Photo credit: Andria Lo
From the very beginning, I knew that my literary novel, The Last Story of Mina Lee
, would open with the protagonist, Margot, a 26-year-old woman on a road trip that ends in the discovery of a body, the body of her mother, Mina, in their Los Angeles Koreatown apartment. But what I didn’t know was that within this dual narrative that alternates between the mother’s POV in the past and the daughter’s in the present, I would be writing a story that uses elements of mystery as well — a death that might be crime, a string of clues, a red herring or two. I only realized while writing a second or third draft of my book, that a story that depends so much on the past needed forward momentum and action too, so that the past and present, like in life, would be in conversation with each other.
Nothing plunges one into the demands of life like the demands of the dead. When the body is discovered, when suddenly you are responsible for this body, it is as if you are living both for yourself and the deceased. You are asked to pay their bills, close out their accounts, reckon with their belongings within a short period of time: What would my mother want me to do with all of this stuff? Donate it? Cherish it or send it to Goodwill?
You become responsible for the body, which is, in a way, the starkest reversal of roles for a parent and child. The daughter who must attend to her mother’s body must make the most permanent decisions suddenly, without the guidance or the judgement of the person whom they often wish to please the most — the parent, the deceased herself.
So how will Margot, the protagonist act? And who will she become now?
* * *
Parents are inherently mysterious to their children, aren’t they? They make choices governed by years of experience, experiences that we might not ever be able to comprehend. For instance, I often wonder what was going through my father’s mind when I was six years old and he abandoned my family and my mother, who was unemployed at the time. Had he been thinking about how we would afford to survive, continue to make mortgage payments, pay the bills without him? I don’t know and I never will.
Writing my book, plot was like punching back.
My father died while I was in my early twenties and I had never gone there
with him. I had never interrogated him about the decisions he had made through the years which had caused so much hardship for my mother, for us, even for himself. I’m not even sure if he ever knew why
either, but I do like to believe that he did what he did to survive, and to, in a way, protect us, keep us alive as well.
But in my novel, Mina’s death gives her daughter Margot the space and the courage to pry into her mother’s life, which is also a natural condition of having to go through the deceased’s belongings, to sort and figure out what one would keep or discard. As Margot begins to achieve a little more clarity around who her mother really was and who might’ve killed her, she gets closer to the most important truth of all — the truth of her self.
* * *
As a reader, one of the allures of mystery for me has always been the social issues, from racism to political corruption, explored through plot. Society itself is often a character under
investigation. The decisions and actions of the protagonist carry us through the wounds, the breakdown of systems — the lack of care and even violence of our government, in particular toward the most marginalized in our society. I think of great crime writers like Walter Mosley,
who achieved commercial success through rich, complex characters and nuanced depictions of racism, as well as groundbreaking but lesser-known books such as Nina Revoyr’s Southland
or Barbara Neely’s Blanche White
series — both deeply interrogative, original, and feminist works. The characters driving these stories are not only extraordinarily complicated and smart, but keep us bound to the page through action and plot.
But we don’t talk enough about plot in literary fiction, do we? Or about what happens next? And “doing” these days seems impossible, doesn’t it? We have been in a pandemic for how many months? And yet for this reason, plot and plotting feel more important than ever. Margot finds the body and what will she do now? What is the body, America? Is it us?
It’s not a coincidence that I wrote the majority of this novel during the current administration. Apocalypse is a pretty casual part of conversation these days. In the last few years, we started hearing the words “climate catastrophe” instead of climate change. California, where I live, was on fire. A sense of entrapment is the norm now — literally, because of the pandemic, and psychologically because of the constant bombardment of bad news in our lives. Graphic videos of institutionalized violence against Black and Latinx communities — from Minneapolis to our country’s borders — continue to surface. None of this is new, but we are facing extinction with much more urgency these days. We realize that our survival depends not only on reimagining but planning for a different world, and doing something. I think a lot of us have spent many hours wondering what we can do, how we can help. There is a constant sense not only of dread but helplessness. And through these years, I couldn’t sit back, and neither could my characters. I needed to keep moving. I needed to know that I could keep moving. And plot requires that. Writing my book, plot was like punching back.
So even though in the earlier drafts of my book, I didn’t know what the plot might look like and I didn’t know that I would be incorporating elements of mystery either, by the 10th or the 15th version (perhaps -- I lost count) that you hold in your hands, almost
nothing was accidental. The mystery of Mina’s death is also the mystery of her life, and the mystery of what her daughter Margot will be, what her daughter will do with her life now.
Isn’t that what we’re all wondering these days?
What do we do now? What happens next?
÷ ÷ ÷
Nancy Jooyoun Kim
is a graduate of UCLA and the University of Washington, Seattle. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books
, Guernica, NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing, and elsewhere. The Last Story of Mina Lee is her first novel.