A Conversation with Joseph Han

In Joseph Han’s debut novel, Nuclear Family, we meet the Cho family in the middle of a crisis. Their son, Jacob—possessed by the ghost of his grandfather Tae-woo—has tried crossing the Korean DMZ, resulting in suspicion that the family has sympathies for North Korea, which then leads to decreased traffic to their Korean plate lunch chain, Cho’s Delicatessen. Told from the perspective of multiple characters, the novel follows the family as they grapple with the downfall of their business and Jacob as he learns more about his family’s history. Set in Hawaiʻi, the novel also comments on Hawaiian rights, U.S. militarism, and the connection between Korea’s unification and Hawaii’s deoccupation.

Han is a 2022 National Book Foundation 5 under 35 Honoree and is currently an editor for the West region of Joyland Magazine. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Nat.Brut, Catapult, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The recipient of a Kundiman Fellowship in Fiction, he received a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he taught Asian American literature, fiction workshops, and composition. He is currently working on a short story collection.

Audrey Fong: The novel opens with Tae-woo’s ghost trying to cross the DMZ to return to North Korea in search of his family. However, Tae-woo is unable to cross because of a barrier that zaps each ghost that comes near it. One section that hit me was, “[Tae-woo] hated the people who visited the DMZ. Folks from all around the world who got a cheap thrill from the proximity to North Korea. Tae-woo was close too. No matter how many times he tried, Tae-woo could never breach the DMZ.” It reminds me of how the West trivializes the meaning of the border, often making jokes about North Korea in movies and TV shows, while the border acts as a very real border to separated families. Could you share why you started Nuclear Family with the DMZ and someone who desperately wants to cross it into North Korea?

Joseph Han: I was very much inspired by my own research and learning about Korean history, mainly the history that I could not access and that created a lot of silence in my family, who did not tell me about what they endured or experienced. And this goes back to what was a very formative text in my life, Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora, in which she describes how the way the Korean War is remembered as the forgotten war, quite ironically, speaks to the violences and erasures that persist in and throughout the Korean diaspora across generations, and how it’s this condition of silence and forgetting that continues to haunt Koreans for generations, particularly those in the diaspora. 

In my own upbringing and learning about Korean history, it was always assumed, throughout my education, that the Korean DMZ is fixed and permanent. In telling a ghost story, I thought, what better way to think about how arbitrary the Korean DMZ is as an imaginary border, though one with implications that not only impact our reality but also continues to impact the lives of those who have passed and those who have carried their wishes to cross the border and reunite with loved ones at homes in the north until their deaths. Unfortunately, the generation that has been directly impacted by the Korean War and that has experienced these family separations are missing these opportunities to reunite, which become increasingly slim. So, I wanted to write a novel that honored how we can carry that will and I think that’s very much embodied in the way I write about Jacob’s grandfather, Tae-woo, and his persistent wish to return.

AF: It’s true what you say—the DMZ is very much an arbitrary border and it’s amazing how something manmade can separate so many families, especially since the Korean War happened so recently. It’s something where many people can imagine their grandparents, their great-aunts and uncles, and really feel that division still. 

The next question has to do with language. The Cho family switches between pidgin, standard white English, Konglish, and Korean. I also noticed that when the parents speak Korean, you write out the Korean words phonetically. What was your thought process when it came to choosing which language to write? And why did you choose to write out Korean phonetically?

JH: My impulses to write out Korean phonetically came naturally as it did with my desire to not italicize any instances or usages of Korean and to reflect how Korean is used in my everyday speaking and living as a diasporic Korean in Hawai’i. This is also present in the way we see language shifting—for example, the TV series Pachinko, where we have characters switching from Japanese to using the Korean honorifics when addressing family members. And also, in the way in which I name characters by their familial relations to the main pair of siblings Jacob and Grace—this is how these characters understand and relate to one another.

AF: Sounds like a very natural process for you, especially when you grow up in a household that speaks more than one language. I love how Guy Fieri’s visit to the Cho’s restaurant has such an impact on the Cho family and the story. How did you choose to include Fieri and what does he mean to the plot?

JH: I watched a lot of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, in particular with my sister. One of the first bonding moments that we had as siblings was seeing the restaurants that were featured on the island Oʻahu, where we lived, and visiting these places ourselves because of their experience on TV. I was interested in the way Guy becomes a kind of cultural ambassador to white America in highlighting different mom-and-pop immigrant restaurants, giving his stamp of approval almost as a way of symbolically gesturing toward their assimilation into the broader, multicultural culinary experience. 

In Hawaiʻi, I thought, what better way to introduce readers to a Korean plate lunch restaurant, which is specific to the Korean diaspora in Hawaiʻi, than through a very familiar, iconic figure such as Guy Fieri, who kind of haunts the restaurant and also the character Grace in a similar way that Jacob is haunted by this very strong figure or presence; and so they must grapple with how they have failed that legacy of the American dream, having been accepted by the national media as one way to contrast with how Jacob’s attempted crossing, making international headlines, undercuts their first glorious media appearance. In the same way that Guy, and his stamp of approval, ropes in customers to go to the restaurant, likewise, I wanted to play on that intrigue with introducing readers to the novel as a kind of hook as well.

