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Jimin Han on her novel 'The Apology'

JIMIN HAN: (Reading) Fleeing in a panic is not recommended.

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

When we first meet Jeonga Cha in the new novel "The Apology," she has fled in a panic after a meeting at her grandson's home in Chicago. She's running - to the degree that a 105-year-old woman can run - down the street.

HAN: (Reading) To my left, houses and houses and trees, vicious large trees. And across the street to my right, more trees. In the very periphery of my vision, they crowded me, judged me. What gave them the right? I raised a fist at them and then hurried on to increase the distance between me and the house I'd left, increase the distance between me and my family in that house. Judge me? Yes, they were judging me.

PERALTA: That's our next guest, Jimin Han, reading from "The Apology." It's a family saga that begins with the main character's death in America, tells her story in Korea, then South Korea. We learn about her lost family, her regrets, and why, in the afterlife, she needs to make it right. Jimin Han, welcome to the program.

HAN: Thank you so much. So happy to be here.

PERALTA: So how would you describe your main character, Jeonga Cha? What might it be like to be around her?

HAN: She's 105 years old, and she is very protective of herself and her family and very unwilling to share her deepest hurts and admit anything she's ever done wrong.

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, she also seems really well off. I mean, she's got a young personal assistant who does everything she asks. And even though she's 105, she tells her story in a very youthful voice - funny, but at times impatient and inflexible and insecure. Why did you want to write a novel about this kind of character?

HAN: My mother died in 2016, and she had told me stories about when she was younger and particularly stories about her parents. My grandmother, her mother, raised me till I was 4, and we moved here from Seoul at the time. And so after her death, I was thinking a lot about what she told me. I had written fragments of a character who was in a lot of pain, who was missing people. I'd heard all my life that my father had not seen his mother after he was 15 because of the Korean War. And my mother missed her family as well because we couldn't travel back and forth.

And then when I was in high school, I had a chance to go to Korea, and I met some of my mother's friends. And they were so different from my mother. They were her childhood friends. And I just felt, like, such a disconnect from the Korea she had told me about and the Korea that I saw around me. My mother also was one of four sisters, and I wanted to give Jeonga those sisters because I just think that they're so funny when they're together.

PERALTA: Why did you choose to make her and her sisters so old?

HAN: I think it's because I wanted to write more of a comic novel. I mean, this is not a serious novel in that kind of way. I just wanted to push and push to the extreme. At the same time, I thought it would make it more interesting when she died to be 105, as opposed to being younger, and give her this sort of entree into the afterlife.

PERALTA: So, I mean, at the center of this story is a scandalous family secret, right? Her great-granddaughter and her great-grandnephew have fallen in love, and neither of them know that they're related. This prompts her and her two older sisters to travel to the U.S. Why is a marriage between third cousins such a problem for Jeonga?

HAN: It's really not, right? It is another kind of way to get at how we make problems. We make problems for ourselves that aren't even there. It is that the way that she was raised, and in Korea, because of the - I don't know - genetic pool, there's a lot of bias against marrying people who are too related.

Like, I'm a Han. I'm in the Han clan. Apparently there's only one Han clan, so it would be frowned upon if I married someone who was a Han. So I wanted to show that she was very sort of old-fashioned and rigid in her thinking.

PERALTA: So the afterlife section of this book, after Jang is hit by a bus in Chicago - it's fascinating. She arrives in her old body, and she's tormented by ghosts, one who's taken the form of her missing sister. They're trying to teach her a lesson. How much did you turn to Korean mythology and beliefs to build this part of the story?

HAN: Yeah. I have done a lot of research on Korean shamanism. And in Korean culture, as I understand it, and it's very specific to my parents and where they grew up, it's so different. Korea has so many different religions and different ways of looking at life and death this way, but my parents didn't see the afterlife as being so different. It was comforting to see that ghosts are not ones to fear.

PERALTA: In this afterlife that you have in your head, is it expected for ghosts to contact the living in the manner that you write - and that is, you know, spirits learning to walk through walls or to inhabit cell phones, airplanes, spirits talking through mediums, usually badly? Jeonga has quite a time trying to figure out how to get in touch...

HAN: Right.

PERALTA: ...With her personal assistant from the afterlife.

HAN: Right. I will tell you that my father took my mother to Korea when she was sick. And so I went to visit her. And then soon after she died, so then I returned for her funeral. And particularly that year, there were all kinds of experiences that I had that I couldn't really explain. When they would happen, I would just feel comforted.

The other day, my cousins came from Korea to visit, and they brought their youngest sister, who had taken care of her husband with Alzheimer's for years and so had never been able to travel outside of Korea. And they brought her here. They took her around. I found street parking in Manhattan so easily.

PERALTA: (Laughter).

HAN: It was like a miracle.

PERALTA: Some ghosts were helping you.

HAN: Yeah (laughter).

PERALTA: We also find out why the book is called "The Apology." It's what Jeonga has to do in order to settle things. How much of this story is an answer for Koreans who never knew what happened to their family members when the country split?

HAN: I hope it makes people feel connected in some way, even if they can't be there. My uncle is approaching 86 now, and it's just so sad for him that now at his age it seems less and less likely that he'll ever see his family again who are in North Korea and - or find out what happened to them. So, yeah, I want it to be hopeful that there's some possibility, some way to connect again.

PERALTA: That's Jimin Han. Her new novel is "The Apology." Thank you so much for talking to us about it.

HAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa. He started his journalism career as a pop music critic and after a few newspaper stints, he joined NPR in 2008.