Listen: Patricia Park '03 Reads from Her Acclaimed Debut Novel
Earlier this semester, Patricia Park '03 returned to Swarthmore to read from her debut novel Re Jane, a Korean-American retelling of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre set in New York City and Seoul. She discusses growing up as a Korean-American in Queens, N.Y., and the cognitive dissonance she experienced in reconciling where she came from and what she was becoming while she was a student at Swarthmore. In Re Jane, she "lovingly satirizes" her experience.
Park, who graduated from Swarthmore in 2003 with an Honors English literature major and psychology minor, completed her M.F.A. at Boston University. In 2009, she was awarded a Fulbright, which she used to travel to Korea to do research for her novel. Park has taught writing at Boston University, Ewha Womans University Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation, and CUNY Queens College. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, Daily Beast, Slice Magazine, and others and she has appeared on MSNBC's The Book Report, NPR's Here and Now, WNYC's Brian Lehrer, and CBS Radio.
Patricia Park: Hi, everybody. Gosh, Peter, thank you. I wish I hadn't heard that because I might start crying now or something. Thank you all so much for coming. I'm so happy to be here back at Swat. Thank you to the English department. Thank you to McCabe where I've spent many a wild night here between 1999 and 2003. Thank you to the IC and all the student groups. Just so floored to be here. As Peter mentioned, I'm from Queens. I wrote very coincidentally because this is a work of fiction, I also wrote a novel about a girl from Queens. It's also a modern interpretation of Jane Eyre. I'm just curios. By a show of hands, are any of you guys from New York? Anyone from New York? Anyone from Queens? Nah? Okay.
None of you kind of maybe feel my pain, but in case you guys haven't been alive for the last couple of decades, Queens has kind of suffered from a PR problem. When I was growing up, this idea of Queens pride was an oxymoron. It felt more like Queens reluctance. We don't have much in the way of media representation and we've got The King of Queens, All in the Family, The Nanny. These are hardly kind of reflections of high culture. Even The Jefferson's who lived next door to Archie Bunker were very quick to move on up out of Queens. I'm curious again, by a show of hands, did any of you guys read The Great Gatsby? Of course, it's like required reading. I read it in Peter's class for like yeah.
Remember all those scenes of like Nick and Daisy and Gatsby and the gang and they're driving from Long Island to Manhattan and they passed through this kind of dusty industrial wasteland of like Watson's Garage and the TJ Eckleberg sign? Yeah, that's Queens. That's where I'm from. Basically our kind of literally legacy is what Fitzgerald calls "a valley of ashes." When you're from a place like this, you're living in the outer boroughs. You're living in the shadows of Manhattan. You're the underdog in a sense. For me I always grew up looking at Manhattan envying its kind of glamor and grit. The Bronx where I went to high school at least that was where rap was born. It kind of had that going for it. Brooklyn it had Spike Lee and The Mafia.
It was a lot cooler than Queens when I was growing up, although incidentally Brooklyn has kind of been reformed into mustachioed hipsters selling kind of artisanal pickles for $10 a pop. I actually live there now so I guess I'm eating my words. Just in the same way that being from Queens wasn't cool, when I was growing up, being Asian-American wasn't cool either. Back when I was a kid, people couldn't know ... They couldn't point Korea off of the map. I mean these were long before the days of Gangnam Style and K-pop. Invariably I'd be asked the question where are you from and I'd answer Flushing, Queens, New York, America. Then the followup would be invariably, "No. No. No. No. Where are you really from?"
It kind of creates this sense of hey, do you really belong here? For me I didn't realize I was actually American until I was 17 despite being born and raised here and having that blue passport and that kind of feeling of disenfranchisement. If I can be honest translated to a certain degree, when I showed up at Swarthmore, I mean on my first day here in 1999 I felt like I'd arrived in a foreign country. I didn't grow up speaking academic keys. Actually to this day I don't even know if that's what you call. Like academic keys. When people talked about modernism, I thought they were referring to something not old. In a seminar once, I was accused of having a very essentialist reading of something and I was too ignorant to know that I had been insulted.
