THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim is an emotional and moving tale that illustrates the realities and experiences of being an immigrant in America. This journey is told by the alternating voices of a Korean mother, during her first year in Los Angeles and by her daughter in present day.
Margot Lee cannot figure out why her mother, Mina Lee, is not returning her calls. At least until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA and finds that her mother has died; possibly suspiciously. This event has Margot digging through her single mother’s past as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she really knew about her mother. Entwined with Margot’s search is the telling of Mina’s story of her first year in the US as she travels through the promises and perils of the American myth of reinventing oneself. Barely supporting herself, stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, Mina unexpectedly finds love with another Korean worker. Events occurring at the store accidently puts into motion events that have consequences for years to come and leading up to the truth of what actually happened to cause her death. After years of struggling to understand each other, Margot is finally getting the opportunity to truly learn who her mother really is and possibly better understand her.
Ms. Kim wrote an emotional and powerful tale in her debut novel that should not be missed. She provided a tale exploring identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong. I definitely recommend The Last Story of Mina Lee.
Excerpt of THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Margot’s final conversation with her mother had seemed so uneventful, so ordinary—another choppy bilingual plod. Half-understandable.
Business was slow again today. Even all the Korean businesses downtown are closing.
What did you eat for dinner?
Everyone is going to Target now, the big stores. It costs the same and it’s cleaner.
Margot imagined her brain like a fishing net with the loosest of weaves as she watched the Korean words swim through. She had tried to tighten the net before, but learning another language, especially her mother’s tongue, frustrated her. Why didn’t her mother learn to speak English?
But that last conversation was two weeks ago. And for the past few days, Margot had only one question on her mind: Why didn’t her mother pick up the phone?
Since Margot and Miguel had left Portland, the rain had been relentless and wild. Through the windshield wipers and fogged glass, they only caught glimpses of fast food and gas stations, motels and billboards, premium outlets and “family fun centers.” Margot’s hands were stiff from clenching the steering wheel. The rain had started an hour ago, right after they had made a pit stop in north Portland to see the famous 31-foot-tall Paul Bunyan sculpture with his cartoonish smile, red-and-white checkered shirt on his barrel chest, his hands resting on top of an upright axe.
Earlier that morning, Margot had stuffed a backpack and a duffel with a week’s worth of clothes, picked up Miguel from his apartment with two large suitcases and three houseplants, and merged onto the freeway away from Seattle, driving Miguel down for his big move to Los Angeles. They’d stop in Daly City to spend the night at Miguel’s family’s house, which would take about ten hours to get to. At the start of the drive, Miguel had been lively, singing along to “Don’t Stop Believing” and joking about all the men he would meet in LA. But now, almost four hours into the road trip, Miguel was silent with his forehead in his palm, taking deep breaths as if trying hard not to think about anything at all.
“Everything okay?” Margot asked.
“I’m just thinking about my parents.”
“What about your parents?” Margot lowered her foot on the gas.
“Lying to them,” he said.
“About why you’re really moving down to LA?” The rain splashed down like a waterfall. Miguel had taken a job offer at an accounting firm in a location more conducive to his dreams of working in theatre. For the last two years, they had worked together at a nonprofit for people with disabilities. She was as an administrative assistant; he crunched numbers in finance. She would miss him, but she was happy for him, too. He would finally finish writing his play while honing his acting skills with classes at night. “The theatre classes? The plays that you write? The Grindr account?”
“About it all.”
“Do you ever think about telling them?”
“All the time.” He sighed. “But it’s easier this way.”
“Do you think they know?”
“Of course, they do. But…” He brushed his hand through his hair. “Sometimes, agreeing to the same lie is what makes a family family, Margot.”
“Ha. Then what do you call people who agree to the same truth?”
She laughed, having expected him to say friends. Gripping the wheel, she caught the sign for Salem.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” she asked.
“I’m okay. We’re gonna stop in Eugene, right?”
“Yeah, should be another hour or so.”
“I’m kinda hungry.” Rustling in his pack on the floor of the backseat, he found an apple, which he rubbed clean with the edge of his shirt. “Want a bite?”
“Not now, thanks.”
His teeth crunched into the flesh, the scent cracking through the odor of wet floor mats and warm vents. Margot was struck by a memory of her mother’s serene face—the downcast eyes above the high cheekbones, the relaxed mouth—as she peeled an apple with a paring knife, conjuring a continuous ribbon of skin. The resulting spiral held the shape of its former life. As a child, Margot would delicately hold this peel like a small animal in the palm of her hand, this proof that her mother could be a kind of magician, an artist who told an origin story through scraps—this is the skin of a fruit, this is its smell, this is its color.
