paranoia, anxiety, doubt, paranoia, reassurance, doubt

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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.

p.s.
The upside: I think Hemingway once said, “A story that doesn’t piss at least one person off isn’t worth writing.”

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8 Comments

Filed under The Novel, Writing

8 responses to “paranoia, anxiety, doubt, paranoia, reassurance, doubt

  1. Sunny18

    I’ll write my true feelings in an e-mail.

    For now, I’ll say this: I read the story you reference here and I LOVED it. It caused me to cry. I started bawling like a little baby at that point in the story that I told you about.

    I’ve got my theories on why that Korean lit mag rejected your work, and the reasons have nothing– NOTHING– to do with the quality of your story, and everything to do with that “Asian insecurity with being Asian in America” syndrome. More on that later, maybe.

    We’ll talk. This is BS. Ignore them. If your story wasn’t good, I would have told you it wasn’t good, because you write well and I know you’re intelligent enough to know that you write well, know that I know that you write well, and that sometimes we have bloopers. That story was not a blooper. Seriously? Screw ’em.

  2. h

    i have a lot of thoughts on this that i can’t put fully into words right now (not enough coffee yet and too many papers). but briefly: your story is not someone else’s story, and vice versa. and that’s ok. perhaps you need to piss people off. my fear of being “inaccurate” to two communities of people has effectively stopped work on my novel for about a year–only my novel is not about those two communities, it’s about what’s at the heart of something else. (hi, i’m vague.) at any rate, the comment you received was unhelpful, unspecific, and useless. if the reader isn’t going to say what precisely was historically incorrect, then maybe the reader’s understanding of history is actually wrong. (you never know!) i have not read this story but i feel like i know you well enough to assume that you wouldn’t treat a topic glibly, like the writer of the rejection did. i second sunny18. screw’em!

  3. anonwupfan

    I’ll also side with the (insert your favorite obscenity or euphemism for the sex act here) ’ems.

    Maybe this is a little too paranoid, but the line “original stories like yours” seems insidious too, as in we are publishing original stories–just not original stories LIKE YOURS.

    Also, if the person writing your note (I assume it was an editor) agreed with their reader’s assessment enough to mention it then why wouldn’t they, as editor, just directly suggest that you add/alter historical information? “This one guy said…” puh, that sounds more like a big, backhanded pile of bull dookie than criticism.

    Historical details in the talking dog story? JP, you will never please this brand of idiot. Let the bigots have their little fiefdom and keep moving down the road, like the Koreans always do–OK, maybe like this one Korean did, this one time πŸ™‚

  4. Sounds like you’re up against mindless political correctness, which you have so wisely decided to ignore. However, I understand the anxiety – I have too about my novel – because I know that somewhere along the line someone is going to get pissed off. Love the Hemingway quote – it gives me courage to carry on!

  5. There’s always going to be someone out there who think THEY know the Authentic, and thus, all others are shams.

    Somehow, a mild slap from people I (or you, or we) feel some bit of affinity to in my head stings so much more. Like THEY were supposed to get it, and by not getting it, I’ve lost membership with the club, the mothership, whatever.

    Something like that. Then again, Korean readers of English can get weird. I was in the final three for a literary translation prize once, and the secretary of that organization wrote a flippant e-mail asking if my doctoral dissertation was “just a translation of something” or not.

    That stung. And I know it shouldn’t.

    Anyway, just wanted to share. Korea’s weird. But it’s only all right if other Koreans say it.

    πŸ˜€

  6. Stephanie

    I’m glad you’re not letting the rejection keep you from writing your own truth. This is the problem I have with critique/criticism: so much of it is subjective.

    Also, while we place ourselves in cultural references, not everyone from the same culture will have the same experience. (I know you know this but I’m just ranting.) That would be like thinking every black person from L.A. had the same experience from the movie Boyz in the Hood.

    I love that quote by Hemingway. As you said, a response (whether negative or positive) is better than no response or a lukewarm reaction. You’re pissing people off and that’s good!

    Keep doing it. πŸ™‚

  7. cat

    Oh good grief! Tell them to take their snotty response, which reeks of a mind completely bereft of humor or whimsy, fold it ’til it’s all corners, and stick it where the sun don’t shine. They are clearly unworthy to publish anything you write.

  8. Sunny: your encouragement is invaluable to me. but yes, we’ll talk. πŸ™‚

    h: you are awesome. i hope you continue writing that novel.

    anonwupfan: you always say the right thing! you have a gift. πŸ™‚

    charlotteotter: courage!!!!

    SenNim and Stephanie: there is a lot of “this is The Korean Experience we want represented” out there just as Stephanie says about Black cultural representation. I think it’s the paranoia from not having enough Korean voices, and wanting “perfect representation” which really really propaganda–and I’m so not interested in propaganda. You’re right.

    Cat: Ha. πŸ™‚

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