Interview with authors Frances Park and Ginger Park
Sisters Frances and Ginger Park have been writing books together since the 1990's. They are the authors of several children's books that celebrate their Korean family history, heritage and customs, including My Freedom Trip, The Royal Bee and The Have a Good Day Cafe. For more information, visit their website.
They live in Washington D.C., where they own a gourmet chololate shop.
As first generation Korean-Americans, have you always felt a connection to your family heritage, or did that come later in life?
I was born in the fifties and suffice it to say that I never met another Korean or Korean-American during my entire education, so except for an occasional trip to Korea, there weren’t many points of reference. Even then, Korea in those days was in a post-war state; you can’t imagine the rampant hunger and leprosy, orphaned beggars with their cupped hands, never showing their faces. I could not relate to or begin to understand what had happened there.
It would be more accurate to say that as I grew up, I felt a connection to my family which included my heritage.
G: Not really. The connection was made when I was sixteen years old in the wake of my dad’s untimely passing. All of a sudden, I felt the need to know everything about his life growing up under Japanese dominance, and that piqued my curiosity about my family roots.
Before my dad died, I was just another kid. True, I grew up in the late sixties and seventies - long before the influx of Asians to our community – in an all white neighborhood, and at times I struggled with being and, worse, feeling different. Oh, I still cringe when I think of that dreaded bus ride to school when a group of boys made fun of me; it always made me wither in my seat. As Frances mentioned, the goal was to blend in so the inner part of me could bloom. Luckily, I was always surrounded by good friends who made me blossom. My ten-year-old son, Justin, has a hard time fathoming such a world. His classroom mirrors a Crayola box!
Do you have Korean names in addition to your American ones? If so, what do they mean?
F: My Korean name is Mihei, which means grateful.
G: My Korean name is Jahei, which means considerate.
What first drew you to write stories connected to your cultural heritage? Why do you think such stories are important to young readers?
F: Stories that open the eyes of a young reader are important, period. So many problems in this world are caused by closed, boxed-in opinions.
G: Having parents who endured tragedy in their homeland inspired me to write about them. Suddenly, their world became my world. Even though I never met my mom’s brother, who was forced into the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II and never came home at war’s end, I feel a tremendous connection to him.
Many authors say that writing is a cathartic experience. For me, writing about our heritage is a learning experience.
Were you close, growing up? How has your successful writing partnership affected your relationship as sisters?
G: Correction: Frances is seven and a half years older! Sadly for me, everyone thinks we’re twins! :-)
Do you consider yourselves to be “born writers”? How would you describe your collaboration process and each other’s strengths?
F: Writing to me is breathing. I’m competent in other areas but only writing brings me to life.
While we also work on our independent projects, when we collaborate, the one who has the idea usually drafts something out. It may have no resemblance to what the final product will be but the seed is planted, we have something to sow. We never actually sit down together and write, never, ever. A draft just keeps going back and forth; for longer works, we may be working on separate chapters.
In the writing process, Ginger is more Architect while I’m more Poet. In the end, the composition is a true blend of “us”.
What were the pros and cons of growing up with one culture at home and another outside of it?
F: It’s character-building, soul-enriching and gives one food for thought for the rest of one’s life. Something to write about, too!
G: As with any dichotomous life, I was truly two people: the one my parents knew and the one my friends knew. The fusion of my identities occurred when I had a bi-racial son. He brings out both of me: the cool, hip mom with the very Korean roots.
G: Growing up, our mom touched on her freedom trip, but it was hard to articulate through broken English and the translation was lost or perhaps we didn’t listen carefully. All we knew was that she ran away from home. After our dad died, we stayed up late and listened to her stories of life in northern Korea. We didn’t miss a beat.
We submitted My Freedom Trip to ten publishers. Seven publishers offered us contracts, six with the caveat that we change the ending of the book. We had no choice but to turn down their offers, because changing the story would reunite our mom with our grandmother for a very happy ending. Our mom’s story didn't have a happy ending; she never saw her mom again.
Did you have anything to do with the choice of Yangsook Choi as the illustrator for Goodbye 382 Shin Dang Dong (a picture book about a young girl trying to cope with the move from Korea to America)? Have you taken part, in any way, in the illustration process of any of your books?