“I hope the weather clears up soon,” Miguel said, interrupting the memory. “It gets pretty narrow and windy for a while. There’s a scary point right at the top of California where the road is just zigzagging while you’re looking down cliffs. It’s like a test to see if you can stay on the road.”
“Oh, God,” Margot said. “Let’s not talk about it anymore.”
As she refocused on the rain-slicked road, the blurred lights, the yellow and white lines like yarn unspooling, Margot thought about her mother who hated driving on the freeway, her mother who no longer answered the phone. Where was her mother?
The windshield wipers squeaked, clearing sheets of rain.
“What about you?” Miguel asked. “Looking forward to seeing your mom? When did you see her last?”
Margot’s stomach dropped. “Last Christmas,” she said. “Actually, I’ve been trying to call her for the past few days to let her know, to let her know that we would be coming down.” Gripping the wheel, she sighed. “I didn’t really want to tell her because I wanted this to be a fun trip, but then I felt bad, so…”
“Is everything okay?”
“She hasn’t been answering the phone.”
“Hmm.” He shifted in his seat. “Maybe her phone battery died?”
“It’s a landline. Both landlines—at work and at home.”
“Maybe she’s on vacation?”
“She never goes on vacation.” The windshield fogged, revealing smudges and streaks, past attempts to wipe it clean. She cranked up the air inside.
“Hasn’t she ever wanted to go somewhere?”
“Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. I don’t know why, but she’s always wanted to go there.”
“It’s a big ol’ crack in the ground, Margot. Why wouldn’t she want to see it? It’s God’s crack.”
“It’s some kind of Korean immigrant rite of passage. National Parks, reasons to wear hats and khaki, stuff like that. It’s like America America.”
“I bet she’s okay,” Miguel said. “Maybe she’s just been busier than usual, right? We’ll be there soon enough.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll call her again when we stop.”
A heaviness expanded inside her chest. She fidgeted with the radio dial but caught only static with an occasional glimpse of a commercial or radio announcer’s voice.
Her mother was fine. They would all be fine.
With Miguel in LA, she’d have more reasons to visit now.
The road lay before them like a peel of fruit. The windshield wipers hacked away the rivers that fell from the sky.
Excerpted from The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim, Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Jooyoun Kim Published by Park Row Books
NANCY JOOYOUN KIM Q & A
What was your inspiration for writing The Last Story of Mina Lee?
I wanted to write a story that I had never seen before, a story that explored the complicated interdependence between an immigrant mother and her American-born daughter, the ways in which they love, need, and sometimes resent each other. For example, as the only child of an immigrant single mother, the protagonist Margot loves her mother more than anyone in this world. She needs her. But at the same time, she resents how, growing up, she has to work at her mother’s store over the weekends and during school breaks. She resents how her mother refuses to talk much about her past, and Margot’s father, her origins as well. I also wanted to write a story that centered women, in particular marginalized women, and show how they not only live but lead extraordinary lives. Although this novel begins with a tragic ending for Mina, she is nonetheless very much the hero and the heart of this story—a woman who took risks and created change, a life for herself in surprising and unconventional ways.
Did you have to do any research during the writing process?
I didn’t need to do much research while writing this book because I’m very much a product of the communities that I write about. I might’ve asked friends or people I know some questions about Korea and Korean culture, but it was all very casual.
Korean food is mentioned throughout your book. Was this done intentionally?
As Margot tries to figure out what happened to her mother on the night of her death, she experiences Koreatown as an adult for the first time in her life. As she goes out to eat at Korean restaurants with her friend Miguel and spends time in her mother’s apartment by herself, Margot realizes that food was not only a way for her mother to show love; it was a way of teaching Margot how to nourish and take care of herself in a world that is often harsh.
How important is Korean food in your life and what is your favorite Korean meal?
I always say that “Korean food” is just “food” for me. It’s very much a part of who I am, and was perhaps, as it is in many immigrant families, one of the principal ways my mother showed me love. I don’t have a favorite Korean dish because I love so many of them depending on the occasion, the weather, the mood. But some of my favorite banchan (side dishes) include yangnyeom gejang (spicy raw crab), myeongnanjeot (fermented pollock roe), and kkaenip (pickled perilla leaves). All I need is one of those and a bowl of rice.
What was your favourite food-related scene to write and why?
There are so many food scenes, moments, and images that I love in this book. But the most memorable food scene for me is about three-quarters through the novel—after Mina and her friend Mrs. Baek reunite after over twenty years apart. They go to a restaurant and have soondubu jjigae together. I love the delicacy, the tenderness of this scene, how each of these two characters is attempting to rekindle and navigate this friendship with the guardedness that comes from being hurt and heartbroken so much. Mina also realizes that despite how strong and supportive Mrs. Baek has always been, Mrs. Baek needs Mina and friendship just like everyone else. Mina played and can play a large role in Mrs. Baek’s life and her survival too.
