Art and Seoul: An Interview with Frances Cha

Frances Cha is the author of the novel If I Had Your Face. She grew up in the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea, and graduated from Dartmouth College with a BA in English Literature and Asian Studies. For her MFA in Creative Writing she attended Columbia University, where she received a Dean’s Fellowship. She worked as the assistant managing editor of Samsung Economic Research Institute’s business journal in Seoul and as a travel and culture editor for CNN International in Seoul and Hong Kong. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, V Magazine, WWD and The Believer among other publications. Most recently, her short story “As Long As I Live” was published in the Korean-language anthology New York Story (Artizan Books, Korea). She has taught Media Studies at Ewha Womens University, Creative Writing at Columbia University and Yonsei University, and lectured at Seoul National University. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters and spends summer in Seoul, South Korea. 

Shalvi Shah is the Online Fiction Editor of Columbia Journal for the 2019-2020 year. She is pursuing a joint MFA in Fiction and Translation at Columbia University, where she is a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year. Here she speaks with Cha about her debut novel If I Had Your Face, and about art, men and women, Korean culture, and the wheels of writing.

I want to talk about social judgement in If I Had Your Face. Whether that’s carried out by women who judge other women, men who objectify them, elders who pass on trauma, or those who think they save others, there are so many characters here who persecute each other. What led you to show this multitude of voices in your debut?

I suppose even starting with the title of the book, I was thinking how as people, we have such judgement towards others we don’t know, and how we all project that others are making the wrong choices and we would live their lives so much better than them. The book was originally conceived as an interconnected group of short stories, and when I was starting out I wanted to examine relationships from different sides, and how in doing that some form of conflict inevitably arises. 

Ara, Kyuri, Wonna, and Miho are fully realized, flawed women who nevertheless have an almost perfect sisterhood embedded into their narratives, perhaps because of the spaces they occupy. What is your inspiration when it comes to writing about women and how would you advise amateur writers to foray into doing the same?

I think as women we are generally more observant and internal than men, so I loved creating the fabric of what each character would be interested in, and what hyper observant thoughts she would be having about the areas that interest her. To quote Bong Joon Ho quoting Martin Scorcese, I trust that the most personal is the most creative. Women’s friendships are so necessary to their lives, but within them there are judgements and disagreements, as well as beautiful sisterhood, and I loved exploring the dynamics between the characters with their ups and downs. 

I think If I Had Your Face really informs Americans about many of the prevalent cultures of contemporary Seoul and its surrounding areas. It’s the first American novel to be set in South Korea. I think that, in a way, that calls for carving its own space in the literary world. What do you hope readers all around the world take from such a book?

There are many unique superlatives and characteristics of contemporary life in Korea that are so ripe for fiction. I think it’s important to always have a curiosity about other cultures, to see what is different about that culture while feeling kinship with the universality of the human experience, and to travel to destinations in a book and exit with takeaways. I hope that the reader is intrigued by the setting and the issues in the book, and can empathize with the context in which characters’ choices are being made. 

Miho is a character I identify with in her relentless consumption of reality as fodder for art-making. I think she would die if she couldn’t make art. Is she inspired by some of your own experiences in New York? What are some things that grease your writerly engines? 

My mother loves contemporary art and while she is very frugal about almost everything else, that is something she saves up for to purchase. I grew up going with her to galleries and museums and so contemporary Korean art has long been a passion of mine. Her friend runs an art gallery that I love in Seoul called Moon Gallery, and I haunt the place whenever I am in Korea. Because I don’t have a single artistic bone in my entire body, I am fascinated by artists and their process and inspiration, and it was such a joy to research and interview several artists for the book. I think just observing someone passionate about their work inspires my own writing. 

Miho’s story in New York and Kyuri’s past and present in Seoul both live in the shadow of capitalism and people who spend astronomical sums to appear cultured or powerful, most likely both. Films like Parasite also highlight this wealth disparity, and while I suspect you may be tired of the comparisons, I wanted to ask: if there were other narratives like this that you could promote, what would you suggest we read up on?

It was not my intention to make a particular social statement about wealth disparity in the book—I just wanted to write stories about these specific female characters in contemporary Korea that are authentic at the granular level. But that is the reception I have been getting in the West, and of course the takeaway is up to the reader. Most of the works I am thinking of along those themes in Korea have not been translated into English. In particular, the writer Chang Kang-myoung’s work shook me. Save my Seoul is an English-language documentary about the sex trade in Korea by Jason Lee that illustrates how people outside the industry view people in the industry and how that is not a fair perspective, and is very much an examination of social class in addition to of course, gender and double standards. It is quite graphic and eye-opening and I really recommend it. 

Disability is a factor that many of us don’t grapple with very well as humans, but Ara has this backbone of steel that cultivates a sense of awe in our vision of her. However, she is still seen by her parents as a maiden who must be married off. What would you say about women and autonomy in South Korea?

