By Annabel Monaghan
The blurb for “A Small Revolution” said something about the story grabbing you by the throat and not letting you go until the last page. Honestly, I thought, book blurbs really do lend themselves to hyperbole. I started reading anyway, and after about ten pages I cancelled my plans for the rest of the day. To correct the blurber, it’s been a month since I’ve finished “A Small Revolution” and it still has me by the throat. It’s just our luck that Jimin Han is coming to the Rye Free Reading Room on May 2 at 7 p.m. to talk about her spectacular debut novel.
“A Small Revolution” is the story of Yoona Lee who, along with three classmates, is held at gunpoint in her freshman dorm by a former friend who is unraveling before their eyes. The novel alternates between the hostage situation and the previous summer’s visit to South Korea, where Yoona and the gunman were thrust into the center of political upheaval and protests that ultimately led to her boyfriend Jaesung’s mysterious death. It’s a story about love, abuse, and revolutions big and small.
Rather than blather on about this book myself, I sat down with Jimin to ask her a few questions.
<Where did you find the spark of inspiration for this book?>
I was inspired by a trip to South Korea in 1985 like Yoona Lee, the main character in the book. I didn’t understand what was going on around me. There were protests in the streets and all over the news on TV. My Korean wasn’t good enough for me to understand what was happening.
I stayed with extended family for part of the trip and, like Yoona, also went on a student tour. One of my cousins was a new flight attendant for Korean Airlines — she was so pretty and glamorous — and she took me to nightclubs to go dancing. I was a nerdy 18-year-old who had grown up in a small upstate New York town.
At her apartment one night I was looking at framed photos in her room and a photo of a young man fell out. It had been hidden away. She was so upset I’d seen it and wouldn’t say anything about him. Another cousin told me that he was her boyfriend, a political activist she wasn’t supposed to be dating. I was dying of curiosity, of course. He became the basis for Jaesung in the book, though I made him Korean-American and had him meet Yoona on a student tour.
I was also interested in how idealistic people can be at that age. I demonstrated against my university’s investing in South Africa when it had apartheid, for example. And I’ve always been interested, as a writer, in the arts and in politics — when passion crosses the line and becomes dangerous to the artist herself and/or to others.
<Why did you decide to set the novel in a college?>
Mostly because I feel we’re so vulnerable in college. We’re open to making new friends and know so little about each other at that age. There’s no supervision and you have so much freedom. It felt like a good setting for people making choices about boundaries. Also, college tends to be for some students, though certainly not all, a time when they’re not saddled with real- life responsibilities — kind of surreal that way. But everything is felt so deeply.
<This book happens amid political upheaval and protests in Korea, and here we are in a politically difficult time in the U.S. Is there anything that readers can take from your book to inform their own small revolutions?>
It’s so disheartening. I thought we were way ahead of Korea in terms of what’s fair, but with this recent election and the corruption right in broad daylight, I feel we’ve gone backwards in some areas. Of course, in other areas, terrible things were being done all along and continue.
I’m really proud of the way people are participating more in the political process and there’s more calling out of injustices. I hope people will see that you can’t anticipate the outcome, but you can care deeply about other people and what’s fair in the world and stand up for it. You shouldn’t be afraid to care.
Our worlds don’t have to be limited to what’s in our immediate vicinity, our jobs and our families, that we can have an impact, as small as we feel our contribution is. In fact, it’s obvious that we’re all connected — each vote, climate change, etc. I think that’s already happening.
<In a book that exposes horrific domestic abuse and more subtle relationship abuse, what message would you want your daughters to get from reading this book?>
I guess I’d want my children to know that they’re not to blame for circumstances they find themselves in. They can only do the best they can and shouldn’t be hard on themselves. People who harm others are responsible for what they do. I’m so glad there’s a term like ‘gaslighting’ to describe what can happen in a relationship. Because of Yoona’s family history she doubts her perceptions. I want those in Yoona’s situation to trust their instincts — it’s all they have and no one should make them doubt themselves.
<What’s this style of fiction called, where it’s numbered verses rather than chapters? Why did you choose it?>
It’s called segmented fiction. Kathy Fish is brilliant at the form in her short stories. It reminds me of a type of list poems that I’ve loved. You find it in nonfiction, too. And in novels. David Levithan’s “The Lover’s Dictionary” took every letter of the alphabet to organize the demise of a relationship. I love it because the reader has to work a little harder to fill in the story. And in Yoona’s case, I thought there would be so much going on in her head in a hostage situation that this form would show how things could be happening at the same time, random thoughts with noting what’s going on around her with reaching for past experience to help herself.
<Please tell me there’s a sequel.>
I’ve got one in the works, and probably the answer to the previous question point to the sequel. Before the sequel though I’ve got a couple of other manuscripts. One is a mystery about a woman, Korean-American, who returns to her hometown for the funeral of a Korean-American woman she used to babysit. They were the only two Korean families in the town when they were growing up. Accident, suicide, murder? I got to play a lot of ‘what if’s with people I used to know. Ultimately, they’re completely different from the people I started with. That’s what’s fun about writing fiction.
<There’s so much more in this book to dive into. In terms of genre, “A Small Revolution” might be considered crossover YA fiction — a book for adults about an 18 year old that will really appeal to teens. So, please come to the RFRR on May 2 to hear more from Jimin in person. Arcade will be selling books, and Jimin will be signing. >