A Conversation with Robert Yune by KR fiction editor Geeta Kothari
Robert Yune was born in South Korea. He teaches at Chatham University’s MFA program (Pittsburgh campus and low-residency). His fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review. In 2009 he received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Yune’s story, “Solitude City,” appears in the Spring 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Geeta Kothari: What were the origins of this story?
Robert Yune: That’s hard to answer, of course. Sometimes, characters and images stick to you like burrs and leaves. When you return home, you pick them off and wonder where they came from. Storytelling often feels more like an organizing process for me.
In 2007, the phrase “Superman’s Daughter” popped into my head. I was in love with the possibilities: custody battles, new superheroes, etc. But none of them worked out. Too many courtrooms and explosions. I started writing a quieter, more expansive piece—a snowbound kind of story. It’s rare that I’ll think of the title first, but just like some people are born on pool tables or in bathtubs, stories come into the world in unexpected ways.
GK: But you changed the title.
RY: “Solitude City” was a compromise. I didn’t want to get sued by DC [Comics].
GK: But Superman isn’t in the story.
RY: Superman as a character never appears, he merely exists in the world, in the same way he exists in the real world. So I don’t think there’s anything defamatory towards him.
GK: This title, “Solitude City,” title seems to speak to the actual lives of each of the characters, more so than Superman’s Daughter.
RY: There are places in Japan right now where you can get an apartment room that’s the size of a bathroom. Everyone is so compartmentalized, and I thought about this accelerating into the future. The way these characters are separate in their own world is a result of that.
In a lot of movies that take place in the future, you get these long shots of cityscapes and you’re held at a distance from everything, and I think that also played a role in this story.
GK: So it’s a cool future.
RY: My vision of the future involves a lot of brushed steel, a lot of glass, solid panes, maybe some bamboo. A lot of right angles. Very modernist, I guess.
GK: How did you achieve that relationship between tone, setting, and solitude?
RY: I love Chicago. There’s something flat and expansive about the Midwest, which affects the story’s atmosphere. I was also writing from midnight to 2 AM and listening to a lot of jazz, especially Toshinori Kondo. That probably had an effect.
GK: I picture the palette for the story being blue-gray except for the end, when it becomes brick red and white and green, Christmas colors, I suppose.
RY: This goes back to the idea of the city as a space of isolation and separation whereas the suburbs have a stronger focus on family and community. It’s a traditional narrative dichotomy. You see it a lot in movies, like It’s a Wonderful Life, and any number of stories.
GK: This is a family story that begins with the siblings and their relationship. You’ve also written a novel about two brothers. What opportunities do sibling relationships offer to you as a writer?
RY: I hadn’t noticed that, but it’s true, my first novel focuses on the relationship between two brothers. It’s funny—my next novel, the one I’m writing right now, is about a brother and a sister.
Families are interesting. They’re like small self-contained societies. Ecosystems with their own weather. Every family has its own traditions and language. Every family has something it’s proud of, and every family has secrets.
Some people believe that in the real world, parents should never be outnumbered by their children. If you have two kids, they can both fight with each other or they can both get along; those are your two options. And if you have three kids, you have any number of different alliances that form. That third child raises, exponentially, the number of crises that can happen.
GK: Kacey almost functions as that third child.
RY: “Solitude City” has two sisters, and one interesting thing about this is that Edward Moon doesn’t have a wife, just these three daughters. So even though he has all this wealth and power, just the number of children he has—opposed to him in different ways—acts as a balancing force. There’s a lot of absence, a lot of white space, in the relationship between Laura and her father, and between Laura and Kacey.
GK: Edward Moon has almost too much power.
RY: At one point in the story, he presses a button and a suitor appears for his daughter. A friend remarked that at that moment, Edward seems to have more power than the narrator. He seems to have even more control, his power is such it’s affecting the fabric of the story around him.
GK: My favorite line in the story is “All my jets are in motion.” This is not the rags-to-riches story of the immigrant. He’s already at riches.
RY: The rags-to-riches immigrant story has already been told; it is something that will cycle and repeat throughout American history. But for me, it wasn’t an interesting story. I remember a story about Fitzgerald, who was obsessed with the wealthy. He kept rhapsodizing to Hemingway about how the rich were different and Hemingway looked at him and said, “Yes. They’re richer.” And I agree—money doesn’t necessarily make you more interesting, but there was something intriguing about the possibility that accompanies wealth. When you have everything you want, then what?
GK: He can put his jets in motion to find his wayward daughter. But he can’t control Jennifer. Or Laura for that matter.
RY: Wealth can’t prevent you from having family problems. There are only so many things that money can buy. Characters with wealth don’t have the same pressure of paying bills. When you take that away, other, strange pressures emerge. And with Edward, one of the weights that he has to carry around is that he has built this empire and has to maintain it. And the weight of the family name has affected both Laura and Jennifer.
GK: I find it interesting that their name carries a weight to it that goes beyond the Korean community to such a degree that Laura has to go to Alaska to make her name.
RY: This may tie back to my utopian vision of the future and its palette.
GK: You call it utopian, but I call it dystopian.
RY: I imagine Alaska as brushed steel and glass, but there’s also the idea of exile and a certain type of person who move there as an escape. Alaska is an externalization of Laura’s wanting to escape Edward’s huge shadow by going as far away as she can while remaining in the same country.
Siblings are responsible for each other in different ways, but parents have a more unidirectional responsibility, I think. It’s easier to label someone as a good or bad parent, in other words, but the lines are more blurred when deciding whether someone is a good or bad sibling.