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BookStalked: Catherine Chung (Forgotten Country)

Catherine Chung’s first novel, Forgotten Country (named an Indie Next, O Magazine and Publishers Weekly pick), skillfully weaves a Korean family’s history with their rather dire present. When Janie’s sister Hannah was born in Korea, her grandmother told them that the family had lost a daughter in every generation since the Japanese occupation of Korea. When college-aged Hannah goes missing in Michigan, Janie is charged with finding her and bringing her back. Focusing on themes of family, legend, loss and immigration, the book has been called “luminous,” “gorgeous” and “inexpressibly beautiful.”

A Midwestern transplant, Catherine now lives in New York and is a fiction editor at Guernica Magazine. True to her writing style, she provided me with some truly momentous and magical tales—after the jump.

  • What’s one of the most memorable readings you’ve given and why?

While I was living in Ithaca one summer, I was invited to give a reading for the birdsong arts collective in Brooklyn, and the theme was unrequited love. So I fished out a little love story I’d written for someone I’d had a raging crush on, and took it with me to New York.

I remember it was the very end of summer, and there were all these beautiful, glamorous people packed in this tiny room, and everyone was sweating and drinking beer, and I had only given maybe one other public reading in my life, had published hardly anything—and there were like ten other people reading that night, all about unrequited love, and when it was my turn I stood there with the paper shaking in my hands, and looked out at the audience looking back at me, waiting for me to begin, waiting to be read to, and I decided in that moment that I wanted to move to New York.

The next day I got an email from someone who said he’d heard me read, that he worked at Granta, and could I send him the story from last night to consider. Much later I found out this guy didn’t actually work there, but in the office across the hall. In any case, he printed out the story, and snuck it into the Granta office. I owe him all my gratitude forever, because the editor actually read the story, and published me as a Granta New Voice.  

And then, even more improbably, an editor at Riverhead read the story and wrote to me, saying she loved my writing and asking if I had a book in the works. And a few months later my book sold, and she became the editor. It’s outrageous (and magical!) if you think about it—because of that one reading I moved to New York, got published, and found my editor.

  • Any particularly intriguing (or conversely, awkward) audience questions that have stuck with you?

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting questions from audience members, but what sticks with me most are the stories they share in response to the book—stories about disappeared relatives and estranged siblings—one man told me about discovering as an adult that he had an uncle who’d been left behind in Poland during WWII because he was disabled and wouldn’t have been allowed into America. No one ever spoke of him until this man found an old, hidden photograph and asked about it: his story of that secret, lost uncle and how his family had to leave him behind stays with me.

  • What’s a reading that you’ve attended that you’ll never forget?

Ilya Kaminsky. My sympathies are with anyone who has to follow that man, because after I heard him read (if you can call it that—it is more like a kind of singing) my mind was just completely shattered. Afterward, I staggered out of the auditorium and stood dazed in the sunlight—and met the eyes of a girl who was also standing there, similarly dazed. And after a while everyone else had left, and it was just the two of us, and we started talking about how that reading was possibly the most intense and beautiful thing either of us had ever witnessed—and in the euphoria of the moment we recognized that we were meant to know each other, and she has been one of my best and closest friends ever since.