “Green Frog”

By Charlee DyroffMarch 27, 2024

Instructions for Cutting Your Heart Out: On Gina Chung’s “Green Frog”

Green Frog by Gina Chung

AT THE FRONT of a church, the 17-year-old daughter of Reverend Chang begins to grow. She’s pregnant, and the women around her couldn’t be happier. They watch and whisper from nearby pews, reveling in the fact that someone else’s kid has done worse than theirs. But as the weeks pass, the women notice something strange. Instead of causing bloat or visible shame, “Sora’s pregnancy [lends] her pale, sickly form a beauty [they] had never seen on her before, rounding her stomach and illuminating her face so that she shone like a sleek pearl.” As Sora transforms, the women’s lives do as well. Hair that was gray and thinning grows back strong. A failing frozen yogurt stand suddenly sprouts a line of customers. One woman’s cheating husband apologizes and buys her a designer bag; after years of silence, a mother finally makes up with her daughter.

It’s as if Sora’s pregnancy pulses outward, affecting those in its radius and giving life not only to the child growing inside her but also to the women themselves: their relationships, their desires, their needs. When months have passed and Sora begins to moan “the dark song of birth,” the same churchgoing women who initially delighted in her sin find her alone in the church parking lot. In the end, they’re the group who take her to the hospital, praying for an easy delivery and singing back to her, no man in sight.

Gina Chung’s glimmering new collection, Green Frog, is filled with stories like this one, “The Fruits of Sin”—stories imbued with subtle magic, balancing one foot in and one foot out of the ordinary. They’re stories populated by mothers and daughters and sisters and lovers, by women who tear each other down yet are first to arrive if something goes wrong.


Taken all together, the volume’s 15 stories defy categorization. Instead, they slip between genres and realities. For example, the title story incorporates 청개구리, a Korean fable about a green frog who always does the opposite of what his mother says, driving her so deeply into despair that eventually she passes away. The protagonist and narrator, a young Korean woman, remembers this tale on the third anniversary of her own mother’s death. She reflects on her own disappointing actions as a daughter—purposefully completing tasks “sloppily and slowly” at her family’s restaurant, dropping out of art school in her junior year—especially considered next to those of her ostensibly perfect, studious sister.

Throughout the story, it pours rain. Watching “small lakes […] for[m] in the streets,” the narrator recalls how, in 청개구리, the mother frog asks to be buried near the riverbed, assuming her son will do the opposite and take her to the mountains. Upon her death, however, the green frog is overcome with regret. He tries to honor her last wish, burying her near the river where, during monsoon season, she is washed away. “He cried and cried, and that is why frogs croak in the rain,” the narrator’s mother explained when her daughter was younger, accompanying the pronouncement with pointed looks.

It isn’t hard to draw connections between the Korean fairytale and the narrator’s experiences in “Green Frog.” Still, the story’s fantastical bent is subtle; the world of the fable remains identifiably separate from the “real” one Chung constructs. By contrast, “Human Hearts” turns the volume of magic up. Written from the perspective of Okja, a kumiho—a type of fox spirit from Korean folktales able to assume the form of a beautiful human woman—this narrative also follows a daughter who feels she has let her mother down. And, like the narrator of “Green Frog,” Okja pales in comparison to her late twin sister Mija, who was beautiful and aggressive—all things a kumiho should be. In this way, “Human Hearts” feels like an inversion of (or, at the very least, a close companion to) “Green Frog.” One is based in reality, the other in legend; both engage the mind of a daughter who feels stuck, desperate to be someone different than who she is.

Chung’s stories reach beyond the fantastical or folky. Some are speculative in nature; in “Attachment Processes,” for example, a mother grows so bereft after the death of her daughter Elly that she orders a new, technological version of her. Unsurprisingly, this proves a poor (and bizarre) substitute—and not only because she opts for an android in her daughter’s sweet, five-year-old form instead of the finicky teenager she struggled to connect with. She can’t help thinking about how replacement Elly is programmed, can’t stop looking for differences between the robot and the actual daughter she lost. Another story, “Presence,” melds the spiritual and dystopian, as a woman who formerly led the research department at a memory deletion company in New York finds herself haunted by a dark presence. It slinks into the car with her as she flees the city for an upstate spa to process her involvement with the company, her recent divorce from the founder, and the dangerous effects of burying one’s past.

The collection dips deftly and naturally into these other realms. Often rooted in everyday settings—a kitchen after a party, a run-down Brooklyn apartment, a family restaurant—the stories feel at once familiar and dreamy. Like their characters, who are often first, second, or third generation Korean Americans, these stories belong to and pull from multiple places. What binds them together isn’t any one genre or subject, but Chung’s impressive, highly evocative ability to linger in the liminal.


