Helena Rho’s debut memoir, American Seoul, has earned rave reviews, with Kirkus calling it “a poignant, personal, sometimes painful chronicle of self-awareness and understanding.” Two years before this astonishing debut, Helena’s essay “Becoming Korean” appeared in our pages. We recently interviewed Helena about the creative process behind American Seoul—and how the release of her book has changed her life as a writer.
Ilan Mochari: One of my favorite parts of American Seoul is the start of Chapter 2: The Last Jangsohn, in which you piece together a farewell conversation between your father and his father in Seoul, 1972 (at which time you were in first grade). The conversation deftly encapsulates how generations can differ in their understandings of “responsibilities” to each other—a key theme. You mention later that the conversation was pieced together from memory, overheard fights between your parents, and an explanation from your aunt in 2006—meaning this scene had at least a 34-year gestation period, if not more! From a process standpoint, can you tell us more about how this conversation came together for you as a piece of writing—making its way from your mind to the page?
Helena Rho: You’re absolutely right that Chapter 2, “The Last Jangsohn,” had a very long gestation period! But the writing of it from my mind to the page was fairly quick. Of course, I’m an excruciatingly slow writer, so “quick” is a relative term. As in, my aunt told me the final piece of the mystery of why my parents left Korea in 2006, but I still wasn’t ready to write it. But when I became serious about putting together a memoir from various essays I’d written over a ten-year period, I realized that I needed a chapter from my father’s point of view because I’d already written another chapter, “Crossroad,” from my mother’s point of view. So I wrote “The Last Jangsohn” in 2018. The actual writing of it only took a few days, which is really quick for me! I found it surprisingly easy to put myself in my father’s place on that day in 1972 when we left Seoul. As I wrote the conversation between my father and my grandfather I found myself having profound compassion for my father. I wished my grandfather hadn’t been such a difficult and inflexible man. And I felt gratitude toward my father for protecting me and my sisters as best as he could. Writing is such an act of empathy and in writing “The Last Jangsohn,” I finally forgave my father for the mistakes he made as a parent.
IM: A quiet hero of the book, as he is in real life, is Dr. James Oleske. Your admiration for him jumps off the page. And yet, in the context of your memoir, Oleske also becomes a character through whom you illustrate how you held yourself (and others held you) to an almost impossibly high standard, encapsulated by the ever-vague adjective “successful.” Now that you’ve broken away from medicine and become a writer, I wonder—how are you defining and thinking about whether American Seoul is successful? Do you find yourself mulling what I’ll call certain “Oleskes” of the writing world as role models? Who and what are the yardsticks you’re using to gauge “success” as a writer?
HR: To me, American Seoul is already “successful” because it’s out in the world in all of its beauty. I love the cover of my book—the swirling red and blue and gold flower petals that form the silhouette of a woman’s head and also reference the Tageuki, the Korean flag. For my book to have manifested from an idea inside my head into a physical reality is a dream come true! I feel like I’m already a “success.” Don’t get me wrong, I want my memoir to be read by as many people as possible. Who doesn’t want a bestseller?! But I have no expectations in terms of sales. As for role models in writing, I look to Maxine Hong Kingston and Joan Didion and Toni Morrison because they are beautiful writers who wrote what they wanted to write, not what anyone wanted them to write.
IM: I admired and appreciated your bravery throughout the book. The explicit narration of your math tutor’s assault when you were nine and your silence about it until you were fifty are the kinds of truths that make stories hard to write or read—yet also make them that much more rewarding for writers and readers who seek emotional release by engaging with realities seldom revealed or confronted. So, first of all: thank you. Second: What went into your decision to write expressly about your experiences in memoir form, as opposed to using them as source material for a novel? Did you consider the latter before opting for the former? Behind my question are your delightfully dropped references to Jane Eyre, Emma, and The Secret Seven.
HR: Honestly? When I started my writing journey, I was an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction because I didn’t think I had the imagination to write fiction. It wasn’t so much a choice I made but something I fell into because writing nonfiction seemed manageable. These things had already happened to me. I just had to find a way to make it interesting enough for people to read. I’d read My Own Country by Abraham Verghese, another doctor, and thought I could do something like that. I had no idea that memoir would be so difficult to write! So personal. So painful. I don’t think I would choose to write a memoir again.
IM: Your son Liam and your daughter Erin are a large part of the book, but it is hard not to notice that Erin is omitted from the acknowledgments. It’s an omission many readers have mentioned in comments on Goodreads and Amazon. What, if anything, is the story behind Erin’s omission from the acknowledgments?
HR: Readers have asked in their reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon and reached out to me personally about what happened to Erin. I would like to take this opportunity to answer as thoughtfully and sensitively as I can. Erin dropped out of college and cut off contact with me. It is a tragedy that my daughter and I are estranged. But for me to get into the details of a painful family dynamic feels like a violation of Erin’s privacy. She’d given me permission to publish the incidents about her as a child—she’d read different versions of my memoir when she was in high school and college. But she hasn’t given consent for me to write about her as an adult. I don’t wish to burden her with just my side of the story out in the world, so I’ll respectfully stop here. I will add however that in hindsight, I wished I’d thanked her in my acknowledgements.
IM: What are you working on now? Do you have any sense that your next project or projects will mine your life story in similar ways, or do you feel yourself wanting to take a break from this material and travel somewhere far from it?
HR: Yes, I’m finally writing fiction! I just finished the first draft of a novel I’m calling The Light of Stone Angels, the story of three Korean women spanning the period from World War II during the Japanese Occupation of Korea to contemporary time. The novel’s central character is a Korean-American woman, Angelina Lee—who is nothing like me! But I’m giving her some experiences based on my own because I was too lazy to make them up. Another character, Sunyuh, has a timeline that is almost exclusively set in the 1940s because Sunyuh is a victim of the Japanese Military sexual slavery system. When Japan occupied the countries of the Pacific during World War II, it systematically used girls and young women as sex slaves for its armies. The Japanese Imperial Army euphemistically called these sex-trafficked girls, “comfort women,” even though they were never in comfort, nor were they women. A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing some of these victims at the House of Sharing, a Korea-based museum and nursing home for the former sex slaves, now women in their eighties and nineties who are still waiting for justice. I first got the idea of writing my novel while writing my memoir. I was sick of worrying about the veracity of memoir: “Did that patient really say that? Am I being fair to this person?” I wanted to get away from the burden of facts and write about a different kind of truth. And a question popped into my head: “How do you survive something you think is unsurvivable?” I was going through a terrible divorce at the time and that question plagued me. Because I knew I had to survive. I knew I had to forge a path forward. So I started to write a novel to answer this question of how someone finds the strength to go on when life seems impossible.