After emigrating with her family from Seoul, South Korea to New York City when she was only eight-years-old, Nami Mun learned that life involved taking risks. When she reached adolescence, she ran away from home and held down a number of odd jobs, including selling Avon door to door, coordinating activities for a nursing home, and criminal investigations, just to name a few. But it was her true calling of writing that both inspired her and offered her comfort, and at the age of 39, Mun published her first novel, Miles From Nowhere, to critical acclaim.
She has extensive accolades from the literary community, including the coveted Pushcart Prize and Whiting Award, but fame hasn’t changed her. Mun is an incredibly kind person whose favorite thing to do after a long day of work is to eat and sleep as though she were getting paid to do so. In her free time she volunteers at the National Runaway Safeline, a crisis hotline center, and this year she’ll participate in fundraising events for non-profit organizations, such as The Night Ministry, Neighborhood Writing Alliance, and Literature for All of Us.
As soon as she sees me, she gives me a warm embrace. I’ve just come in from a long walk down Michigan Avenue. The wind is howling on the lake and Grant Park is glazed in a heavy sheath of frost. By nightfall, the barometric pressure will descend to subzero temperatures, but Mun’s incandescent presence makes me forget all about the Chicago winter.
We sit at the nearly desolate Starbucks within the Blackstone Hotel. The café is kiddy corner to the Columbia College Chicago campus where Mun works as an assistant professor in the Fiction Writing department.
“Can I get you a coffee?” she says, her brown eyes gleaming. “It’s my treat!” Her infectious joy makes it hard for me to turn down her offer, and a few moments later she returns carrying a small café au lait.
For some time we talk off the record, and she gives me advice about an issue I’ve been turning over in my head. The vapors from her peppermint tea linger in the recycled air of the café as the baristas steam milk in the background. After we’ve caught up on each other’s lives, we begin the interview. Mun straightens her spine and leans forward to the recorder. She sweeps away her obsidian bangs from her eyes, and pursing her lips, she begins to tell her story.
She remembers clearly the moment she wanted to be a writer:
“When I was a runaway, during my teenage years in New York, I’d just hop trains and ride them all day long so I could keep warm during bad weather. And I’d write in my journal. I remember one day this woman sat down next to me, really close, and soon I realized she was reading over my shoulder. I knew this because I’d write a sentence and she’d make tiny sounds—of either disapproval or dismay. And the more I wrote, the more demonstrative she became, saying things outright and shaking her head. What I remember most is how she never addressed me directly. I don’t think she even saw me, really. Her eyes stayed on my journal and I got the sense that even if I didn’t exist in her world, my words could. I was so lonely at the time. When you live on the margins, people tend to not see you, so to have even this kind of connection with someone, I don’t know, it just felt very powerful. Decades later, I’ve come to realize that this is the kind of connection I want with my readers.”
The book that changed her writing life was Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. “I distinctly remember finishing the last page of that book, putting the book down, and thinking, I can never go back to the way I wrote before, that trying to write like some writer who lived in a dark castle and wrote with a quill was not doing me any favors. Last Exit showed me that I could mine the experiences of my own life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and hammer them into something I could share with others. Something more true than the experiences themselves.
So when does she write best? “Mornings.” she says decisively. “Once you start responding to emails, making phone calls, paying bills, etc., the day turns dirty. It’s tough putting life on hold for those few minty fresh hours, but I try.”
Like most writers, Mun faces challenges when she sits down to write. “When I work on a rough draft, I have to get out of my own way. It takes a lot of effort to try and write honestly and authentically about my characters and their situations. And often I can feel my brain competing with my heart and both of them duking it out with my stomach. Only after these battles do I find my groove, and by that I mean that my mind and body have quieted down enough to where I can finally hear my characters.”
“I’m my own worst critic,” she says when I ask her about who she relies one for an honest opinion. “I’m lucky to have a husband-writer who has high expectations. He also has a high BS detector, thankfully. Mine’s high as well, but I think his goes to eleven.”
