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Coming to grips: Debut novel “Shelter” by Valley author Jung Yun examines Korean family’s troubled past

Debut novel ‘Shelter’ by Valley author Jung Yun examines Korean family’s troubled past

  • Writer Jung H. Yun, Director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, talks about her debut novel, "Shelter". KEVIN GUTTING—KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jung H. Yun, director of New Faculty Initiatives at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development, will read from her debut novel, "Shelter," April 19 at Amherst Books. KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, as a first-generation Korean-American, Jung Yun knew a little bit about feeling isolated: The nearest Korean community of any size was in Chicago, some 640 miles away.

Despite being a member of the only Korean family at that time in Fargo, Yun remembers a pretty happy upbringing, one with friends and a good relationship with her parents and siblings. But what might have it been like, she wondered, if her family hadn’t been so solid?

That scenario is at the heart of “Shelter,” Yun’s debut novel, a book that’s getting a lot of attention. The New York Times Book Review calls it “gripping” and “captivating,” and The Chicago Tribune weighs in with “beautifully crafted.”

A story of two generations of a Korean family in America, it offers a layered portrait of race, assimilation, money and class, while examining the obligations children and parents have to each other — and Yun adds something of a page-turning element to the book, too, on what violence can do to people.

For the South Hadley resident, who works with a faculty development program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Shelter” also represents a thrilling finish to the long road she set out on almost 15 years ago, when she left her job and home in New York City to enroll in a master’s degree in writing at UMass. She never imagined her book would get the kind of reception it’s received so far, she said.

“I’m a terrible pragmatist,” Yun, 44, said during a recent interview at her office at the UMass Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development, where she directs new faculty initiatives. “I really had zero expectations, because so many novels just disappear without a trace.

“But I’m fortunate the publisher gave [the novel] a really strong marketing push,” added Yun, who’s been on the road a good amount in the past month doing readings. “Now that it’s getting some attention, it’s all really exciting.”

Making a commitment

Yun was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States as a young child with her mother and siblings after her father, a martial arts instructor, opened a business in Fargo in the mid-1970s. She says she long had an interest in creative writing, though her parents looked on the arts as something more akin to a hobby; she ended up getting an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies from Vassar College and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Pennsylvania.

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, she worked in upper-level administration for a number of organizations in New York City, including Lincoln Center and the city’s public library system. Though she was trying to write fiction on the side, 14-hour days at work took most of her energy, she said. She once had a chat with Walter Mosley, the crime fiction writer, whom she met in the New York Public Library; he advised her to devote herself full time to writing if she was serious about it.

“He said it in the nicest way possible,” Yun said. “But it made sense. Something had to give. I had to make a serious commitment to writing.”

In retrospect, Yun says the terrorist attacks in New York in September 2001 probably were also a factor in her decision to pull up stakes and enter the master’s degree program in 2002.

Universal issues

In “Shelter,” which she began working on seriously about four years ago, Yun says she didn’t set out to write a specific portrait of the Korean-American community. The issues she examines in the novel — domestic abuse, filial responsibility to parents, marriage, identity and class — relate to many people, she notes.

“I didn’t drill down into the ethnic research, although there is a sense of filial piety, this need to take care of your elderly parents, that’s a big part of Korean-American families, and other Asian-American families, too. But I was thinking of more universal issues.”

The novel’s principal character, Kyung Cho, is a college biology professor in his mid-30s who’s struggling on several fronts. In the midst of the 2008-09 recession, he and his Irish-American wife, Gillian, face a staggering debt on the mortgage of their suburban Boston home. Kyung also doubts whether he’ll get tenure when his position comes up for review in a few years.

More importantly, Kyung is the father of a 4-year-old boy, Ethan, whom he can’t figure out how to relate to (“Parenthood still feels like a heavy new coat, one that he hoped to grow into but hasn’t quite yet”). Much of Kyung’s tentativeness with Ethan stems from his own unhappy childhood: His successful Korean immigrant parents, Jin and Mae, gave him plenty of material comforts but no affection to speak of.

They left him with a more sinister legacy, too. For years, Jin beat his wife, who in turn hit her son, till Kyung was old enough to demand that the violence stop. Kyung still lives in the same town as his parents, but he keeps his distance as much as possible. The issues have never been spoken of openly by the family, leaving Kyung with a brooding sense of anger, shame and failure that hangs over his own marriage.

All this comes to a head when Jin and Mae are brutalized in a home invasion and are forced to move in with Kyung and Gillian, at least temporarily. Suddenly, Kyung has to confront his demons head on, as well as his shaky relationship with his father-in-law, Connie, a veteran police officer in town who is called to the crime scene. Kyung will be forced as well to examine his role as a husband, father and member of a mixed-race family and to try to come to terms with his anger.

“He can count the number of times he let his anger get away from him,” Yun writes. “What he lost track of years ago is how often he had to walk himself back from that cliff. Control is the only thing that separates his anger from his father’s.”

A horrific story

Yun says she drew on a real-life home invasion, in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 2007. That case, in which a woman and her two daughters were raped and murdered by two men — the woman’s husband, a doctor, survived the attack — drew national attention, in part because the family lived in an upscale community with little crime.

“It was such a horrific story, and I began following it because I wondered about the man who survived,” she said. “I remember wondering if he could recover, and then I started thinking, ‘What if this happened to a really dysfunctional family? How would they respond to something like this?’ ”

The story also touches on issues specific to the Korean community. Kyung tries to coach his wife on ways to be deferential to his father, in the manner Jin expects of a woman; Yun also portrays the congregation of a Korean Presbyterian church that rallies to help Jin and Mae, but which Kyung finds off-putting because the women are so subservient.

Culturally, he feels adrift: neither fully Korean nor American, distanced from his parents because of their painful shared past yet still beholden to them on some level

But some of the most painful scenes in “Shelter” simply examine personal relations, particularly between Kyung and Mae. Both are trying to get around the anger and unsaid things from their past but are continually stymied, as Yun writes, by “the same old pattern … the one in which he pities her and tries to help, and she treats him badly because she hates herself for needing him.”

And as the book moves toward a possible final confrontation between Jin and Kyung, who had warned his father years ago that he would kill him if he ever abused Mae again, “Shelter” looks at how families try to find some measure of reconciliation and forgiveness even in the worst of times.

“I hope that’s what people get from the book,” Yun said. “That in the end, there’s still hope.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Jung Yun will read from “Shelter” April 19 at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books.