Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, is the Book Club by A pick for the month of June, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with her and ask her some of my burning questions after reading her fantastic novel!
Before I share our Q&A, I want to point you in the direction of some interviews and Own Voices reviews that are much more thorough and insightful than mine. If want to learn more about Frances, her process for writing this book, the novel itself, and its reception by Korean and Asian American readers, I highly recommend you check out the following links-
- “If I Had Your Face”: Auditioning for My Own Novel’s Audiobook, by Frances Cha for Ms. Magazine
- Book review by Own Voices bookstagrammer, @owlslittlelibrary
- Book review + discussion questions for non-Own Voices readers by Own Voices reader, @zoecreatesthings
- Book review by Asian American bookstagrammer, @sachireads
- Beauty, at what price? ‘If I Had Your Face’ explores women’s lives amid unnatural expectations., by Jung Yun for The Washington Post
- Home Is Where Your Friends Are: An Interview with Frances Cha, by Hannah Bae for Asian American Writers’ Workshop
- Interview with Frances Cha, moderated by Jay Oh for The Korea Society
- Frances Cha Goes Beyond the Gloss, by Bessie Rubinstein for Interview Magazine
- ‘If I had your face’: A peek into South Korea’s secretive underground world, by Maggie Hiufu Wong for CNN Travel
- Frances Cha Explores South Korean Culture With Her Debut Novel, If I Had Your Face, by Eric Wilson for Tatler Hong Kong
- Author Interview: Frances Cha, for Libro.fm
- Interview with Frances Cha, moderated by Taylor Noel for Books Connect Us: The Podcast from Penguin Random House
Q&A with Frances Cha
Many thanks to Frances, who took time while in Korea and during a very intense quarantine, to answer a few questions about her debut novel, If I Had Your Face.
If I Had Your Face is told through the perspectives of four women – Ara, Kyuri, Wonna, and Miho – who all live in the same officetel [a multi-purpose building with residential and commercial units] in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. Who was your favorite to write? Who do you identify most closely with, and did you pull aspects of yourself into each character?
Frances Cha: My favorite to write was probably Ara, because I love her fantasy kpop dreamworld life as an escape from her daily life, which is taken from my own experiences. I went through a very dark period after my father died – I had taken a leave from school to nurse him and ended up taking a job afterwards to support my mother – and kpop became my lifeline through that time. Writing Ara reminded me of what a fantasy dual life I led, and how all-consuming that world was for me. The dark periods of my life, I wrote into the character of Wonna – she channels how unhappy I was in my job, as well as the anxiety I felt when I was pregnant. My experiences of studying abroad in New York and being from a province in Korea was reflected in the story of Miho – I think Miho probably is the closest to my personality, while into Kyuri I incorporated the filial piety that I feel towards my mother – the guilt and the burden and the love – as well as the snarky thoughts that I have sometimes that I never voice aloud, but was able to have fun with through Kyuri’s voice.
What was the process for writing multiple perspectives? Did you envision this as your format when you started writing; did you play with any other formats or additional character points of view?
Cha: The book was conceived as a group of interconnected short stories, and my goal in the beginning was to have each chapter be a contained story with a small story arc and have the other characters pull each character’s longer arc through. For several years, I was working on one particular character’s storyline as a novel (just one first-person narrative) and in the later years I weaved that storyline into the multiple narrator structure, but at the end I ended up cutting that character out entirely. The premise was that that character would now be the protagonist of my second novel. Most of that storyline was set in Boston, as my character had been adopted by the extended Loring family in Boston.
Each woman’s story includes, in one way or another, the men in their lives, and ultimately those men mean less to them as the book ends. Is this something that you did mindfully? Tell us about your motivation for this.
Cha: Ha. Never thought about it this way, and I am mulling over if this is true. I would like to present for the defense, the manager of Kyuri’s room salon, and Mr. Moon for Ara, but yes they are both minor characters to Bruce and Taein. I suppose when I think about my own life and the lives of my close friends, the guys we were dating or had crushes on in our early twenties all turned out to be disappointments who we moved on from, so I think we are looking at a stage in my characters’ lives where the men will not be the ones they end up with.
The themes that each woman focuses on – beauty standards, a challenging economy, pop star obsession, and socioeconomic disparity – give readers a glimpse into some aspects of Korean culture. How did you land on these themes, versus any other that you may have been considering? Are you seeing these aspects of Korean culture change and shift importance over time?
