I’m Korean American. I’m writing a novel about a thirty three year old Korean dude set in 1973. In many ways, he’s had the “typical” experience of many Koreans who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s: Korean War, poverty, an elite college education, culture shock, New York City. His problems are also not so unique: racism, post traumatic stress disorder, a failing marriage, lost family members. But certainly his approach to solving his problems is very unique (and that’s when the novel begins and that’s what the novel is about). I won’t say any more because I’m loathe to say anything further until I finish writing the novel.
My life too is very “typical” for 2nd generation Korean Americans born in 1970s New York City. I was born to parents with the above type of experience. But that’s my background. Unlike them, I’m Jewish, and I’ve solved my problems in ways that my parents could not have dreamed of and indeed protested so much so that I went to therapy and found my way back to happiness in clandestine fashion.
But what is this all about?
This is all about a rejection letter I recently received from a Korean literary journal. I was encouraged to submit by another litmag editor who thought I might be a good fit. So I did. They didn’t respond. A few months later, I asked if they had an update on my submission–oh, they lost it and they asked me to submit again. So I did. No response, so recently after a six month wait, I sent a polite email asking if they could update me.
This was the response:
I like your story but unfortunately the story is not going to be included in the next volume, which will be published in this fall. Especially this volume has had a lot of stories in translation and had no space for original stories like yours. (A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story.)
I get so many literary rejections that I am grateful for any sort of non-form letter reply. So I’m touched by the note. But the above makes me realize why form letters might be kinder, despite their abrupt and impersonal nature. (It also confirms why when I send out literary rejections I don’t say anything specific either and only send out compliments and encouragement).
This is to say that I am used to literary rejections. Each one does affect me but more like a light pinch and not a slap.
This particular rejection feels like a slap. They like my story…but…they aren’t publishing original stories, only translations. Okay. That’s fine. But then there’s that parenthetical phrase, that under the breath remark, the one uttered while the door swings shut: “A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story.”
I wonder what it means–at the risk of being specific, the narrator of the rejected story is a Korean DOG. Yes, there are two talking dogs in the story. And the dog talks about his dog history. And I did research on that particular breed of dog and tried to stay true to big picture facts but I told a story about that dog’s family history. In ways that I imagine only a dog would know. And that is the fiction part of the story. What information could I have made up that harmed the story? Or rather, what inaccurate information harmed the story?
Which makes me shudder and quail with horrid insecurity. I also can’t help but wonder if he thought I’m not Korean (my surname isn’t Korean) and thus felt I was an outsider without any authority on being Korean?
And this insecurity is spreading to my novel. Am I writing total bullshit? How many people will I piss off? Will my own community denounce it? I told my father a little about my novel and his response to one big event in the novel was, “Koreans don’t do that.” And as my jaw dropped in shock (I wanted to say, “THAT Korean does! THIS Korean does!”), he said, “Why don’t you write my story?” To which I responded, “I can’t write your story because I won’t be accurate about that, either.”
Which then led to a large discussion about how I don’t actually KNOW his story, that I only knew it in abstract terms because he’s never given concrete and specific details: “Horrible, tragic, painful, suffering…suffering…SUFFERING…SUFFERING!!!!” That I know it in emotional terms because of how I took on his pain and paranoia and urgency which then with other factors led to my depression and eventual breakdown. I felt his story. But I don’t KNOW it. Not enough to give you a timeline. Not enough to give you location. Not enough to give you anecdotes.
He’s never told me specifics. I’ve asked, but he says he can’t bring himself to tell me.
His feedback has always haunted me a little–“Koreans don’t do that.” Why NOT? What IF a Korean DID do that? It wouldn’t have been impossible for one Korean to try to do the thing I made my Korean do, in 1973.
But this literary rejection furthers that insecurity about whether I’m making shit up that is impossible, and fake, and inauthentic and doesn’t “represent.” Even though the comment, “A reader mentioned that historically correct information will improve your story” reeks more of nonfiction advice than fiction.
Do they own reality? (A gracious Famous Writer friend told me on twitter “You tell your own truth. No one owns reality.” Oh I love him so much for throwing me those words).
All I can do is keep telling my own truth. And as R also so wisely messaged me, “Fuck ‘em.” So I keep writing. Shaking this off.
The upside: I think Hemingway once said, “A story that doesn’t piss at least one person off isn’t worth writing.”