Why You Should Read Groundbreaking Author Joseph Han’s Novel, “Nuclear Family”
LGoofy comedies centered on the local and emotionally grounded in the trauma of separation from immigrants are nothing new, but few have shown the panache of Joseph Han’s debut novel, Nuclear family. The Honolulu-based author, who earned a doctorate in English and creative writing from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, is enjoying a shower of awards and recognition for her recently published book, including being named winner of the “5 Under 35 2022” award, which celebrates the best American literature of the year by young authors.
The success of the 30-year-old writer comes on its own, but is fueled by a Korean artistic moment: Pachinko and her acclaimed 2017 novel, Oscar winners Parasite and minari. But for Han, it all starts with Nora Okja Keller comfort woman (1997): “This is one of the first Korean texts about writing Korean in Hawai’i, in a way that I could not have imagined”, he says. The epigraph of his novel is taken from the book.
SEE ALSO: What to read in summer 2022: 5 Hawaiian books to bring to the beach
In the whirlwind story, siblings Jacob and Grace Cho dodge and hide from daring plots and auteur complications to find themselves in a place we all remember, on January 13, 2018, the day of the false alarm. to the Hawaii missile. The bread and butter of the family is Cho’s Delicatessen, a trio of struggling ordinary restaurants blessed (or cursed) by a visit from Food Network’s Guy Fieri. Jacob and Grace’s parents, Appa and Umma, have been pursuing the dream of an L&L-style franchise ever since. A senior student, Grace tries to constantly stay stoned to put up with the drudgery of cooking. She’s been carrying double the burden since Jacob fled to Seoul to teach English (a futile attempt to avoid exposure to his family).
Then he is caught trying to defect to the North. His stumble at the DMZ goes viral as he is detained for questioning. Led by sour-tongued church ladies, Honolulu’s Korean community deserts the Chos out of embarrassment, while graffiti and a thrown brick hurt pride and property. The DMZ stunt isn’t Jacob’s idea; his body was taken over by the ghost of his deadbeat grandfather, who abandoned his family to found another in the North. Trapped in the South at the Partition, Tae-woo can only rest if he returns. But the DMZ wall is ghostproof.
Han’s deadpan description of Jacob’s plight is terrific in both senses of the word. Tae-woo has an unrelenting need to eat, drink, and party (while Jacob suffers from hangovers and embarrassment). But her anguished attempt to break through the wall into Jacob’s body seems real. And, indeed, Han’s grandparents immigrated to Hawai’i and raised him here, leaving his parents in South Korea. “My grandmother wanted me to study English in Hawai’i,” says Han. “It was his vision of the world, very Christian and capitalist. I found it hard to bear this separation. It explained how I understood the divisions in Korea, the American occupation, the division posed by the English language for my entire life, preventing me from knowing my own family.
When his parents finally joined him, they took difficult jobs, suffering from linguistic alienation and racism. Once, Han’s taxi driver father was badly beaten by a soldier who refused to pay for his fare; the beatings landed him in hospital for two weeks. “The rage I felt seeing my father in the hospital became one of the most important teachers in my life,” he says. This time became a catalyst for writing. His parents would return to South Korea. “The heart of the story hopefully lays out a path of reconciliation and reunification,” Han says, and “how we can move forward by finding peace in our lives, rather than finding peace in heaven.”
Dan Smetanka, editor of Counterpoint Press, which published Nuclear family, says he knew he was reading something special when he first came across Han’s novel. “He manages to balance serious and important issues such as family background, identity and migration with an extremely keen and fun eye,” says Smetanka. “It’s a surprising and evocative start.”
Nuclear family was released in June by Counterpoint Press and is available in bookstores and online, including on counterpointpress.com