Which character in the book do you relate to the most?
I like to believe that I am both all of my characters and none of them at the same time. But I’m closest to Margot in age and certainly I know the challenges of being the daughter of an immigrant single mother. I also know how difficult it can be in your twenties. That was actually a terrible time for me because I found myself being pulled, or pulling myself in so many different directions. But I had to make all those mistakes to get to where I am today. I’m glad that decade is over!
Even though the Korean War technically ended in 1953, major turmoil still exists today between the North and South. How has Korea’s past and present situation directly impacted your life?
Both sides of my family come from what is now North Korea. As children, my parents fled the north during the war. So at the age of 13, my father left his home in advance of his mother and siblings, not knowing that a permanent border would forever keep them apart. For his entire life, he never knew what had happened to them, if they survived the war or if they continued to live behind the border, a border that continues to divide not only a culture and country but real families whose lives and identities have been shattered.
There were so many painful things, worries and regrets, traumas, that my father and mother did not talk about when I was growing up. Silence was a form of protecting us, and themselves. But the silences in my family also left me with a lack of understanding of my parents, just as Margot never quite knows her mother’s story, even if the reader does. It’s these silences that I’m attempting to capture and write through and out of in my work. I think one of the beauties of fiction is how it can bring together the impossible in one story. For me, the conversations that would and could never happen in my life happen in this book.
“Movement for her mother was essentially an experience of loss that Margot, American-born, could never imagine. And Yet, Margot herself had inherited the same anxiety about driving fast, particularly on freeways. She thought too much about the experience of speed itself, its danger, rather than getting somewhere at last.” Can you speak to the experience of movement for both women?
What I really love about the structure, the dual narrative, of this book is that we experience how both Margot and Mina, are at turning points in their lives; they are both thrust into new narratives about themselves, new ways of being alive. For example, the book begins for Margot with the death of her mother which forces her to question who she is without her. (Who is Margot if she is not someone’s daughter?) While the book begins for Mina when she enters the United States in order to start a new life after the death of her husband and daughter. (Who is she now without being someone’s mother or wife?) Both of them are in mourning, mourning the dead as well as their past identities and lives. They are both terrifyingly unmoored and free to reinvent themselves. What story should they each tell now about who they are? So movement is very much tied to identity in this book.
Why did Margot resist embracing her past so much?
It’s important to note that Margot never experiences the Mina that we, as readers, see, know, and love throughout this book. Margot never witnesses her mother fall in love. She never knows the full story of why she had fled to America. Although her mother clearly makes so many sacrifices for her, Margot views her mother as often harsh, secretive, inaccessible. For this reason and in the context of a society that often doesn’t fully embrace other cultures, as an adult, Margot resents her mother; she is ashamed of what her mother represents because she has internalized some of the mainstream views, even xenophobia and racism against her. She judges her mother by the standards of the larger culture: “Why didn’t her mother learn to speak English?” Of course, this is only until her mother dies, which opens up the opportunity to finally get to know her mother, not only as a mother, but as a woman with an extraordinary story and life.
What is the number one take away you want your readers to leave with after finishing Mina’s story?
I hope this books sparks conversation about the mysteries, the secrets, and the silences within our own families. I hope this story encourages readers to ask the questions they’ve always wanted ask of the people whom they love the most. I hope we risk discomfort more.
At one point, she said that “the fear of hell kept her alive.” How much did religion play a role in Mina’s life?
Religion and places of worship play an important role in immigrant communities, often serving as resource centers where people find each other and themselves. For Mina, church is a place where she can simply insert herself every Sunday and feel as if she belongs through sermon and song. For the most part, she doesn’t involve herself too much socially in the church, but she finds solace once in a week in the crowd.
Do you have plans for another novel? If so, can you share with us any details?
Yes, of course! I’m writing my next novel which also takes place near Los Angeles’ Koreatown and centers on the life of a Korean American family still grieving the mysterious death of the mother five years ago. Since I live in California where the housing crisis is very real and ongoing, the book explores issues of gentrification and homelessness through the lens of an immigrant family, struggling in their own ways to belong.
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Reviewer: Eileen is a retired high school teacher who has loved reading all of her life and goes everywhere with a book. She enjoys reading Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance, Romantic Comedy, Romantic Suspense, Women’s Literature, YA, NA, Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Cozy Mysteries. She likes strong heroines, hot heroes and a story that draws her in, not letting go until the last page is turned. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, pup, and near her four adult children.