In Her Debut Novel 'Miracle Creek,' Angie Kim Taps Into Themes She Knows Well
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The new novel "Miracle Creek" is a courtroom thriller. It's a world that author Angie Kim knows well. She worked as a trial lawyer at a big firm. And this book taps into other themes she's familiar with, too. Angie Kim's family came to the U.S. from South Korea when she was a child, just like the central characters in the book. And the story also centers on a group of mothers whose kids have autism. Kim has three children who've each dealt with medical issues and the batteries of tests and treatments that go along with them.
ANGIE KIM: Between all of that, I felt like these are the things that I think were in me that needed to get out because I felt the need when I was in those situations to feel like other people understood.
SHAPIRO: This is Angie Kim's first novel, And it begins with a tragedy. She writes, misfortune doesn't get sprinkled out in fair proportions. Bad things get hurled at you in clumps and batches - unmanageable and messy. "Miracle Creek" creates a frame for some of those messy threads in Angie Kim's own life, including a childhood where her parents worked from 6 a.m. to midnight every day.
KIM: I came from this environment in Korea where we were very poor. We had no running water. We had no indoor plumbing. And the three of us - my parents and me - we lived in one room. So we were very poor. And yet, at the same time, I had them with me always.
So to go from that environment to an environment where we were in this luxurious house with multiple indoor bathrooms, which was, like, magical to me - and color TVs, but at the same time losing my parents in the process for several years, it was really painful. And I think throughout my life, I felt this sort of rollercoaster between feeling so lucky to have the chance to come to America from...
SHAPIRO: And attend Harvard Law School and have high-paying jobs, right. You are the...
SHAPIRO: ...American dream success story.
KIM: Exactly. And how sometimes objectively, your life can look good or bad, so my - objectively, my life in Korea was, you know, poverty ridden and things like that. But then in the nooks and crannies, there can be moments of pure joy even when you are in that, you know, poverty stricken home.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. There is a passage where you write about one painful aspect of the immigrant experience. Will you read this? This is from page 163, about halfway through the book.
KIM: (Read) He'd expected this to happen eventually, had seen how children and parents switch places as the parents age - their minds and bodies reverting to childhood, then infancy, then non-being. But not for many years, and certainly not yet, when Mary still had a foot in childhood. In Korea, he had been the teacher. But after his move when he visited Mary's school, her principal had said welcome. Tell me; how are you liking Baltimore? Pak (ph) smiled, nodded and was deciding how to answer. Perhaps the smile-nod had been enough. When Mary said, he loves it here, running the store right by Inner Harbor, right, Dad? The rest of the meeting, Mary continued speaking for him, answering questions directed his way like a mother with her 2-year-old son.
SHAPIRO: That feels very real and very painful.
KIM: It really, really was. We all intellectually understand it's not their first language. So we understand that it doesn't mean that they're not smart for not speaking it or understanding it. And yet, somehow, language is so important in our society that it's become that way.
And I think that's the other reason why I was so drawn to autism as well because I think especially for the children on the autism spectrum who are non-verbal, it makes me think back to that time when I myself felt so frustrated knowing that I had thoughts within me and saying hey, I'm here, I have opinions, I have thoughts...
KIM: ...But not being able to articulate that and then being able to see in other people's eyes that they think less of me because I can't speak in that language.
SHAPIRO: The book includes this community of mothers whose children have autism and have varying degrees of severity. And it's this interesting dynamic where on one level, they're kind of competitive and judgmental and jealous. And on another level, they're sort of the only people who can understand what one another is going through.
SHAPIRO: Tell me about this community that you built within the framework of the book.
KIM: So I became aware of this community going through all of these, you know, speech therapies and things like that as well as the hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is something that I highlight in the book as well.
SHAPIRO: This is an alternative form of therapy that is thought - in the book at least - to perhaps help with things ranging from impotence to autism.
KIM: Exactly. And one thing that I experienced myself even though I'm not in the autism community per say, but having been in that world of parents with children with chronic illnesses, when the illness takes over your life - and I think that one thing that it does that's very unexpected for me anyway is that it's very isolating because you find that you don't have as much that you want to talk to your old friends about...
KIM: ...When they have a foot in so-called normalcy because, you know, there's both envy at play and also just a feeling of they're not going to understand what's important in my life on a day-to-day basis. So I think this community becomes very important from that perspective.
But, of course, the stakes in this world are very high because it's not just a matter of oh, is your kid going to get into this college or that, it's much more fundamental than that. What is going to happen to my child when I die?
You know, so it's very heightened emotions from that perspective. And that's one of the reasons why I decided to highlight that conflict but also closeness and intimacy.
SHAPIRO: There's one moment that I want to ask you about when a character who is one of these mothers of children with autism says - clearly feeling great shame in saying this - she says I wish my child was dead. And another woman tells her we all have our moments. But they're just moments. And they pass.
So if a tiny part of us has these thoughts a tiny part of the time, thoughts we shut out as soon as they creep in, is that so bad? Isn't that just human? People don't often hear that perspective. Why did you want to include it?
KIM: I wanted to include it because I think there is this myth of a Good Mother. And I say Good Mother, and in my head, I'm seeing Good Mother capitalized, you know.
SHAPIRO: Capital G, capital M.
KIM: Yes, exactly. And I think that when you are in this situation day in and day out, there are thoughts that creep in that are shameful. And I think that because of our society's enormous pressure on mothers to be perfect and to be self-sacrificing, that those thoughts make the mothers feel so much shame.
And one thing that I've been hearing from a lot of early readers is that when they're in this situation, they have had similar thoughts that are fleeting. And they would never say it out loud even to their closest friends or to their family members or to their spouses. But hearing a character - even though it's a fictional character in a book - say that and think that and to be able to witness that made them feel like they weren't monsters themselves.
SHAPIRO: Angie Kim, thanks so much for talking with us. And congratulations on your debut novel.
KIM: Thank you so much, Ari. It was a pleasure.
SHAPIRO: Her book is called "Miracle Creek." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.