It sounds a little strange to say it, because it seems like a long time ago that I first read it, back in May of 2008 before I interviewed her at last year's BookExpo, but Nami Mun's first novel, Miles from Nowhere, is one of my favorite books of the year. It sounds even stranger to say it, since it's already out in paperback. Usually it takes at least a year for the paperback to come out, but thanks to strong interest from the academic market, Riverhead chose to release it as a paperback only eight months after the hardcover came out, in time for the fall semester. In the meantime, we included it on our Best of the Year So Far list for Fiction, and in a rather more significant honor, it was one of three books on the shortlist for the 2009 Orange Prize for New Writers.
With a story like this one, whose outlines match a few significant elements of Mun's own life (Joon, her main character, is a teenage Korean-American runaway, as Mun was), it's no surprise that Mun has been asked many times what parts of the book came from her life. And so she's written an essay for Omnivoracious that explains the background of one moment from the book that she did indeed draw from her life--not in the way you'd think, but through the stranger and more fascinating alchemy by which fact is transformed into fiction. Here she is:
Nami Mun on the Kernel of Truth
I often get asked if my book is autobiographical. This seems to me a very fair question. I did, after all, leave home for good at an early age, much like my protagonist Joon-Mee, and I've also held some of the jobs Joon does in the book.
For these reasons, I usually say that one percent of the book is based on real life experiences, and that the rest is complete fiction. But of course the real answer is much more complicated because buried deep within that 99% of fiction, there are also kernels of real life events.
Here's an example. In the chapter titled "Avon," Joon, who is pregnant, high on heroin, and seeking an abortion, walks toward the front door of a clinic. There, she is thwarted by protesters who try to give her, of all things, a hardboiled egg, saying: “God loves you. This is from God.” Joon simply floats by these "egg people," utterly confused by their presence, until a young girl, maybe five years old, successfully hands Joon an egg, telling her: "God told me you can have this."
Now, as strange as this might sound, this scene is actually based on something that happened to me while I was growing up in South Korea. I was maybe five years old then, and Korea of the early seventies was drastically different than the modern country it is now. Outhouses were the norm. Family members slept in one room. A man walked around our village selling fresh tofu from a barrel. That's the Korea I'm speaking of here.
One day, while playing in the woods alone, I noticed for the first time a small wooden cabin. Being the inquisitive little girl that I was, I went in. The single room was clean and spare, and dotted with people kneeling on mats, silently, eyes shut. A white man approached me and told me in fluent Korean that I could sit down too. Until that day, I had never heard of such a thing as God or prayer, but the man explained who this god-person was and showed me how to clasp my hands and close my eyes if I wanted to talk to him. I tried it; it didn't seem all that hard. At some point he left me alone to talk to other folks, and after half an hour or so, he came back and kneeled beside me again. To my astonishment, he handed me (you guessed it) a hardboiled egg.