All in all, her writing is an intense process with anywhere between 30 to 50 drafts (if not more) before anything feels right. She explains, “My first 10 or so drafts involve just trying to get all of the story down. I’m a minimalist at heart so I have to push myself to write more, explore more, and open up the story to where it can breathe. The next 10 drafts, I suppose I’m looking for characters to say or do something that surprise even me. After this, I clean my house for about a week. Then when I return to the piece, the final drafts are mostly likely dedicated to cutting, compressing, and dirtying up the story so it doesn’t feel too clean and compressed.”
She appreciates author Jim Shepherd’s advice when it comes to the weird parts in her prose. “He’s one of my favorite writers. He also happens to be an amazing teacher. I was fortunate enough to work with him at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference where he asked the students to “investigate the weirdness” in their work. Essentially, if you have a weird sentence, or if your character does something even slightly out of the blue, investigate it. Dig deep to understand the whys. A good way to find the buried gems in your work, I think.”
Mun says that emigrating from Seoul to the Bronx turned her world completely upside down. “It was fascinating—moving from a house with a water pump and an outhouse at the bottom of a mountain to an apartment in the Bronx, where I took two buses to go to my second grade class taught by woman with yellow hair. The move was obviously a huge change, and for me, it was a change for the better. America is an exciting, warm, strange, cruel, ignorant, innovative, beautiful, and beautifully confounding place. It has given me a language and a subject matter I want explore, and the people and the government (even with all of its faults) have given me opportunities, time and time again. For that, I’m very grateful.”
Her resume, which boasts a large number of odd jobs, is what lends honesty and realism to her characters and dialogue. “I think those odd jobs gave me an ear for dialogue and voice, and allowed me entrance into a diverse range of human motivations and desires. And what I’ve walked away with is what people have known years: that a homeless heroin addict might yearn for the same thing as, say, a wealthy heart surgeon. How they go about getting what they want might differ, but down to the core, human beings are essentially a long continuum of desires more alike than not.
The café begins to congregate with Mun’s colleagues from Columbia. In a matter of moments at 624 S. Michigan Avenue on the 12th floor, a faculty meeting will take place. Mun rises from her chair and gives me another hug. It is very rare that you meet a person who’s had as many experiences as Nami Mun has, who isn’t bitter or pretentious. Mun has seen the world from so many different angles, it’s inexorable to imagine all the beauty and pain, but it has taught her how to not only be an amazing writer, but an incredible person also. As she buttons up her coat and throws her scarf around her neck, she smiles back at me once more before joining her fellow faculty members, one thing is certain: the world is very lucky to have Nami Mun in it.
Nami Mun grew up in Seoul, South Korea and Bronx, New York. For her first book, Miles from Nowhere, she received a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers and the Asian American Literary Award. Miles From Nowhere was selected as Editors’ Choice and Top Ten First Novels by Booklist; Best Fiction of 2009 So Far by Amazon; and as an Indie Next Pick. Chicago Magazine named her Best New Novelist of 2009.
Previously, Nami has worked as an Avon Lady, a street vendor, a photojournalist, a waitress, an activities coordinator for a nursing home, and a criminal defense investigator. After earning a GED, she went on to get a BA in English from UC Berkeley, an MFA from University of Michigan, and has garnered fellowships from organizations such as Yaddo, MacDowell, Bread Loaf, and Tin House. In 2011 she became a US Delegate for a China/America Writers Exchange in Beijing and Chicago. Her stories have been published in Granta, Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in Chicago.
Nami Mun is incredibly passionate about the organizations she volunteers at. Below are the links to each organization’s website, I hope you’ll all take the time to look at them.
The Night Ministry: http://www.thenightministry.org,
Literature for All Of Us: http://www.literatureforallofus.org
Neighborhood Writing Alliance: http://www.jot.org/
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