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The Fiction of Limbo

Novelist Paul Yoon explores Laos’s forgotten war.

May-June 2020

Paul Yoon

Paul Yoon

Photograph by Peter Yoon


Paul Yoon

Photograph by Peter Yoon

My fiction is constantly in transit,” says novelist and Briggs-Copeland Lecturer Paul Yoon. “If I were to self-analyze it, my guess is that it probably comes from the fact that my history is one of transit, of being in limbo.”

For Yoon—whose most recent novel, Run Me to Earth, came out in January—the earliest awareness of family history is indelibly tied to his grandfather, who fled North Korea for the south during the Korean War. “When I think back and ask myself what I remember about my family, it all begins with stories about my grandfather sneaking across the border as a refugee.”

Yoon’s grandfather never immigrated to the United States, although he visited a few times when Yoon was young. The author’s parents met after both had moved to the States in the late 1970s, but impermanence remained the norm. He remembers his parents and their friends sharing their experiences of immigrating and the way, once arrived, they continued to drift, moving from California to New York or vice versa. Growing up, Yoon himself shuttled around within New York state, rarely staying anywhere longer than five years as his father, a doctor, moved from one hospital to another. “There was always this constant movement to find happiness, and a place to settle and make a life,” he explains. “I think that motion is just embedded in my sense of life and story.”

Those early experiences have helped shape a body of fiction remarkably attuned to the exigencies of flight and the perpetual searching that often typify immigrant narratives. In 2009, Yoon published Once the Shore, eight interlinked short stories set on a fictional island off the coast of South Korea. His 2013 novel, Snow Hunters, traces the life of a Korean refugee who escapes to Brazil by cargo ship at the end of the Korean War. And in 2017’s short-story collection, The Mountain, a series of characters, times, and places—New York, Spain, South Korea—are also obliquely tied to the war as a way of investigating the psychological aftermath and physical displacement it engendered.

The experience of diaspora is reflected in the warp and weft of Yoon’s fiction—in the ruptured movement of his plots and in the spare, minimalist prose that seeks to capture, impressionistically, the flashing-by of lived reality and the peculiar play of memory that accompany physical displacement. A sense of place permeates Yoon’s writings, which tend to fracture along geographical lines.

For Run Me to Earth, he chose to address a different anchoring event: what he calls the “shadow history” of the bombing the United States conducted in Laos beginning in 1964, a nearly decade-long assault that devastated the country with more than two million tons of ordnance. During research for The Mountain, Yoon learned about the campaign in Laos, a conflict frequently overshadowed by the Vietnam War that lent itself to his interest in indirect thematic explorations. The new book’s plot follows a small cast of characters as they leap across continents and decades, from the 1960s to the present day, and from Laos to Perpignan in southern France, Sa Tuna in Spain, and upstate New York. What’s remarkable, given the bombs that open the book and the successive tragedies that send its characters wandering through the world, is how the novel remains so grounded, in a very literal sense.

Yoon’s fictions crystallize around mountains, islands, fields, and landscapes. Partly, he says, this stems from a deep respect for nature, though it’s also in some ways a metaphor for the act of writing and storytelling itself. “When I think about the natural world, and the landscape and environment, I think of tremendous layers—whether that’s layers of sky, layers of earth; what’s on the land, or what’s under it,” he explains. “It’s a very three-dimensional, layered world, and for me that evokes, or represents, the way I want readers to experience a story and its characters, as well.”

In Run Me to Earth, the landscape serves in part as a symbol for memory. The book’s first section follows Alisak, Prany, and Noi, three teenagers orphaned by war who are serving as couriers for a makeshift hospital thrown up by international aid workers in an abandoned mansion. At the behest of Vang, the head physician, they swerve through the countryside on dilapidated motorcycles in search of medicine, passing through the endless rain of bombs and carefully negotiating fields pitted with unexploded ordnance. At one point, Alisak and Prany look on as Noi makes her way through a minefield:

They watched Noi move across upturned earth and broken bits of stone, the soles of her feet searching for patches that appeared untouched. She would be avoiding the feel of a hard, curved surface under the dirt as much as she could. Every time she stepped forward, she dug her heel in, leaving a solid footprint she could follow back.

Noi’s passage through the field is delicate and calculated, leaving traces in the landscape that are tied, like breadcrumbs, directly to survival. Years later, when Prany returns to the mansion, Yoon again emphasizes the physicality of memory: “Always to his surprise, it was this house his mind had often leaped to these past years. The way he roamed the halls. Entered the rooms and opened drawers as though each held a mysterious treasure. The way they were all together.”

The web of connections in Run Me to Earth is vast and fine. Instead of fleeing the country himself with the help of a smuggler, Prany decides to offer his place to a young girl, Khit, whom he stumbles upon—a decision that sets off a delayed chain reaction. Later, in Spain, Khit has an extended conversation with Alisak, the only member of the book’s original trio to escape Laos. When the book’s brief final section leaps ahead to 2018 and finds Alisak contemplating this encounter and the wisp of paper Prany had told Khit to give to him, the paper’s fragility becomes a symbol of the fortuitousness of connection—strange, after all, to think that bodies might disappear, that buildings might collapse and regimes tumble, while a note might drift over continents and years to its proper recipient.

When composing this novel, Yoon had a particular structural metaphor in mind. “I looked at it as a kind of canvas,” he says. “The book has five parts, so each of them, to me, was like a different part of the canvas—and my hope was that the reader would fill in the rest.” This goal, along with his desire “to write the biggest possible story in the most minimalist way possible,” means that Run Me to Earth is a novel of gaps and elisions that, in its leaps backward and forward in time, manages to capture the emotional fracturing that strikes Yoon’s characters, and the peculiarities and paradoxical desires of their wounded hearts.

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