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In 'Beasts of a Little Land,' a portrait of Korea's quest for independence


Author Juhea Kim says she had to learn to write twice. The first was in Korean, her native language and the country of her birth. She learned to write Korean at the age of 2 by looking over the shoulder of her older sister. But when she moved to Portland, Ore., at the age of 9, it was a different story.

JUHEA KIM: I was dropped into this environment without any English. I actually didn't even know the alphabet. I remember very clearly not being able to distinguish between B and D. And many people assumed that I would pick up English in about six months tops. And what actually happened was I was pretty much deaf and mute for the next year, year and a half. I almost didn't understand anything. But once I started actually picking up the language, I realized language is agency. Language is power. If you don't have the language, you can't express yourself. You can't assert your identity.

NADWORNY: Much of Kim's work centers on identity. And in her new book "Beasts Of A Little Land," she writes about Korea in the early 20th century, when it was fighting for independence from Japan and trying to maintain a national identity despite divisions about what that meant. The novel centers on a young girl named Jade. Her life is shaped by the struggle for independence and all the social and political divides it created. The novel is epic in scope, but it's also filled with intimate language and moments. Juhea Kim says that's by design.

KIM: I always tell people that Korean gave me my values. It's hierarchical, of course, but it's also very warm. It's highly textured. It has a ton of onomatopoeias, and it's very affectionate. And it values integrity and honor above everything else, whereas English is very rational. It's not the international language of science for no reason. I think in English when I'm trying to be logical. And it's very egalitarian. So every time I acquire a new language, I feel like it allows me to access a different side of me, which is very valuable to me as a writer.

NADWORNY: You know, there's a lot of characters in this book, but one of the main kind of shepherds of the story is Jade. And we meet her as a young girl who becomes a courtesan - a sex worker, essentially - to help support her family. How did this character come to you, and how did you decide to center so much of the story on her?

KIM: The Korean courtesan was essentially almost the only women intellectuals and women artists for centuries in Korea, going back to the medieval times. And so I knew that I wanted a woman who's very strong-willed and well-educated and creates her own destiny. And during that time, one of the only professions that could do those things for a woman was being a courtesan.

NADWORNY: Why is it that courtesans played that role in Korea?

KIM: I think that because courtesans were a part of the lowest class of society, they also were driven to prove themselves with acts of extraordinary valor and courage and honor. And another explanation, too, is that they're people, too, right? So they're driven by the same desires for validation, for love and for self-expression that everybody else is also driven by.

NADWORNY: Korea has a fascinating history, especially given the way the country - well, now two countries - exist today. And in the book, the political divides we see on the Korean Peninsula today were taking shape. You know, you know - we all know how that story ended. And so I kind of wonder how your knowledge of North Korea and South Korea now impacted the way you thought about your characters, especially those with political alliances.

KIM: For me, it was important to highlight the fact that there are these independence activists who were more socialist who were erased by history. I consider myself pretty idealistic. So my personal sympathies were, of course, to uncover these people who were forgotten. But at the same time, I know very well that the communist experiment failed, and North Korea - right now, it's committing its own human rights atrocities. So I definitely wanted to give a more complex view on the topic than just to say one ideology or one country is better than the other. It's really not about that, and it's about acknowledging the whole complexity.

NADWORNY: What do you hope people take away from the novel?

KIM: This, for me, was an exploration of how to live meaningfully in the face of all of these threats - violence, injustice, poverty, colonialism. And sadly, these are not issues that have gone away. These are issues that we're still facing today. And on top of that, the world is even more in peril now than ever before with its ecological destruction and climate crises. So I think these characters show how we can live in a meaningful way, even when the world is falling apart, even when the sky is falling down.

NADWORNY: That's writer Juhea Kim. Her novel, "Beasts Of A Little Land," is out now. Juhea Kim, thank you so much for your time.

KIM: Happy Holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.