‘Beasts of a Little Land,’ the Portland author’s debut novel, is a tale of love and war in 20th-century Korea


The tiger on the cover of Portland author Juhea Kim’s debut novel, “The beasts of a small country“, is not there just to look good.

“The centrality of the tiger in Korean culture really cannot be overstated,” Kim said recently. It is a figure that appears in hundreds of stories and legends, often representing metamorphosis.

In her book, she says, the tiger represents the loss of Korean ecology as well as something spiritual about Korean culture over the years that the story spans, from 1917 to 1964. Koreans not only endured the Japanese occupation, but also found their location strategic. peninsula at the center of a geopolitical struggle between Japan, China, Russia and the United States.

Against this historical backdrop, Kim tells the stories of individuals doing their best to survive and thrive.

Here are excerpts from a conversation with Kim on “Beasts of a Little Land.”

Q: Where does the title come from?

A: I have my agent, Jody Kahn, to thank for making it up. She said, what about “Beasts of a Little Land,” a passage in the book where one of the antagonists talks about tigers in Korea.

It really captures both the importance of nature in this country as well as the question of who really is the beast in this story.

Q: You described “Beasts of a Little Land” as an “epic story of love, war and redemption”. You play a lot of variations on these themes, for example, exploring not only romantic love but other types of love.

A: The stories I find most compelling are about relationships that grow and change over the years.

It also reflects this Korean concept of jeong – it’s a very deeply Korean concept for which there is no direct English translation. Jeong most closely resembles tenderness or affection that grows over time. It could be friendship. It can even be love/hate.

Q: What interests you about redemption?

A: I used to play (cello) in this youth symphony called Portland Youth Philharmonic. We played Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. Bruckner was a very devout Catholic and a very sincere man. But he also struggled with very human doubts. I believe he dispelled his doubts through this symphony.

I wanted to capture that same sense of struggle, to come to a state of unity and wholeness. These characters go through a lot of pain, but in the end I think they each come to an end they deserve and can accept.

Q: How did you decide when to fall back on historical events and when to fictionalize?

A: I used to read (Korean) history books from ancient times. For this novel, I read more about Korean literature from the early 20th century. I also read translated Japanese literature. I wanted to get a sense of what people were feeling and thinking at the time, which surprisingly wasn’t too different from what we’re struggling with.

It made me realize that the story has to happen and that’s very important, but a lot of the drive for storytelling has to come from universal, timeless human desires to be validated, to be loved, to have power. This is where fiction and history intersect. Fiction is the universal and timeless aspects that we all experience. History is proper to the elements of time and place.

Q: Who was your favorite character to write?

Writing Ito (a Japanese major) and SungSoo (a Korean publisher) came more naturally than writing some of the nobler characters. I think it’s because I really find great satisfaction as a reader of antagonists who aren’t 100% villains.

Ito is of course the colonizer, and he can be extremely brutal and violent. He’s not meant to be someone we look up to.

SungSoo is a very selfish guy and I don’t think I’m much like him. however, I tried to give it a lot of my own habits, some of my own traits. SungSoo also appears in a less repulsive way than if you were 100% undeserved.

Q: Who was the hardest character to write?

A: Jade (a child sold to a courtesan), definitely. I was really aware that I could be compared to Jade because she is the main female protagonist.

The character that most resembles me is actually MyungBo (a Korean resistance supporter). His main trait is selflessness, and I wrote all these things about him giving his stuff to his classmates based on my own feelings growing up and my own experiences.

Q: How prepared were you to write only about Korean history and culture without worrying about explaining to the reader?

A: As soon as you start talking about your own history that includes these occupations and this type of setting, you are labeled as this smooth Asian historical fiction as opposed to literary fiction. White authors who write in history do not have to bear this burden and are not expected to educate; they are simply expected to tell a good story.

I wrote this story because it is the most personal and authentic story I can tell. It’s very important for me to do this, and I realize that it’s not just for me. I can’t tell you how many readers I’ve heard from who told me it made them feel connected to their heritage in a whole new way.

I think the more I can be on the front line and show that we can discuss our history, but also deserve to be treated as a work of art, the easier it will be for readers and writers to follow.

Q: Anything else you would like readers to know?

A: I’m donating a portion of the author’s profits from this book to the Phoenix Fund, which is a non-profit tiger and leopard conservation organization based in Vladivostok. I think it’s a great way to get into the spirit of the Year of the Tiger.

[email protected]; Twitter: @ORAmyW

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