Cha: A lot of the themes were taken from my own life, and others were themes I stored away to write in my fiction when I was covering them as a travel and culture and occasional hard news editor at CNN in Korea. The one that ended up being cut that I also wanted to cover was the transnational adoption narrative. All of the topics that I cover are shifting rapidly because Korea is such a fast-moving country (as you can see with the dramatic and dynamic coronavirus response) – every year there are new policies and laws enacted to address social issues. For example, it is now illegal to display plastic surgery ads on the subway and buses which was a big fixture of the landscape before, and Korea has also implemented a workaholic law where companies of over 50 employees cannot make their employees work beyond 52 hours a week. They are also constantly trying to address socioeconomic disparity in ways that would be quite shocking to Americans who are used to very capitalist policies.
Wonna’s husband is exclusively referred to as “her husband.” Was this an intentional choice, not to give him a name? If so, tell us about that.
Cha: That’s a really astute observation – no one has brought that up to me before. This is a choice based on language – since I was writing in English but everyone operates in Korean language in the book, I was translating in my head. In the Korean language, there are a lot more relationship markers, and people are referred to by their relationships rather than names – for example, I do not know the names of many of my mothers’s close friends who I have grown up with my entire life, because they are referred to as so-and-so’s mother or so-and-so’s wife. So that part of Korean language-in-translation was coming into play in that particular relationship. When I refer to my own husband to Koreans, I always call him “my husband” instead of by his name, as well.
How, if at all, do you think your nonfiction work as a journalist shaped this novel – the format, writing style, etc.?
Cha: My background as a journalist impacts all aspects of the novel – especially the fact that I was able to write on command whenever I had snatches of time, which is something I struggled with in my fiction before my training and work as a journalist. Not only did I learn to contextualize Korean stories for an international audience on a daily basis, but I also gained confidence to explore these themes in fiction because the stories about Korea would gain millions of hits instantly on CNN.com as soon as they were published, in direct contract to other stories that we would publish. The extreme nature of the stories coming out of Korea had a lot to do with it, as well as the increased global interest in Kpop, Kbeauty, films and tourism.
The ending left the door open for both interpretation and maybe furthering of the story (she says hopefully!). Do you have plans to continue these characters’ narratives?
Cha: I am deep into my second novel, which is now unrelated to my first (I have cut out the Lorings), and I don’t envision going back to that world anytime soon. But never say never! My second novel is more in the literary horror vein, and also goes back and forth between Korea and the United States (Boston to be specific!).
What To Read Next
To wrap up, I’ve compiled a super non-exhaustive list of other books by Korean and Korean-American authors, set in Korea, or regarding Korean culture, with much credit and thanks to @readingmountains, whose very extensive list of Korean literature I leaned on while crafting this! –
- Pachinko, Min Jin Lee –
“Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.
So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.”
- I’ll Be Right There, Kyung-Sook Shin –
“Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.”
- Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin –
“When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.”
- Almond, Won-pyung Sohn –
“Yunjae was born with a brain condition called Alexithymia that makes it hard for him to feel emotions like fear or anger. He does not have friends—the two almond-shaped neurons located deep in his brain have seen to that—but his devoted mother and grandmother provide him with a safe and content life. Their little home above his mother’s used bookstore is decorated with colorful Post-it notes that remind him when to smile, when to say “thank you,” and when to laugh.
Then on Christmas Eve—Yunjae’s sixteenth birthday—everything changes. A shocking act of random violence shatters his world, leaving him alone and on his own. Struggling to cope with his loss, Yunjae retreats into silent isolation, until troubled teenager Gon arrives at his school, and they develop a surprising bond.
As Yunjae begins to open his life to new people—including a girl at school—something slowly changes inside him. And when Gon suddenly finds his life at risk, Yunjae will have the chance to step outside of every comfort zone he has created to perhaps become the hero he never thought he would be.”
- The Vegetarian, Han Kang –
“Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.”
- Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo –
“In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul lives Kim Jiyoung. A thirtysomething-year-old “millennial everywoman,” she has recently left her white-collar desk job—in order to care for her newborn daughter full-time—as so many Korean women are expected to do. But she quickly begins to exhibit strange symptoms that alarm her husband, parents, and in-laws: Jiyoung impersonates the voices of other women—alive and even dead, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, her discomfited husband sends her to a male psychiatrist.
In a chilling, eerily truncated third-person voice, Jiyoung’s entire life is recounted to the psychiatrist—a narrative infused with disparate elements of frustration, perseverance, and submission. Born in 1982 and given the most common name for Korean baby girls, Jiyoung quickly becomes the unfavored sister to her princeling little brother. Always, her behavior is policed by the male figures around her—from the elementary school teachers who enforce strict uniforms for girls, to the coworkers who install a hidden camera in the women’s restroom and post their photos online. In her father’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s fault that men harass her late at night; in her husband’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s duty to forsake her career to take care of him and their child—to put them first.
