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Star-Bulletin Features


Sunday, April 7, 2002


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[ MAUKA-MAKAI ]



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Nora Okja Keller has gained recognition far beyond Hawaii. She is featured in the current edition of the national publication Poets & Writers.



Converging worlds

A novelist says misunderstanding
need not breed hate

Fine novel details tattered innocence of 3 Korean kids


Finn Honoré
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Nora Okja Keller burst onto the literary scene in 1997 with the publication of her first novel, "Comfort Woman," chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the books of the year.

A resident of Hawaii, she studied English at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and earned a master's degree in literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz before starting work at the Star-Bulletin.

After attending a talk during which a Korean "comfort woman" spoke about her World War II experiences, Keller - who is of Korean and German descent - left captivated by what she heard, believing someone should write about this subject, though never imagining that it would be her. But it was a story that haunted her, and what began as a short story grew into the novel, launching her career as a novelist.

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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STAR-BULLETIN.COM



Her second novel, "Fox Girl," recently hit the bookstores.

Question: Expand a bit on the title of the book.

Answer: In Korea there are lots of myths about the fox spirit, a demon creature that can turn into a young, beautiful girl, an often scary character that is elusive and ambiguous. I was drawn to the fox stories because of the idea of transformation and also the idea of being hidden or invisible in the midst of society - which I think mirrors the experience of the women in these camp towns. I also hope that the image of the fox spirit concealed in the skin and clothing of a young girl parallels Hyun Jin and Sookie's sense of being trapped in the convergence of two very different worlds.

Q: In your novel you create three distinct characters, the three children who are central to your narrative. Are they completely imagined, or do they come from some wellspring of experience and history?

A: They are not based on my own life or any children that I know. They come from some place in my experience, but they are imagined, based on my research. I built a framework, and I imagined the life of these characters.

Q: As "Fox Girl" began to take form and you found yourself writing so powerfully and graphically about Hyun Jin's decent into the abyss of America Town, did you ever quail at the desolation captured in the narrative?

A: When you write about a character, you get deeply involved, you immerse yourself in their life, and that is how I felt with "Fox Girl." As I wrote, going deeper and deeper into the characters, it became difficult to shake the mind-set of the characters. There was a time when I didn't see a way out for the characters. I wanted them to emerge and find some redemption. I almost quit at one point, thinking I just couldn't finish. However, I also felt a commitment to the characters themselves to finish the story.

Q: While it can be said that both "Comfort Woman" and "Fox Girl" explore the relationship between America and Korea, "Fox Girl" seems less about what it means to be Korean than a child in circumstances involving poverty and neglect. Your thoughts.

A: I think it's important to remember that there are variations of "America Town" everywhere in the world, that they just don't exist in places like Korea or Okinawa or the Philippines. They exist in America as well. And they are not just in the past, either. The children of these places are growing up in violence and abuse, neglected and betrayed by the very people who should be protecting them. Survival becomes their main focus, their main goal.

For Sookie, the way she survives is by brutally squashing her connections to her emotions for other people. Hyun Jin, on the other hand, survives by trying to form a stronger connection. Lobetto, he survives through perpetuating his delusions.

Q: On the world stage we are observing the West grapple with the cultures of the Middle East and the Far East, trying to comprehend their signals and their intent. While bridges can be built between cultures, do you think that ultimately we are destined to misunderstand each other?

A: Even in our personal relationships, we can never truly know another human being. We can never crawl into another person's heart or mind to fully know why he or she said or did a certain thing. Sometimes, we don't even know ourselves. So I believe misunderstandings are a natural occurrence of living in a family, a tribe, a society. And the potential for conflict is increased between societies of different languages, cultures and beliefs.

I don't believe, however, that it "destines" us to hatred and war. To break it down to the simplest level: Just because we sometimes don't understand where our children or parents "are coming from" doesn't mean we love them any less. We need to understand how far apart our perspectives are - to not assume, for example, the reason you do something is the same reason I would do it - and to not condemn each other for those differences. Then we need to realize, no matter how great the differences between us, we are still related.


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