It’s no surprise that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has captivated women across generations since the novel’s publication in 1847. Universal themes of acceptance, self-worth, budding sexuality, class divides, first romances, and maturity into adulthood, told through the eyes of Brontë’s titular character seem to particularly hit home for anyone who’s had to endure being a teenage girl. Fast forward 168 years later: The canonic novel about Jane’s coming-of-age has gotten a fresh remake.
In debut novelist Patricia Park’s iteration, Re Jane (out on Pamela Dorman Books), Jane Re is an orphaned half-Korean who finds herself looking ambitiously beyond her life in Flushing, Queens where her adoptive aunt and uncle own a modest grocery store and uphold Jane to their old-school Korean standards. Instead of following the unspoken rules, Jane pulls a fast card on them and takes up a job as an au pair in fancy-schmancy brownstone Brooklyn to a pair of married intellectuals. Thrown into the great unknown of upper-class white privilege (that is, compared to the working-class Koreatown that she was raised in), Jane embarks on a self-discovery journey that takes her across NYC borough lines, then to her birthplace of Seoul, and back again.
I spoke to author Patricia Park about her own personal journey getting Re Jane published, what it’s like to be a contemporary Asian-American writer, and the lasting legacy of Jane Eyre.
What I’m most fascinated by when talking to first- or second-generation writers is where your roots as a writer began. Mostly because I’m assuming (and you can correct me if I’m wrong) that English wasn’t your first language if you have parents who primarily spoke to you in their native language of Korean.
Yes, but I have a disclaimer: I’m the youngest of my siblings. So for my older sister, Korean was definitely her first language. She showed up to Kindergarten and could not speak a lick of English. But by the time I was born, because we are eight years apart, she and my brother would come home and and speak the English they learned from school so I was surrounded by that. But my parents would speak to us in Korean so in some ways, technically yes, Korean would have been my first language — but there’s a generational divide between my siblings and me.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew I wanted to write since I was a kid. As soon as I could write, I penned my own illustrated series called Messy Bessy. I mean, it was terrible. The storyline was so threadbare, you could poke holes through the plot. I guess I was kind of more literarily inclined and it’s different when you’re coming from an immigrant background. And I think, again, I lucked out because my older siblings were more math and science people and by the time I came out I got to pursue this artsy-fartsy thing I did.
I think writers at their core, whatever race or ethnicity or nationality or religion they are, occupy a space in the margins. It takes a certain kind of viewpoint to look at a society or group of people from an outsider status. Otherwise you’re just plugged into the matrix and known not to question anything. Growing up ethnically Korean but feeling like I don’t quite fit into the Korean community in Flushing, and definitely not fitting into mainstream American culture either put me on the cusp of many communities but not a part of any particular one. Within the Korean community of Flushing, even though I went to Bronx Science [for high school] you were expected not to ask certain types of questions in the way literary people do.
Was there any resistance from your parents when you told them you were going to pursue something creative?
They never put their foot put down when I told them I was going to major in English. They knew since I was a kid that I was more inclined towards literature so they expected [that I’d turn into a writer] but they never understood it. It’s a world so different from theirs. My dad was an engineer and they owned a grocery store. Those were the worlds that they knew. But they said, “Okay, if you wanna do that we’re not going to stop you. We’ll support you but we won’t understand what you do.”
In a way I think that’s the best kind of support you could ask for.
Yeah! I grew up with other Korean friends with parents who explicitly forbade them to pursue anything but econ or something in the sciences.
Is it weird for you knowing that you wrote this novel and your parents can’t read it?
My parents came to America in the ‘60s so as far as the spectrum of Korean-Americans go, they’re pretty Americanized. But my mom can barely read the articles that I write. And with my dad, it broke my heart about a year ago because I saw he had a John Grisham paperback and I said “You’re reading that, and you can’t even read my book?” Not that he can’t…he promises that he will. I can’t speak for them but I can only imagine it would be an uncomfortable experience for them if they read my book, like, “Ugh, please don’t there be any sex scenes.” But I will say that things changed once I published the book because all the articles I was writing up until then I think they thought I just sat down and wrote for twenty minutes and typed out 1000 words and got published. And I tell them, “You know, for each sentence I write there are nine more that I’ve stricken from the record and that’s how the revision process goes.” They don’t get the nature of writing. But once the book was published, god, the beams on their faces! You couldn’t wipe them off!