Of course, the volume is suffused by other commonalities. No matter how imaginative Chung’s narratives become—one is written from the perspective of a praying mantis who “lives in a small but well-furnished and moderately priced studio apartment in an oak tree”—all speak to a core human sentiment: the simultaneous desire for and fear of change. The first installment in the collection, “How to Eat Your Own Heart,” explores one variant of this impulse, a yearning to break free and start anew no matter the cost. It contains a numbered recipe with instructions for cutting your heart out, boiling it, eating it, and letting the “remnants of your heart […] grow inside your stomach, gestating like a child or a secret”—before giving birth to the organ and placing it back in your chest.

Read independently, it’s a strange, vivid piece, at once horrific and beautiful, spiritual and corporeal. Placed at the head of Chung’s collection, it provides a kind of instruction manual for approaching the rest of the volume—after reading, it’s impossible not to notice how most of the characters that follow are similarly seeking some sort of transformation or rebirth. There are the physical evolutions of women’s bodies, like Sora’s rounding stomach and her growth from a lanky teenager into a glowing woman, or the kumihos’ transition from fox spirits to women and back again. In one story, a twin daughter gets her first period; in another, a woman miscarries.

Tied up with these physical metamorphoses are those of an emotional kind. We bear witness as a young woman develops a crush on her god-loving classmate. We trace a son’s thought patterns as he comes to terms with selling the family store to help pay his father’s medical bills. In one especially devastating story, we follow a wife as she discovers that her husband may be living multiple lives and deliberates whether to address it or to simply carry on loving him. Chung’s stories find their characters at pivotal moments, poised on the brink of change. They carry the ethos of the first story with them: wanting to start over, to cut out their hearts and replace them with new ones.


There’s a difference between wanting to be reborn and actually going through with it—and in many of Green Frog’s stories, that’s where the tension lies. In one, a young woman describes her tattoo of an arrow:

You thought of your fear as a golden arrow that pointed outward from the dark surrounding your mother’s house, a beam that led you away from orange smoke and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway and endless sunshine and rooting fruit on sidewalks, toward a future where you were no one’s daughter, where the only dreams and desires you had to follow were your own.

Chung’s use of the second person aligns readers with a woman who has, technically, achieved the change she wanted. She has moved far away from her Southern California hometown, even estranged herself from her older Korean mother. But when she accidentally gets pregnant by one of three men she’s sleeping with—a co-worker, a tattoo artist, an ex-boyfriend—she calls her mother. Like the women who judged Sora’s pregnancy but ultimately showed up when it mattered, the narrator’s mother travels immediately to Brooklyn to be by her side. This thread runs through the whole of Chung’s volume: no matter how far you venture or how dramatically you attempt to remake yourself, some ties can’t be severed.

This appears to be especially true for the women of Green Frog. (Only one of the collection’s narratives centers on a man and is written in a comparatively detached third person.) The volume examines female experiences from virtually every angle, considering virtually every actress—daughter, mother, sister, lover, wife, a more collective “we.” The sheer number of pregnancies strewn throughout these stories risks redundancy; instead, it’s made to emphasize the profound connections women have to one another. Because only your mother, sister, aunt, or girlfriend can truly understand the agony of birth, the loss of a child, the loneliness of a lying or absent husband. Only they have borne the same pressures of womanhood, have shared the desire to unshoulder them.


At the close of “Green Frog,” the narrator contemplates creating a new life, one that exists outside of the family restaurant. She considers moving out of her parents’ house, even reenrolling in art classes. “I am here,” she reminds herself. “And maybe it’s time I did something about it.” But the story leaves us there, on the cusp of change, unsure of what will happen next.

Chung’s stories are rooted in this uncertainty. It’s what makes them, despite their more explicit magical elements, feel so real; none contain false or easy, too-happy endings. Instead, they drop us somewhere messy and full of promise. In “Human Hearts,” Okja decides not to follow her mother’s orders, and the story closes as she runs into the dark woods, unbound. “I am half kumiho and half human—born to kill and drink the blood of men, but free to choose my own fate, and to make my own way through this life,” she thinks. “My eyes yellow and adjust as I plunge deeper into the night.”

This longing—to do something about one’s presence, to choose one’s own fate—hangs in the air long after the book has been closed. Green Frog glitters and haunts, remaining with you until, slowly, you start to see yourself and your surroundings differently.

LARB Contributor

Charlee Dyroff is a writer from Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Slate, the Southwest Review, and elsewhere. One of her essays was selected for The Best American Food Writing 2019. Her debut novel, Loneliness & Company, will be published in May 2024.


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