Survivor Testimonies: A Conversation with Marie Myung-Ok Lee
By Leland CheukApril 12, 2023
The Evening Hero by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
The Evening Hero of the title is Yungman Kwak, a Minnesotan ob-gyn in his seventies who fled North Korea during the war as a child and achieved a successful life in the United States. But when his nonprofit employer closes, Yungman is forced into the nightmarish care-for-cash world. His son, Einstein, introduces Yungman to his employer, a startup that has just opened a medical center in the Mall of America, where one can get an annual physical and, in the same place, Brazilian waxes. After surviving the United States’ three-year campaign to flatten the Korean Peninsula with bombs, Yungman finds himself trying to survive a new type of American aggression: free-market capitalism.
I first heard an excerpt of this book at a reading in Brooklyn several years ago. Marie and I have since become friends. Between stops on her book tour, she patiently answered my questions over email. We discussed the tough choices that authors must make in satire and what went into the book’s poignant final lines.
LELAND CHEUK: Yungman Kwak has such a distinct voice as a narrator—knowing, yet unknowing; contemporary, yet, in his seventies, living in the past. How did you choose what Yungman did and didn’t know about the world?
MARIE MYUNG-OK LEE: Actually, some of the book was inspired by my love of mondegreens—misheard lyrics—which, with an immigrant from Korea, could really be ratcheted up. So when Yungman super-mishears the lyrics to a popular song and tries to make this song an entry point into a social interaction, it’s both funny and also a little pathetic and frustrating: he is convinced he can learn English perfectly if he just tries hard enough, but it’s still affected by Korean being his first language. A lot of the book is filtered this way, his wanting a frictionless, accepted, easeful life, and life getting in the way at the worst possible moments.
Were there any literary models you used to create that voice?
Yungman kind of snuck up on me, the way I hope he sneaks up on readers. In the book’s earlier incarnation as a Middlemarch-esque novel more about medicine and hypercapitalism, which focused on Einstein the son (the title it was sold as was First Born Son), Yungman was more in the background muttering sardonically about stuff and getting in the way of Young-ae, his wife, with his retirement. Then, when I decided to center the book on Yungman, his voice just took off and took over the book. I have always wondered if it was [the fact that] I wrote his pieces more as “filler” and didn’t stress about it and had a lot of fun, almost as a break from the “serious” parts of the story, that allowed him to become a truer character, since I was never focused on him and thereby didn’t have that editing hat on. Instead, I just kind of sat back and waited to see what he would do next and what his thoughts on that were.
The book walks this tonal tightrope with regards to realism and satire. For example, the narration paints the history of the Korean War but not as one would read in a history book from either the Koreans or Americans. Instead, the book kind of offers its own evaluation of the war and—spoiler—it doesn’t make the Americans or any of the decision-makers, whether they be General MacArthur or South Korean President Syngman Rhee, look particularly good. How did you decide on this unusual editorial approach?
For a change, I wanted a war book to be centered on the experience of survivors, not just Koreans but also American veterans. Everything that occurs in the book is from survivor testimonies. But if you looked into it, with regard to some of the claims made in the book—e.g., about the use of biological weapons—everything is verifiable. Not easily, but it’s there. I didn’t even include things like how MacArthur had a 16-year-old Filipina mistress whom he wouldn’t buy clothes for. She was supposed to lie in bed all day waiting for him! But so much of our current war machine relies on heroic tropes, and there was some intentionality in calling Korea the Forgotten War because it wasn’t an inspiring example of American military prowess. Truman thought we’d be in and out in weeks, and it lasted three years and ended in a stalemate.
You walk the same tonal tightrope with regards to the absurd commodification and commercialization of the healthcare industry today and how that often hurts the patients. How did you choose what to satirize or deride versus what to present as is?
I think the time I’ve spent in the medical field (e.g., going on an entire OB-GYN clerkship with the medical students, attending medical innovation conferences) has given me some wariness as to the limitations and even harm of modern medicine. Also, the type of medicine Yungman used to practice—patient-centered, humane—really doesn’t fit in the for-profit model anymore, and all medicine is for profit, even so-called nonprofits.
Tell me more about this clerkship and some of the most memorable parts of the experience.
I still have my hospital ID from Brown Medical School hanging on its lanyard in my office. I knew I needed to watch some surgeries and hang out in the hospital before I could credibly write about it. I like to put characters into situations and then follow what they do. But if I don’t know the situation’s world and context, it doesn’t work. I grew up as the child of a doctor, but that was actually a very different perspective. As kids, we were taught to idolize the doctors, sort of like how, as kids, you idolize your parents, and I wanted to know more about what the nitty-gritty texture of the day was like. It took me years, but finally, through my work at Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, I met a public-health person who knew a person in the medical school who knew a person in medical education—and that’s how I finally got in there. (NB: I also tried to get Harvard Medical School to let me take a spin in there because that’s where Einstein, the son, went to school, and their person literally said something like they only let famous people do that and the last person was … Bill Cosby—I have no idea what he was doing then, but now I don’t want to know.)
