Embracing Her Identity: A Conversation with Nora Okja Keller
- onMarch 21, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byKim Stoker
Nora Okja Keller made her fiction debut in 1997 with the publication of Comfort Woman, a story set in Hawaii that set light on the present-day impact of sexual slavery on the lives of a mother and her hapa, or mixed race, daughter. Fox Girl (2002) continued Keller’s exploration of mixed-race Korean identity and the complicated legacy of US military occupation in South Korea. Keller teaches at Punahou School in Honolulu.
Kim Stoker: You had the opportunity to visit South Korea last spring for the 2017 Seoul International Forum for Literature and you were invited to speak on a panel. How was that experience?
Nora Okja Keller: It was great. I was really honored because I haven’t published anything in a while, and especially given the caliber of the other writers there. I was so thankful to be there and it was good for me because I started thinking of myself as a writer again instead of being in these modes like teacher and mom. I hadn’t given that part of my identity a lot of attention lately, so it was exciting and inspiring.
Stoker: The title of your presentation was “Thoughts about Being Hapa: Living on the Margins Both as ‘Self’ and ‘Other.’” Could talk a little about your inspiration for that lecture?
Keller: The inspiration for my talk in 2017 was my experiences as a mother. How I identified myself as Korean, Korean American, and as a writer, and realizing how that translates to my daughters who are a quarter-Korean, especially when they don’t have physical markers that other people can label as Korean or as Asian. Like, how do they find or claim that identity for themselves? That was really important for me when I was raising my daughters. These questions are coming up for my older daughter especially.
Growing up in Hawaii and identifying as hapa and recognizing the multiplicity of their identities, I guess, they were more aware. When my older daughter went to Boston for college she was hyperaware of how white everyone was. And it made her realize how strongly she wanted to hold on to her hapa identity.
Stoker: You first returned to South Korea in the mid-1990s to support the Korean translation of Comfort Woman. How was your most recent visit different from back then?
Keller: The first time I went back to South Korea as an adult—I was born there but my family left when I was around three years old, so I don’t have any clear conscious memories of South Korea—was after the publication of Comfort Woman when it was translated. I was so nervous about talking about the publication of that book especially because it was the nineties, and that topic was just coming out in the public consciousness in America. So I was nervous to go back to South Korea because it was such a loaded emotional topic. I wasn’t sure how I’d be received and worried that people would wonder, ‘How could she write about this topic because she’s not really Korean?’ The reception though was generally really positive.
Stoker: How was the reception for you in South Korea talking about that topic of multiple possibilities for Korean-ness? It would be very different from, say, speaking about the same topic in San Francisco.
Keller: Oh yes. I realized that you can’t take any definitions for granted. I was surprised at how unusual that topic was. The interest is there because maybe South Korea has only recently become open to having those kinds of discussions.
There were people interested not just to have an intellectual discussion, but [one] on a personal level. A couple of people had mentioned that they had children or grandchildren living in the US, and were wondering how their experiences might be. Because the world has gotten smaller there are wider possibilities for this kind of opening up of racial identities. It seems like there’s more acceptance and more interest and support.