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Monday, January 12, 2009

Speakeasy with ... author Nami Mun

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Nami Mun’s debut novel Miles from Nowhere follows Joon, a Korean American teenager growing up on the streets of New York during the ’80s. Mun, like the protagonist, came of age as a teenage runaway on the streets of the Bronx. These days, she's the recipient of a coveted Pushcart Prize and teaches creative writing at the Columbia College in Chicago. She comes to A Cappella Books/Opal Gallery Mon., Jan. 19, 7 p.m.

How closely is Joon based on your own experiences growing up?

Joon and I are both Korean American and we were both runaways. But the similarities pretty much stop there. I mean, what happens to her, the decisions that she makes and the events that occur in the book, are completely fictional and in many ways are much more interesting than anything that ever happened to me in my own life. Fiction is always more interesting to me.

The family in Miles from Nowhere, like your own, emigrated from South Korea to New York City. How has the immigration experience shaped your writing?

In all honesty, when I was writing the book that theme, immigration, never entered the equation. When I was revising the book, though, I began to see that there was a connection between the mother’s situation and Joon’s situation. The mother feels guilty for having moved her family to the States. The father can’t function. He goes back to drinking and cheating. That’s the only thing he feels comfortable with. The mother feels like an alien in this society.

Joon leaves her home the way her mother left her homeland and she enters into this other world — this marginalized, submerged world where even the language is different and god has different manifestations and she has to learn a new way of behaving. When I saw the connection, I realized it was actually more about alienation than about immigration. They’re both immigrants in a strict sense, but I was hoping this book would speak to anyone who has ever felt that sort of alienation and that disconnect with the society that surrounds them.

When did you start writing?

I was getting my life back on track. I had decided to go back to school at Santa Monica Community College, the best community college on the planet by the way. I had an English comp teacher. Her first writing diagnostic assignment was just to write whatever we wanted to. She just wanted to see what our writing capabilities were — that’s what I do right now, I give diagnostics to my students — and so I wrote, who knows why, I just wrote a story. I had never written anything before, but that was my natural inclination to write fiction. She pulled me aside after the next class and told me that she really thought that I had something going and that maybe I should look into taking more writing classes and becoming a writer. I had never even considered that as a profession for one second. So I really have to thank her for pulling me aside and giving me that push.

You worked as a criminal investigator. How did that shape your writing?

When I talked to defendants, especially in a homicide case, I would have to learn about their history, family history and such. As a society we judge criminals by their one act. If we were all judged by our one act, we would be pretty miserable. Thank goodness we aren’t judged that harshly. But criminals — they are judged by that one act. Society sometimes forgets that a myriad of things had been done unto them before they commit this act.

If you look at a defendant’s history, you can see the abuse and all the heinous things they had to go through. So, it allowed and it taught me to feel empathy towards people who are not used to receiving empathy from a lot people. I think in my stories, I mean if you look at these characters — Tati ends up committing homicide, Knowledge is a drug dealer, Wink is a sex worker — I’ve tried to give this view of them without those titles, without those labels.

Joon seems very lucky to get off the streets. What are the chances for a kid in her situation?

A lot of people have asked me why I think Joon gets out of this world. I have to say everything is an influence, that’s my firm belief. In the same way that everything in that defendant’s life led him to this one heinous act — I feel the same way, everything in Joon’s life led her to recovery.

There are roughly two million teen runaways on the streets — those are just the ones they know about. We’re not even counting throwaways and squatters. I’m sure the number is much higher. Anyone can guess that the odds aren’t good for getting out of that.

What does the title mean to the book?

Because I was a runaway, there is a huge gap in my knowledge of music. When you’re a teenager, you were listening to music all the time but I had a sort of different teenage life. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of music. So, I didn’t find Cat Stevens in my life until my late twenties but I just fell in love with his songs. "Miles from Nowhere" is the title of one of his songs.

If you know the song, I think you come to the book with a certain sort of ethos, but the title actually comes from my friend, MJ Deery, who had read a few of my stories. She said, “Gosh I had no idea that kids could run away from one borough to the next and just not be found.” That’s something I assumed everyone knew. New York is this city of everything, we have access to everything in New York — culture, politics, literature and all of these things — and there’s Joon standing there in the middle of everything but she’s so alone and so disengaged, disconnected from the world around here. It’s just the city of nowhere for her.

(Photo by Brigitte Sire)

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