Re Jane, Patricia Park’s Postmodern take on Jane Eyre, transports us from Flushing, Queens to Seoul and back in a quest for personal identity. For Jane, a half-Korean, half-American orphan, Flushing is the place she’s been trying to escape from her whole life. Patty took time to speak with Dead Darlings about the debut novel her mentor Ha Jin has described as being “infused with contemporary subject matter, such as longing versus belonging, the immigrant experience.”
Dead Darlings: What motivated you to tell this story, now?
Patty Park: I wanted to pay homage to two of my formative cultural traditions: my ethnic Korean background and the Western literary canon, set in the backdrop of my native New York City. Perhaps it’s a post-modern mash-up of all of my experiences!
DD: Can you describe Jane’s situation at the beginning of the novel, and what compels her to seek an alternative to her adoptive home?
PP: Jane’s at a low point in the beginning of the novel: she lost her job offer in the dot-com bust, so she’s back to bagging groceries at a store owned by her immigrant Korean uncle, while living under his strict and stifling roof in Flushing, Queens. So when she interviews with the Mazer-Farley family, she sees a glimpse of an alternative—and much more attractive—version of her own adoption story: a family that displays love and affection and radiates warmth. Of course she leaps at the chance to escape.
DD: Jane makes a big cultural leap when she moves from Flushing to Brooklyn, even though only a few subway stops separate the two communities. What social obstacles does she encounter, and how does she cope with the transition?
PP: Actually, I wish Flushing and Carroll Gardens were only a few subway stops apart! The irony is that Queens and Brooklyn abut each other, but still you have to make a right angle through Manhattan to get from one to the other. It’s a rather inefficient route.
Needless to say, Jane’s blue-collar, immigrant background clashes with the world of white bourgeois academics. The very act of, say, peeling fruit comes loaded with cultural baggage: Jane is taught one way (the stingy way) of skinning a pear in Queens; then with the Mazer-Farleys, she learns she’s not supposed to peel their organic, pesticide-free pears at all. Later, in Seoul, she learns to carve the fruit in the most beautiful way, even at the cost of the peel.
DD: In Ed Farley, you have playfully subverted the Byronic model of Rochester in Jane Eyre. Can you talk about the choices you made in rendering Ed’s character?
PP: Ed Farley is a half-Irish, half-Italian native Brooklynite. He gave up his own academic ambitions in favor of his wife’s career. I think Ed stays true to Rochester’s initial gruffness—he’s got outer-borough grit and a lack of polish. But he also says it like it is, which is hugely attractive to Jane and, hopefully, the reader as well.
DD: Exploring Jane Eyre parallels a little further, can you contrast Jane Re’s decision to leave Brooklyn following her romantic entanglement with Ed Farley with Jane Eyre’s sudden departure from Thornfield Hall?
PP: The moment where Jane Eyre flees Thornfield is such a powerful one. Incidentally, it was the same image on the cover of my first copy of Jane Eyre. If Jane had taken the easy way out, she would have stayed and lived the pampered life of a kept woman. But she had too much morality and a sense of self-respect to resort to that. I wanted my Jane to stay true to that—so she has to leave Brooklyn.
DD: As a crucible of personal development in childhood and adolescence, Jane Re has her uncle’s grocery in Queens. Jane Eyre has Lowood Institution. Did you have your own Food or Lowood growing up in New York?
PP: My parents own a grocery store in Brooklyn, so I grew up with the language of produce, HVAC, and invoices. “Lowood Capital Partners” didn’t really exist for me—I think that was the point. I’m a little younger than Jane, but when I started college I thought everyone got cushy offers like Lowood. By the time I graduated, the economy tanked and everyone was competing for unpaid internships.
DD: How conscious were you in college and grad school of Korean-American literature in particular, and Asian-American literature in general?
PP: Sadly, not very. I was never “taught” Asian-American (let alone Korean-) literature in a formal education setting. Everything I’ve read I found on my own through happenstance. In sixth grade I came across my older sister’s copy of The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan, and immediately devoured it. At the end of high school I read Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker and couldn’t believe his protagonist shared my last name. I didn’t learn of Gish Jen until my late twenties—something I really lament because she’s a fantastic writer and I think she could have helped me through some adolescent crises of confidence.
DD: My favorite minor character in Re Jane is Eunice Oh, the M.I.T. grad with the courier bag and mechanical pencils. Can you tell me about Eunice?
PP: Eunice was a lot of fun to write! I went to the Bronx H.S. of Science and was surrounded by mathletes like Eunice. Our heroes were Richard Feynman and fellow Science alum Neil deGrasse Tyson. A friend of mine got into M.I.T., and when I visited him there I encountered yet more precursors to Eunice Oh. In researching her character I quizzed him on his experiences there. Eunice Oh’s going to get her own novel come novel #3, which I’ve already mapped out (i.e., if all goes according to plan. Which it never does!)
My fellow Novel Incubator classmate Stephanie Gayle, author of the forthcoming excellent mystery novel Idyll Threats, works at M.I.T. and also gave fantastic insight on Eunice Oh. Thanks to her, I changed her major to “Course VI” and swapped out her TI-83 calculator for an O’Reilly computer programming book that looks a little something like:
DD: What role did GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator play in helping you develop this book, relative to grad school at B.U.?
PP: The Novel Incubator offered a holistic process to revising your novel—over the year you dealt with craft issues, first macro then micro. It was such a smart, invaluable approach. In my MFA program at B.U. I was lucky enough to study with Ha Jin, who also took a holistic approach to long-form fiction. Unfortunately the semester was much too short!
DD: Can you list a few books, along with Jane Eyre of course, that you would take with you to a desert island?
PP: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Lorrie Moore short stories.
DD: Do you root for the Mets, Yankees, or neither?
PP: I’m a Queens native who went to high school in the Bronx and is now doing an interview with a Bostonian. No comment.
DD: What’s next?
PP: I’m working on my second novel, which features a minor character of Re Jane (guess who) and takes place in the Korean “ghetto” in Buenos Aires, Argentina—where my family used to live before immigrating to the States. It’s also set in western Queens and the campus of Swarthmore College.