For me, immigrant households, we didn't grow up talking about The Chronicle of Higher Education or The New York Review of Books or Foco or Derrida. I mean ours was the language of construction, building codes and bottom lines. For me language was about conveying meaning in the quickest and most efficient way possible. I also blame my Queens roots and the fact that I went to a math and science high school in The Bronx. Efficiency and practicality were king. Meanwhile at Swat, my professors and my classmates alike would take kind of five paragraphs to say something that my immigrant parents could render in one sentence.
There was a lot of this, as Peter mentioned, this kind of dissonance, a cognitive dissonance for me to kind of reconcile what I came from, what I was and who I was becoming amidst the environment that I was in. It's only now when I'm kind of 15 years after I first arrived at Swat and I have that kind of comfortable distance that I can step away and satirize it in a gentle and loving kind of way, but again from a comfortable distance. If you'll indulge me, I'm going to read a short-ish passage. I was directly inspired by my time at Swat. In this scene Jane, our narrator, is going to church. She talks with her friend Eunice. She's trying to find a job. That's kind of the setup.
"Every Sunday we went to church. On the way you pass the American Roman Catholic Church, the Korean Roman Catholic Church, the Chinese Buddhist Temple, the Pakistani Mosque and an ever expanding assortment of Korean Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. The Korean Protestants, unlike their Catholic counterparts, seem to multiply like Jesus' five loaves and two fishes. Every Sunday for as long as I could remember, Eunice Oh and I would find each other after service. She'd always been the same Coke bottle glass girl since childhood. In truth, she and I were bound together less by common interests than by our differences from them, the more popular kids in our year. But this was our last Sunday together. Eunice was leaving again, this time for good.
First it had been for MIT where she'd major in something called Course 6. Then to San Francisco where she'd gotten an offer with Google. Eunice had had her pick of offers including one from Yahoo, but she went with Google. Why she would take a job with a dotcom immediately after the dot-com crash? No one could understand. But I suspected it had something to do with her boyfriend. A guy called 3PO. He'd also accepted a job in Silicon Valley. They were heading out the next day. 'The job search, how go is,' Eunice asked pushing up the nose of her thick glasses with a chubby finger. 'It go is,' I started and then stopped. You never knew what you were going to get with Eunice. One day she spoke like an orc. The next like Shakespeare.
Sometimes I found myself imitating her without even realizing I was. 'It's going ... Actually it's not. There's nothing on the market.' She pulled out a copy of the Village Voice. Its circulation in our part at Queens was nonexistent. The page was opened to one of the classifieds and this is the ad: Brooklyn family desiring au pair. We wish invite into our family an au pair, i.e. a live-in babysitter, although n.b. we take issue with such infantilizing labels. Seeing as the term has yet to be eradicated from the vernacular, we have opted, albeit reluctantly, to use it in this text for the sole purpose of engaging in the lingua franca who will foster a nurturing, intellectually stimulating, culturally sensitive and ultimately loving environment.
We will indulge the most essentialist platonic construct of the term for our bright, one might even say precocious, nine year old daughter adopted from the Liaoning Province of China. In these postmodern, post-racial times, we desire said au pair to challenge the existing hegemonic ... The ad cut out exceeding its allotted space. Eunice knew I was supposed to be looking for a job in finance, not a nanny gig. It was insulting that she thought so little of me. I might not have gone to a name brand college like MIT or Columbia, even though everyone at church knew that Columbia was one of the easiest Ivy's to get into, but I'd still gotten an offer from Lowood Capital Partners.
I wanted out of Flushing, but not so badly that I'd be willing to change diapers or the equivalent in order to do it. I had a plan. Babysitting was not part of the plan. 'Don't you want to get out,' Eunice asked me. 'A very sheltered existence you lead.' She was one to talk. 'You're telling me to go live with a bunch of total strangers who can't even write normal English?' 'What do you expect? They're probably academics. They live in Brooklyn.' The whole point was not to trade one outer borough for the other, but to upgrade to the city. We had spent countless rides on the 7 train watching as a Manhattan skyline bloomed into view." I guess just some of that language is you kind of have to know how to ...
