“The Last Story of Mina Lee,” a novel by Nancy Jooyoun Kim, starts with a mystery: Why isn’t Mina Lee returning her daughter’s calls? After finding that her mother has died, the daughter, Margot, starts to unravel her mother’s past. We talked to the author about her debut, how her family influenced the book, and portraying her hometown of Los Angeles.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How does the reality of releasing your debut novel compare with your vision?
A: Of course, I never imagined debuting my novel in an environment as challenging as the one we’re in right now. There is so much uncertainty, and many people are struggling because of this pandemic. It’s hard to know how to promote a book. At the same time, I myself as a reader am finding so much comfort in books, film and television — storytelling, in general — that it feels extraordinarily important to keep up the work. We need stories now. And I have to keep reminding myself that.
Q: The trauma of the Korean War is critical to the character of Mina. How did your own family’s experiences shape your approach?
A: Both sides of my family come from what is now North Korea. My parents are internally displaced people who as children fled the north during the war. At the age of 13, my father left his home in advance of his mother and siblings, not knowing that a permanent border would forever keep them apart. For his entire life, he never knew what had happened to them, if they survived the war or if they continued to live behind a border, a border that continues to divide not only a culture and country but real families whose lives and identities have been shattered.
Not only did these separations have a major impact on my father’s life but on my life and our own relationship, as father and daughter, as well. There were so many things my father and mother did not talk about when I was growing up because they were unimaginably painful parts of their lives, and it’s these silences that I’m attempting to capture and write through and out of in my work.
Q: The relationship between your protagonist, Margot, and her mother, Mina, is at the heart of the novel. Did any mother-daughter combos in literature inspire you?
A: There aren’t any specific mother-daughter relationships in literature that have inspired my work, but I do often think of the very complicated relationships between women in Elena Ferrante’s books, specifically the Neapolitan novels and the fierceness of that central friendship between Lena and Lila. Both girls, and later women, are trapped within this system that values women through their relationships to men. In my book, it is this powerful sense of entrapment combined with the alienation of immigrants and women of color that creates much of the frustrations Mina and Margot, mother and daughter, feel and express toward each other.
Q: You show a very workaday, ordinary side of Los Angeles. As a native, what do you think portrayals of L.A. usually miss?
A: I wanted to write about the Los Angeles that I know, the ordinariness of the city and its characters and how they, like everyone else in this world, sometimes find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, making both good and bad choices.
I think what makes Los Angeles as a setting interesting is that its promise can often be oppressive, in particular for my characters who are struggling and unable to enjoy the benefits of the city and the landscape. In a way, Los Angeles itself represents so much of what people around the world dream of when they think about America — success, maybe fame and stardom. And so in a way, I’m working against the stereotypes of both the city and the country itself.
Q: Mina’s immigrant experience is central to the story. What do you hope readers take away from the book about immigrant life?
A: Immigration and migration are results of the most human impulse — to survive — whether physically or psychologically, as is the case of Mina Lee. She is fleeing her history in order to imagine a future for herself. Whether she can actually escape the past is irrelevant to the fact that her psychological survival in the now depends upon her movement and resettlement somewhere far away, yet not too foreign, since America has both a cultural and military presence in much of the world. And even if Mina’s life is a struggle here, her daughter is now an American, and to move out of this country would be to abandon her.
It’s important to note that “The Last Story of Mina Lee” is just one story in conversation with a vast network of diverse books written by and within immigrant communities. I hope this book is a small contribution to this already vibrant and dynamic collection of stories and voices.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m writing my next novel, which also takes place near Los Angeles’ Koreatown and centers on the life of a Korean-American family still grieving the mysterious death of the mother five years ago. Since I live in California, where the housing crisis is very real and ongoing, this book will also explore issues of gentrification and homelessness through the lens of an immigrant family, struggling in their own ways to belong.
Shawna Seed is a novelist and a frequent contributor to the Dallas Morning News.
The Last Story of Mina Lee
By: Nancy Jooyoun Kim.
Publisher: Park Row, 384 pages, $27.99.
Coming Sunday: “The Silence,” by Don DeLillo.