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E.J. Koh's debut novel covers generations, wars and geopolitical upheaval


The novel "The Liberators" is both slim and sweeping. In just over 200 pages, the story covers generations, wars and geopolitical upheaval. Korea is divided in two. Families immigrate to the United States. Babies become parents, become elders. This is the debut novel by E.J. Koh. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

E J KOH: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to talk to you today.

SHAPIRO: This book narrates these sweeping historical events from very personal, individual experiences. And so how do you think zooming in on small details helps us understand the bigger picture of something like the Korean War?

KOH: I think zooming in on the details of everyday life of individuals - not just the communities, but the individuals within them - and how they live and how their families go on to live and in the succeeding generations, how they're impacted by something like the war, we get to really see how every individual makes a choice - makes a different choice maybe about how to or whether they should erase the troubling origins of the war or reconcile with the urge to do so in the face of inherited grief and violence and pain. And so we come to a really human level of understanding these choices.

SHAPIRO: And so the characters you create are complicated and nuanced. But on some level, as you set out to write this, did you think, well, I want to write about one person who suppresses their history and one person who wrestles with it and one person who's scarred by it? Like, were you actively setting out to create those different sort of archetypes of dealing with inherited grief and trauma?

KOH: Yes. I think in part I was, but, really, I was thinking of this question. And there's this wonderful author and researcher, Elizabeth Rosner, who talks about this. But basically - that to understand that humanity, that our human lineage, is a braid of both destruction and restoration. And so that means that when we tell stories and we carry memories, we want to tell the stories of both the perpetrators and the collaborators, the prisoners and the guards, the murdered and the survivors. You want to be responsible for the entire braid because that's what our humanity looks like. That's what we're reckoning with.

SHAPIRO: It's such an interesting metaphor, and I realize that it's not yours. But when we think about these two things - destruction and restoration, was the other one - it's tempting to think of them as in opposition, like it's a tug of war. But viewing it as a braid creates a very different way of understanding the relationship, I think.

KOH: Yes, because I think, you know, many of us are survivors or children of survivors. And so we see that even at home, the way there is incredible grief.

SHAPIRO: And you don't necessarily mean survivors of war specifically or even the Korean War individually. You mean survivors broadly of these kinds of things?

KOH: Yes. And that makes each of us a part of that lineage, a part of the testimony that's being told.

SHAPIRO: Were you trying to excavate your own history in some respect by writing this work of fiction?

KOH: Yes. This work of fiction came after the work in my memoir, where I did a lot of looking into not only my family's stories but the history that we have in Japan, Korea and the U.S., and particularly Jeju Island, the island off of mainland South Korea. And while doing that, I think - there was a few - like, my mother's parents especially - that I - even after the memoir, they stayed with me. In a way, they became shadows to some of the main characters in this work of fiction.

SHAPIRO: Towards the end of this book, you mentioned an event that made international news when it took place about a decade ago. A ferry in South Korea sank, and hundreds of students drowned after they were told to stay where they were, and the crew escaped. And in your book, the Korean American characters watching this from the U.S. take a few different lessons from the event. One character says Americans would have jumped. Another says, if you're on a sinking ship, don't trust anybody. Don't listen to anybody. And then the narrator of this chapter, Insuk, offers a third way of looking at it. Will you read this section? It's page 214.

KOH: (Reading) I said, she must not struggle against hope, that we must not become miserable or disappointed, no matter the circumstances, because the sun still shone upon the wreckage in the water and upon everyone and everywhere in the world.

SHAPIRO: And so when you look at metaphorical sinking ships and the people aboard them in this novel and in real life, what lesson do you take away? I mean, is Insuk's view your view?

KOH: I think when I wrote those words and those lines, I think it was writing from a place maybe, at the time, was difficult to get to. But I could try and write from a place that I know I could one day get to. That sort of is a bit of the turn you might call in poetry is, where can I enter this writing or this moment from a space of magnanimity? Which might not be possible in this very moment, but I can use my imagination. I can use will. I can use hope to find something within here that is closer to truth. And that comes to what Insuk's saying there, that the hard thing to say tends to be about things like hope and love, and it's a hard place to arrive at. But even the attempt to move in that direction always seems to bring a sort of really vital function of testimony, of unifying, of reconciliation - at least the possibility of it.

SHAPIRO: Well, on the subject of hope, you end the acknowledgements by writing about your deepest hope. Will you read it?

KOH: (Reading) My deepest hope is to understand that even if we fail, we cannot fail so big as war. And as sure as the sun rises and the world rotates, we as humans have a chance to try again.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the world in this moment, is it difficult to maintain that hope?

KOH: It can be difficult. And I don't think it's ever been written in a way where hope came across as really simple and easy and straightforward. But I found, at least in working with, you know, mass trauma and grief and suffering, that there is a process to testimony, to telling stories, to sharing these stories, to listening. And really, a lot of what you're doing here in this moment matters, that nothing is always inevitable and that each of us have that point, and we can ask more questions.

SHAPIRO: E.J. Koh's new novel is "The Liberators." Thank you so much.

KOH: Thank you, Ari.

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Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.