It was a long learning process for me and I still haven't quite mastered it, but that was just some of my experiences at Swat. Anyway, what does any of this have to do with Jane Eyre? I'm curious again, by a show of hands, how many of you guys have read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre? Great. This is not to shame those of you who haven't, but for those of you don't know the story, it's like a lot of Victorian novels. You've got a poor orphan growing up in England. She gets kicked around by her family. No one loves her. In Jane's case, she becomes a governess. She falls in love with a man 20 years older than she, well, her boss.
He proposes to her and she's like just getting her first taste of happiness and it's her wedding day and right before they say their I do's, bam, turns out he's already married. He's got a wife, a mad woman, locked up in the attic. That's basically Jane Eyre kind of in a nutshell. I first read Jane Eyre when I was 12 and I was really struck by this character who self-identifies as poor, obscure, plain and little. She wasn't pretty. She wasn't cool. She occupied the lowest rung of society and she was just such a departure from these kind of conventionally beautiful Disney heroines that I was weaned on. That sends a very empowering message for me not only as a preteen girl, but as an ethnic minority growing up in this country.
Because Jane Eyre was this ultimate underdog, but she basically ... She survives and she triumphs in her own way. She basically sent the message to me that, "Hey, if this girl can do it, there's no reason why I can't either." I wanted to take that same kind of figure, set her in the world that I knew and watched ... Throw a couple of challenges her way and then watch her triumph. Yeah. I took that classic kind of Bildungsroman, the novel of education story and set it in blue collar New York. Started with the communities that I knew, the Koreans of Queens. Then I branched out to other worlds, the Italian-Americans of Brownstone Brooklyn, the bourgeois academics, ironic hipsters and so on.
For Jane, as a mixed race Korean-American orphan, she's kind of constantly reminded of her outsider status from both within the Korean community as well as kind of mainstream America. Anyway, this novel kind of took me about a decade to write more or less. That's just the nature of writing. I mean other people are out kind of curing cancer in the time it takes you to write one paragraph. It's kind of a thankless and inefficient process. Actually I have Swat to thank for that in a good way only because what I really loved about being here is that not good enough was not good enough. I mean that was certainly the guiding principle when I was like banging out my seminar papers at two in the morning in this beautiful ...
Well, actually I think McCabe will close at midnight, right? Then anyway, you'd go on. My philosophy then was like better done than good. It was something about being in this environment and being around the kinds of students who would not only do all the seminar reading somehow the summer before you were supposed to start class or maybe they'd read it on all their vacations, but then they go read all the footnotes from the stuff you're supposed to read and then go on from there. That kind of intellectual curiosity which is so the antithesis of kind of economic efficiency or applying a minimax strategy, it's all kind of diminishing marginal utility I supposed because each hour that you study, do you yield that much?
That's how much kind of the passion was guiding a lot of my classmates here. That was hugely inspirational and that's the kind of I guess oomph that you need to write a novel because then otherwise you would have gotten out and become an accountant instead. I think the other part of why writers struggle so much is that not only we're all perfectionist, each sentence needs to shine, blah, blah, blah, but it's because as Barry Schwartz will probably say, it's the paradox of choice. There's just too many options you can do down. Do I make my character my 18 or is she 22? Do I set it in 2000? Do I set it in 2001? Do I set it in 2002? And so on.
One major struggle that I had was the novel to me was always in first person, but in grad school a professor was like, "Oh, I think your narrator seems really distant. Have you tried it in the third person?" I'm like okay. I took like six months worth of work, rewrote it in the third person only to realize it's not very good in the third person and I had to go back. You kind of have to scrap all of this other stuff and that's just kind of part of the process. I think this is where relying on a classic structure kind of helps you. I mean you can treat it like an exercise, but it gives you again a template to work with. Then you can kind of go off and make it your own from there.
Because with writing, you only know what you're going to write by going down all those wrong turns and roads and then you can cross them off your list and then realize, "Oh, this is what I'm actually writing about." As you guys are all amidst your paper writing and preparing towards eventual graduation, I thought maybe you might find this a little helpful to hear about the different iterations of Re Jane. I will read aloud first the opening paragraph as published in 2015. "Home was this northeastern knot of Queens in the town, if you could call it a town, of Flushing. Northern Boulevard was our main commercial thoroughfare and two family attached houses crowded its side streets.