Frances, in your coming-of-age novel, When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon, you tackled “the struggles of growing up while trying to maintain familial bonds amid the cultural divide that can develop in first generation families.” How autobiographical is this book?
After your father died, you jointly wrote Swim Across the World, inspired by your parents’ experiences growing up in Korea during a very turbulent time in its history, from 1941-1953. Why did you decide to write their story and how has it affected you both, on a personal level?
F: I see their pre-coming-to-America lives in a far clearer light now. Before we began writing the book, we had but mere glimpses of who they were before they fell into their roles of being our parents in suburban Washington, DC. Yet we drew upon those mere glimpses and fleshed out their personalities based on what we could imagine they were like as young people. Now, I feel as if I was there with them, throughout all the turmoil.
How did you go about researching this book? During the research period did you find out anything that really surprised/shocked/touched you about your parents’ experiences and/or your heritage?
F: Having visited Korea as kids in the post-war years was crucial for the writing of this book, as we were able to resurrect the sights, sounds and smells of a country devastated.
Did writing about your parents’ struggles and accomplishments change your understanding of them? How did your mother react to the finished book?
G: Absolutely! Our dad was just that – dad. Who knew he was the personal secretary to First President Elect Syngman Rhee? Who knew that newspapers around the country chronicled his departure from his homeland to study at Harvard? As for our mom, she was head of the Park household. She made delicious Korean food and saw us off to school each day. She loves playing cards and watching CNN. Little did we know (until we wrote Swim) that as a girl, she was an accomplished pianist who would give up her beloved piano after she witnessed the massacre of thirty young Korean boys by Russian soldiers outside her window, during one of her lessons.
Our mother loved the book, but it was a tearful read.
Where do you turn for inspiration, besides your gourmet chocolate store, of course?
F: I love creating thematic photo-collages, for myself and for family and friends. Somehow, while making them, I go deeper into a world where I’m most comfortable – where it’s just me and memories and the silence – and I emerge fresh and ready to tackle the real world.
G: Besides motherhood, which I embrace like no other passion, tennis is my second passion. It’s nice to work hard (on a manuscript) and play hard (on the tennis court). Balance and harmony.
I have heard that, after getting their chocolate, customers talk books with you both. Please tell us a little bit about these sweet literary interactions at the store.
F: Our countless conversations with customers reach every level, from people who want to write books to people that actually do. We met an editor from National Geographic who eventually commissioned us to write a coming-to-America story (Good-bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong). The most entertaining interaction is when a customer happens to notice a book on the shelf that either he or she is reading, or is a favorite of their child’s. The subsequent realization that the woman boxing up their truffles is also the author is, well, a true treat for all.
Your most recent picture book, The Have a Good Day Cafe, is a tribute to the resourcefulness of new immigrants everywhere. Where did the idea for the book come from?
G: For many years, as we drove into Washington, DC to our chocolate shop, we saw a Korean family on Constitution Avenue, living out the American dream via a food cart. As small business owners, this scene pulled at our heartstrings, especially on rainy days as the family hovered under a giant umbrella. The most heartbreaking sight of all was watching the youngest of the clan - a boy of maybe five or six - standing on his toes to ring up sales on the cash register. One day the family and food cart were gone. We wondered what happened to them. Did they move back to Korea? Did they move to the suburbs? What was their story? We needed to flesh this story out, and contrary to My Freedom Trip, it needed a happy ending.
Any children or young adult books by or about Koreans/hyphenated-Koreans you would particularly recommend?
What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment as writers, so far?
F: For me, there isn’t one great accomplishment. Writing is what I do; some days feel disappointing, others triumphant. I’m happiest with myself when I let the editor-in-me go – and allow the words to fly.
G: Ironically, I can’t describe in words the feeling of writing the perfect line. Some days, I can’t write a single word and I fret all day, so when that perfect line comes along, I'm euphoric. That’s the greatest accomplishment.
Do you have any new books coming out soon or in the works?
G: Our fans always say to us: You’ve written about bagels, you’ve written about Korean food. When are you going to write about chocolate? Guess what? We’re collaborating on a chocolate memoir! Stay tuned. This should be a very SWEET read!
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor and Producer
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