On July 12, 2021, we published “When I Lived in French,” an essay by David Hoon Kim. As the title implies, it is a memoir of the writer’s time in France. But it’s also a series of reflections on identity, belonging, and language—the account of a young Korean-American’s becoming himself through his adopted tongue.
If Kim is not (yet) so well-known as a writer, that is partly because he has published relatively little in English. He made a big impression back in 2007 with a short story in The New Yorker called “Sweetheart Sorrow,” a haunting tale of a thwarted romance set in Paris. And then…nothing—until just now: his first novel, titled Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost, which is out next month, builds upon that original narrative; and an excerpt appeared a few days ago, as “The Mirror,” in The New Yorker’s Flash Fiction series.
What first caught my eye about Kim’s essay for us was its juxtaposition of trenchant perceptions about le racisme ordinaire in France with the author’s love of the French language, an engagement so profound that his Parisian friends would consult him on correct usage of their own native tongue. As I soon learned, when Kim and I corresponded via e-mail this week, neither French nor even English was Kim’s first language—he grew up in Seoul, speaking Korean, before, at the age of eight, he moved with his family to Oregon, and then to Washington State. It was only as an undergraduate, already French-curious, that he moved to France—living successively in Rennes, Calais, Lille, and Paris—and found his true linguistic home.
“It’s strange to look back on those years, because, for me, there’s my life before I learned French and my life after,” he said. “Akira Mizubayashi—the Francophone Japanese writer whom I quote in my essay—writes that he was born in French at the age of nineteen. I feel similarly.”
Kim never finished his graduate degree, and cycled through freelance gigs as a copy-editor and translator—the narrator in his novel is a French-speaking Danish-Japanese adoptee named Henrik Blatand who works as a technical translator—until he started attending writing workshops and ultimately studied at the Sorbonne under the novelist Dominique Barbéris. “Those two [latter] years I consider an unofficial writing program of sorts, a pre-MFA, if you will,” he said. Kim left France in 2004 when he was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which proved a departure in more ways than one. “There, I started writing fiction in English, you could say, for the first time in my life,” he told me. “Of course, no one at Iowa knew this—that I was learning to write in the language I had grown up speaking—because, well, it would have been a weird thing to tell someone who hadn’t asked.”
“Sweetheart Sorrow” was a fruit of that time in Iowa. For most aspiring fiction writers, to get a story in The New Yorker is a life-changing breakthrough. For Kim, apparently not. What happened?
Thinking back on it, I can see that the publication of “Sweetheart Sorrow” froze me in my tracks. I felt that I had done everything backwards, to my detriment. Instead of boosting my confidence, it made me wonder if I could write something that “good” again. It didn’t help that, on top of everything, I also felt conflicted between continuing to write in English and going back to writing in French.
The choice I ended up making is perhaps the obvious one, in light of my New Yorker publication: I decided to concentrate on my English writing. I spent the next six years working on that novel before finally abandoning it while at the Stegner Program [at Stanford]. After that, I didn’t write anything for two years. It was the news of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that pulled me out of what had been a sort of depression, and I started writing about the Paris I had known, rather than a historical Paris occupied by the Germans, which had been the setting of my previous, failed novel.
He still reads mostly in French, even if the decision to write in English has now stuck. Since his essay deals, in part, with how language constitutes reality and selfhood, I was curious about whether he experienced himself differently in the two languages. “When I write, I often find myself frustrated by what one language lacks that the other has—though, in this, I admit I’m less forgiving of English than of French,” he said. “In any case, I don’t think I write the same way in the two languages. I am more detailed and verbose in French, whereas my English is more concise, matter-of-fact.
“Personality-wise, I’m not so sure,” he went on. “I do remember someone [at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where Kim was a fellow] telling me I had a more lively demeanor in French, that I gesticulated and smiled more. Perhaps she was trying to tell me something.”
I’d read, in a 2007 interview with Kim, that he particularly admires the work of Samuel Beckett for its equal facility in English and French—Kim wrote a student thesis on the author’s two versions of Molloy. “What I admire in Beckett’s writing,” he said, “is that in translating himself, he manages to both rewrite something completely and still remain, in my opinion, faithful to the other version. That’s very hard to do, especially when it’s your own work that you’re translating.”
Apropos, I wondered whether there was a French edition of Paris Is a Party in the works, and if so, who was translating it. “Funny you ask,” he said. “There was little chance that my book would be translated into French if I didn’t do it myself. I also wanted to do it as a sort of challenge, to see if the French world of my novel would stand up to being rendered in its ‘original’ language. Lastly, I didn’t want someone else speaking for me in French.”
That point—about self-definition, respect, and authority—returned me to thinking about his abiding anger at France for its xenophobia. My question, especially after the pandemic year and the widespread reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in the United States, was whether this country was so very different.
The truth is, I often feel alienated in the US, too, possibly even more so than I did in France. Part of it is that I feel I shouldn’t feel alienated here, in the country of my citizenship, where I speak the language I know best and live in an area with the highest concentration of Asians outside of Asia.
There’s an expression in French, avoir le cul entre deux chaises, which means, literally, sitting on half of one chair and half of another. Speaking for myself, I don’t think it’s possible to fully embrace the cause of one group if you feel yourself (also) a part of another group. Not being in France makes me feel more French, the way I was never more American than when I lived in France.