Does it bother you when you’re labeled a Korean-American writer vs. a writer who is Korean-American?
It does and it doesn’t. It cuts both ways. In an ideal world, I would love to be considered by the public as a writer, and a writer who is Korean-American. In a way I think my hyphenated being American gives me a particular slant in the topics that I address, having an authority about them, what I choose to write about, and how I view the world. At the same time it can pigeonhole you. I was speaking at some conference where there was a panel on first novels and it was all white authors. But instead I was speaking on the ethnic/immigrant literature panel which I don’t even know if that’s accurate, per se, because I’m not an immigrant. [And in the book] Jane is only technically a little bit based on a couple of months she lived in Korea and she happens to be born there. So in some ways maybe I wouldn’t have had a seat at either panel but sometimes you’re made aware. I think it can go either way and I feel both positive and negative about it.
What’s your take on covering topics of ethnicity and race in contemporary literature?
Almost 10 years ago I was explaining to an editor colleague about my novel project and he said, to paraphrase, that the reign of ethnic literature is over. That the schtick wasn’t going to be so much in the zeitgeist. It’s sad to hear that I would have been pigeonholed into that category by someone who was in the industry. But at the same time I appreciated the honest assessment. In my teens and early 20s it bothered me a lot more — I rejected this idea. I never wrote Asian-American characters. All my characters were white and I told their stories from white POVs because that was the norm. I don’t know if that was socially what I was conditioned to do, or because I was reacting against having Asian-American characters. I think it was a little bit of both. Now into my 30s I think there’s nothing wrong with broaching this subject. It’s territory that I know.
How long did it take you to write Re Jane?
It took about a decade, plus or minus a few years. I officially started grad school, my MFA program in 2008, but I’d already been writing pieces since 2003 that were tied to this novel. You could say it took seven or twelve years. Writing’s a bitch.
How did your book deal come about?
I went through all the normal channels. I found an agent whose works I admired. I have two agents — both of them represent writers that I studied with in Boston and one of them represents Ha Jin who was my mentor and thesis advisor when I was writing Re Jane in grad school. It was meaningful to have that connection. And then my agents worked through more edits with me even after I thought I’d done enough in ten years or whatever. After that they went after the publishers, gauged interest, and brokered the deal.
I heard that you first read Jane Eyre when you were 12 years old, which seems super advanced for a young kid. What was it like to revisit it as an adult?
Yeah, I was in the 6th grade. [Author] Margot Livesey has her own retelling of Jane Eyre called The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and Margot said she read Jane Eyre when she was nine! When you’re reading it that young you have different ideas of everything. But it was the first time I read about a girl who was not conventionally beautiful; she was “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” that’s what she called herself. When you’re young and watching Disney movies and facing conventionally beautiful protagonists, that becomes your idea of what makes a heroine. And enter Jane Eyre and she tosses everything up in the air and I love her for that. For me, all those insecurities as a pre-teen, of not feeling beautiful or attractive, and not fitting into your ethnic group or mainstream America, I also felt “poor, obscure, plain, and little.” So it was hugely heartening and inspirational to read that and reveal Jane to be the ultimate underdog.
Also, I had more and more ambivalent feelings of Rochester! Others will say it’s the greatest love affair there ever was but I thought there was a lot of cruelty he displayed to Jane trying to make her his wife when he failed to tell her he already had one locked up in the attic. And as I read it more as an adult I think, Oh maybe there’s more nuance there. Also as an adult I noticed that the novel is pretty funny — there are such moments of humor that completely went over my head as a twelve year old.
Do you feel as though, similar to your character of Jane Re, that you’ve figured out your identity after writing this book?
When people ask me what I do now, there’s a hiccup: “I’m a writer, I mean, a novelist.” And I have to remind myself that I can own those terms and I have full rights to them — although who knows, maybe novelists who’ve written ten books could say I have no right to call myself a novelist! I wish I could say that now that I have my first book published that things are peachy keen but it’s really a series of hurdles. It opens up another set of questions like, What’s the next thing? It’s like seeing doors with question marks on them and you don’t know what’s behind them. The road is just beginning. But that’s just life, right? It keeps us on our toes.