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.


Stoker: As a self-identified Korean American, how does your identity (and subject matter) position you in the broader literary landscape? Are there any limitations or benefits to a categorization such as a “Korean American author” or an “Asian American author”?

Keller: It’s funny—Korean American identity is so important to me personally and as a writer I’ve identified as a Korean American writer, but when I go to South Korea I am immediately recognized as American—a Korean but within the context of America.

I know that there’s been some discussions about identity, and I totally get the perspective of some Asian American writers who think, “Why marginalize yourself within American literature as a whole?” It’s a kind of ghetto-izing of yourself, but it’s the same discussion female writers have. “Why do you have to separate that out?” But I think it’s because the issues that I think about are so central to being a woman and to crafting an Asian American identity. I feel that kinship—that that’s where my struggle as a writer and as a person lay, so I don’t have any problem claiming that identity, and it also forms connections with other writers.


Stoker: Could you ever imagine yourself not writing about Korea? Or Korean or Asian American-related subject matter?

Keller: I’ve done a series of short essays and they’ve been more like personal narratives and I don’t explicitly go into that . . . they are very much family-centered and only tangentially about Korean culture and identity. But I don’t feel like it’s true to myself to excise it from my stories, from what I write about, yet it doesn’t have to be the focus either. I think that for fiction, I don’t think I would be comfortable having a totally imagined character that didn’t have that kind of authenticity and connection. Other people have put themselves in the shoes of the other, but it wouldn’t feel right for me personally.


Stoker: It’s a pretty exciting time for Korean literature in translation with several new titles being introduced in English each year, not to mention in other languages. Who are some Korean authors that you’re familiar with or that you’ve read in translation or would like to read?

Keller: Yes, translation is such an art form. It’s such a skill to craft both meaning and the rhythm and flow of the language. Those translators have to be artists to do such a good job.

I’ve read Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom. And when I was in South Korea this past spring I had the chance to meet Kim Soom, whom I think is brilliant. What a poetic voice. She’s pretty incredible. Her language is so poetic and so powerful.


Stoker: Going back to your experience as a writer from Hawaii, I’m curious what it was like for you in the 1990, debuting as a writer. It was such a dynamic time for literature coming from Hawaii with authors like you, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Gary Pak, and Cathy Song a little earlier, making their debuts in the Hawaii-based Bamboo Ridge Press and participating in the Bamboo Ridge Writer’s Workshop.

Keller: Those are people who guided me as a writer. I still look to them as friends. They were such an important community for me as a young emerging writer, and as a person.

I went with Bamboo Ridge Press, I remember, for the first short story I wrote. I was still in college at the time. And I remember Eric Chock reading it and he said, “Is this local?” Because at the time I had tried to make a story that didn’t have any ethnic markers, to make a story that was completely white-washed, make it identifiable to “everybody.” I didn’t consciously think about erasing ethnicity or Korean culture. But later on I realized that the writers I was reading were all white, too. Ethnicity never came up. We laugh about that today, but I was so shaken up by his question. I was scared away for a couple years! It really made me think about what I was doing in my writing.

Going back to your earlier question about the importance of Korean American identity in my writing, that’s partly where it all stems from: Write true to yourself. Speak your life. These Bamboo Ridge writers really taught me that and were role models. They definitely shaped the direction of my writing and helped me realize the validity of my story.


Stoker: You were saying that you’ve been busy with family and teaching and doing some other kinds of writing, but where are you at right now with your fiction?

Keller: I put it on hold for a long time and I would say that this last trip that I came home from South Korea, I pulled up some old notebooks and have been immersing myself in that and thinking about myself in that context again. Along with this trip inspiring me, there are still stories that I have that I want to tell that I’ve put aside. And I believe they’re still waiting. My older daughter is coming out with her first book. She’s writing and her audience is middle grade [students] and the protagonist is a little hapa girl. We’ve been talking a lot about the writing life and that has been inspiring to me. It’s been exciting for me to see that. She’s been talking about having writing days together. It’s neat to share that bond with her.


Stoker: I’ve heard that you’re currently working on your third novel, which completes the trilogy that started with Comfort Woman and Fox Girl.

Keller: I started it five years ago and I then just kind of put it on hold. I feel like that story is still waiting and I need to go back and find where I started with that and where I left off. It’ll probably be a different story from what I intended because so much time has passed, but that’s okay too.


Stoker: It’s an exciting prospect that there might be a third book to complete the trilogy, and especially to see the evolution of ideas and you as a writer. Every writer has their obsessions that come out repeatedly. Can you talk about how your writing process or your approach to narrative has changed over the years?

Keller: I wouldn’t mind revisiting Fox Girl. I was purposely experimenting with some things with Fox Girl and had written Comfort Woman in one style—I was trying to tweak the narrative structure and be as different as possible. I would revisit that and do a different revision.


Stoker: Do you have any plans to visit South Korea again with members of your family?

Keller: My oldest daughter and my husband and my mom and sisters went during the Comfort Woman visit and then about five years later I brought my younger daughter as well. Now we’re all talking about visiting South Korea next summer, especially because my mom’s getting older so we definitely want to make this trip with her again. 


by Kim Stoker
Freelance Editor and Writer
Former Editor, KLN