Jiyoung’s painfully common life is juxtaposed against a backdrop of an advancing Korea, as it abandons “family planning” birth control policies and passes new legislation against gender discrimination. But can her doctor flawlessly, completely cure her, or even discover what truly ails her?”
- Frankly in Love, David Yoon –
“Frank Li has two names. There’s Frank Li, his American name. Then there’s Sung-Min Li, his Korean name. No one uses his Korean name, not even his parents. Frank barely speaks any Korean. He was born and raised in Southern California.
Even so, his parents still expect him to end up with a nice Korean girl–which is a problem, since Frank is finally dating the girl of his dreams: Brit Means. Brit, who is funny and nerdy just like him. Brit, who makes him laugh like no one else. Brit . . . who is white.
As Frank falls in love for the very first time, he’s forced to confront the fact that while his parents sacrificed everything to raise him in the land of opportunity, their traditional expectations don’t leave a lot of room for him to be a regular American teen. Desperate to be with Brit without his parents finding out, Frank turns to family friend Joy Song, who is in a similar bind. Together, they come up with a plan to help each other and keep their parents off their backs. Frank thinks he’s found the solution to all his problems, but when life throws him a curveball, he’s left wondering whether he ever really knew anything about love—or himself—at all.”
- Almost American Girl, Robin Ha –
“For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.
So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated.
Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends in Seoul and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily, and worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.
Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.”
- All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung –
“What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?
Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.”
- Emergency Contact, Mary H. K. Choi –
“For Penny Lee, high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she’d somehow landed a boyfriend, they never managed to know much about each other. Now Penny is heading to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer. It’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.
Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.
When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to, you know, see each other.”
- Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee –
“Meet Casey Han: a strong-willed, Queens-bred daughter of Korean immigrants immersed in a glamorous Manhattan lifestyle she can’t afford. Casey is eager to make it on her own, away from the judgements of her parents’ tight-knit community, but she soon finds that her Princeton economics degree isn’t enough to rid her of ever-growing credit card debt and a toxic boyfriend. When a chance encounter with an old friend lands her a new opportunity, she’s determined to carve a space for herself in a glittering world of privilege, power, and wealth-but at what cost?”
- The Magical Language of Others, E. J. Koh –
“A powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love―letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box.
As Eun Ji translates the letters, she looks to history―her grandmother Jun’s years as a lovesick wife in Daejeon, the horrors her grandmother Kumiko witnessed during the Jeju Island Massacre―and to poetry, as well as her own lived experience to answer questions inside all of us. Where do the stories of our mothers and grandmothers end and ours begin? How do we find words―in Korean, Japanese, English, or any language―to articulate the profound ways that distance can shape love? Eun Ji Koh fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational trauma, arriving at insights that are essential reading for anyone who has ever had to balance love, longing, heartbreak, and joy.”
- Miracle Creek, Angie Kim –
“How far will you go to protect your family? Will you keep their secrets? Ignore their lies?
In a small town in Virginia, a group of people know each other because they’re part of a special treatment center, a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions from infertility to autism. But then the chamber explodes, two people die, and it’s clear the explosion wasn’t an accident.
A powerful showdown unfolds as the story moves across characters who are all maybe keeping secrets, hiding betrayals. Chapter by chapter, we shift alliances and gather evidence: Was it the careless mother of a patient? Was it the owners, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? Could it have been a protester, trying to prove the treatment isn’t safe?”
- Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong –
“Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively blends memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose fresh truths about racialized consciousness in America. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, this collection is vulnerable, humorous, and provocative—and its relentless and riveting pursuit of vital questions around family and friendship, art and politics, identity and individuality, will change the way you think about our world.
Binding these essays together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity. Minor feelings are not small, they’re dissonant—and in their tension Hong finds the key to the questions that haunt her.
With sly humor and a poet’s searching mind, Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today. This intimate and devastating book traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and female friendship. A radically honest work of art, Minor Feelings forms a portrait of one Asian American psyche—and of a writer’s search to both uncover and speak the truth.”
- Pizza Girl, Jean Kyoung Frazier –
“Eighteen years old, pregnant, and working as a pizza delivery girl in suburban Los Angeles, our charmingly dysfunctional heroine is deeply lost and in complete denial about it all. She’s grieving the death of her father (whom she has more in common with than she’d like to admit), avoiding her supportive mom and loving boyfriend, and flagrantly ignoring her future.
Her world is further upended when she becomes obsessed with Jenny, a stay-at-home mother new to the neighborhood, who comes to depend on weekly deliveries of pickled-covered pizzas for her son’s happiness. As one woman looks toward motherhood and the other toward middle age, the relationship between the two begins to blur in strange, complicated, and ultimately heartbreaking ways.”