December 16, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Juhea Kim's Beasts of a Little Land is an epic debut that dazzles with its depiction of 20th century Korean life.
Kirkus wrote of the collection:
"An epic novel brings complex 20th-century Korean history to life…. Extraordinary…. Gorgeous prose and unforgettable characters combine to make a literary masterpiece."
My journey as a writer began when my indefatigable literary agent Jody Kahn took me on as a client, almost exactly 6 years ago in 2015. I had been published in zero literary journals, and she told me that my short stories were great but I should really be writing a novel.
I overcame a lot of struggles in life to get to that point; so my default response to “jump through hoops” is “do you want me to light a fire on it too?” Not only did I say yes to writing a novel, I also pitched her an epic saga spanning half a century and two generations of characters. I was very nervous that she wouldn’t like the idea, because it was so Korean, and this was before Pachinko and more importantly, before Squid Game. But Jody believed in the story from day one, and I squirreled away home to put this to work.
From the moment I set out to write a novel, I had a single artistic predecessor I wanted to emulate—and that was Bruckner Symphony No. 8. Before I start planning or writing a single word, I need to have something I want to say about life, with conviction, passion, and reverence. I wanted to move the reader the way this symphony moved me.
My novel deals with star-crossed lovers and life or death situations that may perhaps feel exaggerated to our modern-age cynicism. But life at that time was truly that intense and earnest. This is a celebrated song recorded by a Tokyo-educated soprano named Yoon Simdeok in 1926. Some years before that, she had met and fallen in love with Kim Woojin, a bourgeois playwright and a married man. On her way back to Korea from recording this song in Japan, Kim Woojin and Yoon Simdeok jumped off the ship together—evidently in despair of not being able to fulfill their love. “In Praise of Death” record sold 100,000 copies—extraordinarily successful for its time. It is an iconic hymn of romantic tragedy and epochal sorrow.
My friend and author Caroline Kim recently wrote to me that her phenomenal short story collection, The Prince of Sorrowful Thoughts, deals most of all with the question of “What does it mean to be Korean?” I was going to say “the Korean language,” but the true test of Koreanness is actually probably Seopyeonje—a 1993 film by director Im Kwon-taek that is considered by many to be a monumental achievement in Korean cinema. I think it’s one of the most perfect works of art in any medium. Anyway, if you listen to the Seopyeonje soundtrack and you start weeping uncontrollably, then you’re Korean. (Many YouTubers also say the same in the comments section, truly.) This music is like a DNA test.
21st-century Korean culture (cinema, literature) has skewed very noir, satirical, and critical of the problems in this hyper-competitive and hyper-modern society. Listening to Seopyeonje helped me feel grounded in this soulful side of my roots.
In my novel, courtesan apprentices start their training by learning the traditional songs—meaning pansori. You can imagine Lotus singing something like this when she is called to a banquet.
Also in the novel, Jade (the protagonist) stars in a play called the Story of Shimchung. She would have sung this traditional song.
This is another “can’t watch without crying” clip. It shows the reunion between a foster brother and a foster sister, who are not related by blood but were raised together. They love one another, but the brother leaves. After many years apart, he returns to have this reunion through music with his now-blind sister. They both know who the other is, but part without acknowledging their bond.
Bruckner Symphony No. 8
I’m a cellist, and I played with my symphony when I was fourteen years old. Like all the most important works of art in one’s life, this one devastated and healed me at once. Bruckner was a very devout man, but he also suffered from doubt and human folly. Written in late life, this work is his ode to redemption and grace. It’s harrowing and ultimately, triumphant.
Shostakovich Jazz Suite No. 2: IV. Waltz 2
A significant portion of my novel takes place in Jazz-Age Seoul, with all its sensorial riches. I also mention a couple of waltzes throughout, similar to this moody Shostakovich.
For some reason, Koreans really love "Besame Mucho" (which came out in 1940). I imagine something like this playing like this in Cafe Seahorn.
I was staying in France for three months in 2019 and revising my novel, among other things. I played this song nonstop throughout my sojourn. It brings me back to stacks of manuscript on the floor and my double windows open to all the pink and white flowers in Paris in April.
Juhea Kim was born in Incheon, Korea, and moved to Portland, Oregon, at age nine. Her writing has been published in Granta, Guernica, Catapult, ZYZZYVA, and other outlets. She is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, an online magazine at the intersection of sustainable lifestyle and ecological literature. She earned her BA in art and archaeology from Princeton University. Beasts of a Little Land, her debut novel, will be translated and published around the world. After a decade in New York City, Kim now lives with her two rescue cats in Portland, Oregon.