There were a lot of memorable moments, including when a senior physician made a student do an internal exam on an anesthetized patient. The student and I were both horrified, and now I’ve learned that—finally—this is considered to be assault. On a lighter note, doctors and staff are human, and they often had fun and had a kind of silly inside language.
Probably the most meaningful event for the book and for me as a person was when I was working at a different hospital in New York City. It was a public hospital that served a poor neighborhood, and it was a strange contrast, like there was never toilet paper in the bathrooms. This hospital tried to use midwives 99 percent of the time for labor and delivery because they are a lot cheaper than doctors. I had been following this one very tolerant gray-haired midwife for days. My reporter’s notebook was always in hand or stuck in my scrubs. At one point, she told me I should put the notebook down and wash up (you don’t have to “scrub in” because the vagina is technically considered—sigh—“dirty”). A young Latino couple was having a baby, and as it was coming out, the midwife showed me where to put my hands and she put her hands over mine. I had no idea that any of this was going to happen. I got to hold the newest-born baby in the world for a few seconds and really got not only a doctor’s-eye view but also the miraculous view of the waterborne fetus starting to breathe air. I was thinking how I didn’t even get that moment with my own son. It turned out the midwife was the daughter-in-law of a writer I admired. The couple didn’t speak any English, and I felt a little bad that we hadn’t asked for consent, but they were ecstatic. Not just about the baby but, because I’m Asian and was wearing a senior physician’s coat, they’d mistaken me for “la doctora.” So at least they were happy about what I think they considered deluxe treatment. It was also eye-opening to see what kind of treatment you get when you don’t have insurance. I was talking about consent more for my own conscience; in the public hospital, people often didn’t get too much choice about what was happening to them.
You said you initially started writing this book from the perspective of Yungman’s son, Einstein. Was the book initially just about the healthcare startup and the mallification of medical services, and when did that change?
You are correct; I originally had a funny idea to update the medical plot in Middlemarch, which had a doctor trying to do the right thing but inadvertently killing someone, his wife the ditzy spendthrift, and a small village full of gossip and intrigue. Einstein was originally pursuing fame and fortune at the “HoSPAtal” in the Mall of America, but then something goes awry, and he’s facing a medical malpractice case. Some of the dozens of titles were The Einstein Code, First Born Son, etc.
Then, after the 2016 election, everything changed—especially with the rise of anti-Asian violence and also Trump’s saber-rattling toward North Korea. Previously, Yungman had been sort of a comic filler, a mortar between chapters. A few readers even mentioned that they liked Yungman even better than Einstein. He also crept up in my affection, and then, when I made a decision to write something more specifically consequential about race and national origin and military narratives, Yungman basically stepped forward and took over the book.
Was that a scary experience, losing control of the book you originally wanted to write?
It was. It’s not like the book could club me on the head while I was sleeping. But it did cause me to wake up gasping many times. The first draft had been so easy—a book about medical malpractice that goes awry! The legal system! Asian doctors! So then 10 years and many drafts later, it sold (First Born Son), but in the next eight years, first it just kind of crumbled under the revisions, which included becoming shorter. And then it started becoming Yungman’s story. I think a lot of the anxiety came from not being able to contain the book in my head—who can? But when you’re writing a first draft, you’re kind of heading in a single direction. In revision, each sentence could send the narrative in a different direction or different tone. So half the time, I didn’t know what the book itself wanted to be, or where it was going. There were even times I thought it might be easier to just pay back the advance and give up.
I’m fascinated with how authors decide on their endings. To me, the ending is just perfect, down to the last moving line. How did you come to it? Did the book always end that way?
People think writing is a solitary occupation, which it is, but one of my superpowers is having a lot of brilliant friends. I’d had what I thought was a great “literary” ending—I tend to dislike endings that tie too much together, are too pat, O. Henry–ish, so I had one that was pretty muscular and mostly gestured at a lot of stuff that had happened earlier. But I had my friend, bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn, take a look at it; I didn’t ask her specifically about the ending, and she loved the novel and, when pressed, said the only small thing she had an issue with was … the ending! She felt it would be more satisfying to readers if it tied more stuff together. So, as an artiste I feel like, “Don’t think about readers! Do your creation!” But Pamela reads more than anyone I know—books of all genres—so I took a look at it with that in mind and then decided to “risk” a more gentle, emotional ending that basically brings the book full-circle. And because my narrative employs a more Asian-styled circularity versus rising action, this ending actually worked better. It was like completing a 60-year Buddhist cycle. And it reinforced, also, that while I can work on a book for five years straight and never show it to anyone, bringing people into the work in later drafts is also an important part of my process.
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently the novel No Good Very Bad Asian (2019), and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk.
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