They say the neighborhood once contained a hearty swath of the American population, but when I landed here as an infant, Flushing was starting to give way to the Koreans. By the time I graduated from college in 2000, northern looked like this: Taedong River Fish Market named after the east river of Pyongyang, Chosun Dynasty Auto Body, run by the father of a girl from my BC cal class, Kumgang Mountain Dry Cleaning, owned by my uncle's accountant's cousin on his mother's side. This was my America, all Korean all the time. Flushing, the irony was that none of its resident could pronounce the name of their adopted hometown. The Korean language lacks certain English consonants and clusters. The letter F was assimilated to an H or a P.
The adults at church will go who before they could form the word as if cooling it off their tongue. My uncle and aunt's rendition 'Poorushing.' It could have been poetry." My files done go back very far because I'm kind of analog. I write long hand and then I type up. Amidst many moves I don't have earlier drafts, but back in 2009 this was the beginning of the novel. "I thought the doorbell at 236 Lincoln Place didn't take. Nothing happened as I tapped out a silent morse code on the buzzer. Dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit-dit on the front steps of a restored Victorian style Brownstone." I don't know why I started there. I guess I had this idea of like romantically of Jane arriving at the family that she was going to become an au pair to.
Anyway, in 2010 when I was experimenting with third person, it started a little something like this. "One week after the past due bill arrived from the Bursar's Office, two days since her interview with Ed Duffy and five days following her fight with Sang, her uncle that is, Jane stood at the doorstep of 236 Frankfort Street checking her armpits for sweat stains. It was 10 PM." I don't know. Lincoln became Frankfort Street, Place, whatever. In that sentence, I think I had just read García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold where that first sentence is like jampacked with the day that Colonel whatever he was going to die and then it goes through the whole day where he's still living before he dies. I guess that was kind of rattling around the brain.
With that switch to the third person, you're allying to Jane in third person limited, but you're missing that interior monologue. You don't get her voice. It's kind of stock piled with all these bad occurrences. In 2011, I played around a little more and I came up with this. "I was as usual minding my own business, trying to be out of anyone's way, reading a newspaper when Sang, my uncle that is, ripped the paper from my hands and said, 'This kind of trash not belong in my house.'" Here I am returning to the first person, but it just struck me as too whiny. She was too sarcastic right from the beginning which could alienate the reader because Jane is already starting out at a naïve place and like a Bildungsroman or a coming of age story, she has to grow.
She has to have space. She can't start like bottom of the barrel, but she can't start out too high because then she'll have nowhere to grow. Anyway, she sounded a little too whiny for me, too sarcastic, too like oh woe is me. I scrapped that beginning. Then in 2013 I'm starting to think well, maybe I should set up the setting, where Jane comes from, talk more about Queens. That beginning was, "Home was this three mile thread of Northern Boulevard from Main Street to the Clearview Expressway in this northeastern knot of Queens in the town, if you could call it a town, of Flushing." I did want to kind of setup where she's from and where she wants to leave, but I thought there was a little plainness to the voice.
I'm not reading aloud Google Maps to you, so maybe make it a little more literary. I don't know. That's kind of the evolution of at leas the beginning with many other iterations written on cocktail napkins or whatever else of at least the opening to my novel. In conclusion, I guess what I learned from my experience of writing Re Jane is that you can take something that's tried and true like a classic that's beloved I guess by all and put your own spin on it. I'm sure like kind of the purest of purest, the super airheads would poo-poo all over the fact that I wrote a Korean-American version of Jane Eyre set in Queens and maybe it's blasphemy or maybe it's sacrileges or whatever it is, but I don't know.
Isn't that the whole point that in this journey of discovering yourself and your craft that you take certain paths that have already been done and try it for yourself and kind of make it your own. For all of you guys here, I wish you the best in your respective journeys here at Swat and beyond. Thank you very much.