AF: Guy’s inclusion and role as a symbol of assimilation felt very real to me. The novel talks about the DMZ and includes brief bits of Korean War history. How do you hope your novel will reshape the narrative surrounding the war, the DMZ, and American militarism?

JH: I think that that is the question when it comes to this book. As I mentioned, it’s assumed that the separated Korean peninsula is the only reality we can imagine for Koreans going into the future. I wanted to write how that is entirely untrue, that there was once a Korea that was whole and that was not divided, and it’s this division that is and remains the largest fiction of U.S. imperialism, that only backs its interest as a global military superpower because it benefits the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep Korea divided, to ironically militarize South Korea to these greater ends, to have a military base to pivot toward China and against communism as an extension of the Cold War and Cold War politics that also implicate Hawai’i as a militarized place.

In writing about the Korean DMZ as a spiritual border that the characters, in particular Tae-woo, strive to overcome in all possible ways, trying to figure out how to breach and pass through the Korean DMZ, I wanted to ask the same question of how in our own global imaginaries can we envision more crossings through this barrier that prevents us from knowing that Korea was a whole and can be a whole peninsula for the sake of the people who have remembered and endure throughout its division. 

I wrote this book in order to imagine how we can make the DMZ more porous in our imagination, so that we can engage in and enact more crossings, so that families and future generations can return to the northern peninsula and can reconnect with and honor their loved ones who have passed there, and to imagine a future in which we can heal and reconnect with ourselves, in a way. When we think about Korea, we always think about South Korea, first and foremost, with North Korea as its antithesis and as an enemy. In having a book titled Nuclear Family, it’s also a play on these kinship structures that have been disrupted across the peninsula and across the division, because these are our brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandparents, elders in the north, who continue to be forgotten behind this veil that is the DMZ, which ultimately needs to be dismantled first in our consciousness as a way for us to imagine what peace can look like on the Korean peninsula, which is absolutely necessary because the Korean War is ongoing and has not ceased without a formal peace treaty. I wanted to imagine how peace can unfold not only for our lives, and in our lifetime, but for those who have passed, who have not experienced peace.

AF: I like how you phrase it as a “more porous” border, and I hope that that happens in the near future so that siblings who are still alive can see each other. The book’s ending imagines an independent Hawaiʻi and even before that, it is sprinkled with notes of Hawaiʻian rights. We’ve seen during the pandemic an increased awareness of how tourism negatively affects Hawai’i. Do you have any advice for readers about how they can visit Hawaiʻi more ethically?

JH: With this question, I always think of Haunani-Kay Trask, the late poet, activist, and scholar, who famously said at the end of one of her essays, “Lovely Hula Hands,” to not come to Hawaiʻi if you plan on visiting. Right now, we are currently facing a voluntary water conservation of about 10% across all households because our primary drinking aquifer has been contaminated by jet fuel, the navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, which houses over 100 million gallons of fuel, effectively making Hawaiʻi a gas station for the U.S. empire. That fuel has already leaked many times from this facility, which was constructed in the 1940s and has poisoned the water system for the navy’s military housing. It’s for this reason that we’ve had to shut off our drinking well and shaft that pumps from this same aquifer that provides water to one third of Honolulu, so that all of Honolulu’s water doesn’t become poisoned with jet fuel as well. This is during a summer where we have a very dry season and an influx of tourists, driving up water usage. The more water that is being used here, the more we risk drawing salt into our water, so we are currently in a very precarious and dangerous period where we are fearing another imminent leak from the facility, which can do even more irreparable damage to our natural resources.

So, I would urge readers to think about how tourism to Hawaiʻi is primarily possible because of U.S. military occupation and that looms as this large imperial shadow that has its insidious consequences on not only the health of the people living in Hawaiʻi, but also the land which the U.S. military occupies. I connect military occupation in Hawai’i to the military occupation in South Korea and also many other places, such as Okinawa and Guam, that also have communities resisting the desecration and pollution that these bases bring to their surrounding communities. One of the most ethical things that readers can do when thinking about visiting Hawaiʻi is to second guess why they want to visit and at whose expense, beside your own and the cost it might bring to your wallet. At whose expense are you relaxing and enjoying Hawaiʻi? Is there any learning that you can do if you must insist on traveling here? Are you listening to Kanaka Maoli voices, histories, and so on, and how will that inform what you will do while you are here? Also, what will you all speak against or for, while you are here, and how will you also rethink your relationship to the lands where you reside if you are coming here? Those are all questions that I continue to ask myself as a Korean settler living here, who has been raised here most of my life, as a member of the Korean diaspora in Hawaiʻi. I see struggles for Korean peace intimately linked with struggles for deoccupation and demilitarization here.


Audrey Fong

Audrey Fong is a writer, interested in food, coming of age stories, and Asian American narratives. She earned her B.A. in English from UC Irvine and is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing from Chapman University. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Soapberry Review.

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