Women have more autonomy than ever before in South Korea, but there is still a long way to go. South Korea’s ranking for economic participation and opportunity for women is one of the lowest in the world, with something like only 3 percent of CEOs being female vs the Asia Pacific average of 11.8 percent and European and American average of 7.8 percent (although all those numbers are also still abysmal). But more women are electing to get married later, if at all, and the fact that Korea’s birth rate is the lowest in the world means that women are experiencing more freedom in many ways. The age-old conflict of how parents perceive their children and how those children perceive themselves persists, as the parents are quite distraught over the prospect of their daughters being alone later in life. I feel deeply for both the parents and the daughters, and have been gratified to see that with the rise of the dual-income household, the power dynamic is fast-evolving within marriages. 

Motherhood is Wonna’s dream. She feels, perhaps, like the most transient character in this story, because she lives so much of it in traumatic past and hopeful future. Did your own experience of motherhood influence how you wrote her?

I wrote most of Wonna’s scenes when I was pregnant, and I think the anxiety I was feeling at the time during the pregnancy, as well as the very dark post-partum time I went through figured heavily into the writing. Her dreams about the baby, her fears for the baby—yes, a lot of that came from a very personal place. 

Plastic surgery is central to this story and to Korean beauty culture, and Seoul’s surgeons are some of the most famous in the world. How do you go about compiling a narrative about superficial beauty and then turn it into something as layered as survival? 

The idea I had with the Kyuri and Sujin storylines is a deeper look at why people who elect to undergo plastic surgery choose to do so, and how those reasons are often out of desperation or a deeper reason than merely vanity or frivolity, which is I think is the lens with which that kind of choice is often viewed with in the West. Room salon girls are extremely judged within South Korea as well, and as they are so known to be “plastic beauties” I wanted to research and write beyond the generally accepted shallow narrative.      

School bullying, boy bands, TV dramas, technology, and other pop references abound in the book. Do you think we can no longer write a contemporary story that doesn’t address any of these essential components of daily life for many us?

Traditionally, I have abhorred the idea of cell phones in fiction. I think so much of a plot’s conflict and plot in the books that I have loved growing up relied on the fact that there were no cell phones! But since I wanted to write about contemporary Korea in all of its futuristic glory and reliance on technology, I just went in the other extreme direction and employed technology into the fabric of the book. It really depends on how you feel about technology so that you can set your work during a specific time that either employs the idea of instant communication or avoids it. Or perhaps your protagonist has a very good reason for avoiding that kind of life, but I do think you need to explain its absence if you decide to take it out, and have that explanation be convincing. 

Sujin is one of my favorite characters because she is the unni and chingu that I want in my adult years. How do we as writers cherish friendship, and what are some gestures others have done for you that you remember fondly? 

I think because writing is such an isolating/isolated experience, and because I am an introvert, my friendships are such a lifeline. It’s interesting though, that most of my friends are not big readers, and so that side of my life I do not really discuss with them, but the escapades that I get into with them often make it into my fiction. In regards to my writing life and the publication process, I am never more grateful than when I can ask a close friend whose instincts as a reader I trust completely to read a manuscript and ask what they thought of revisions. It was especially crucial for me because I was employing a lot of Korean words and referencing Korean culture, I need to ask how much is too much or too little etc. 

Hanbin was the one man I was rooting for in the story, but I was very quickly disabused of that romance. The indictment of men is rendered in beautiful anger in your novel. Who are some of your favorite male characters in fiction, and why?

Yes, Hanbin turns out to be a deplorable disappointment, but I have high hopes for Kyuri’s manager oppa of the room salon! So many favorite male characters in fiction, but I have to say, quite a few of them don’t age well. I used to love Max de Winter of Rebecca, falling in love with him over and over through the narrator’s eyes, but now I just want to smack him on the head with a newspaper and say “Grow up and just communicate with your wife!” I loved Balram Halwai in The White Tiger, Max Tivoli in The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Ted Tice in The Transit of Venus, Roland Mitchell in Possession… I love the way they hold on to their dreams for dear life, whether they are brash in personality or timid, and have you wanting to just reach out and stroke their hair and tell them it will be okay (when often it is not).

How are you keeping yourself out of a funk these days? Could you share with us something that makes you happy?

We are quarantined with my in-laws at their house in New Jersey. Due to the shutdown, my father-in-law had to close his small business, which is a golf practice range with a mini-golf course. So my family shuttles back and forth almost every day between the house and the golf range and my oldest daughter who is five years old has taken up “golf.” I find it the cutest thing, to watch her whack the ball with all her might, and see the ball go further and further each week. The range is quite a large field, and groundhogs routinely pop up and venture across it, and my girls and I go running after them and shriek with delight when they run away as fast as their fat legs can sprint. There are also several birds nests built on the roof and the mama birds fly in and out every ten minutes bringing food to their squawking babies and it has been fascinating to watch that up close every day. It has been a deteriorating business and the bane of our father-in-law’s recent life, as he has been trying to sell it for years, but during this pandemic, it is our happy place where I watch my children living their best life, picking wildflowers and chasing butterflies.

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