Saturday, April 1, 2017

Q&A with Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, photo by Kristyn Stroble
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is the author of the new memoir Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life. It recounts her experience of having a stroke at age 33. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. 

Q: Before you wrote this book, you wrote an essay for BuzzFeed about your stroke. Why did you decide to write the essay, and how did that develop into the book?

A: I had a couple horrible years in 2013 and 2014. A lot went wrong, but mostly, I had postpartum depression and a destroyed marriage.

Also, in 2014, BuzzFeed asked me to write an essay about my stroke. I was fortunate enough to be paired with Sandra Allen, whose editorial guidance provided the sanctuary I so badly needed as a person and a writer to write an essay that has, in hindsight, become the pivot point of my writing career.

It wasn’t until I was going through an upheaval that brought me to my knees that I could look back on the stroke and see it with new meaning.

I channeled all the sadness and hope I felt then into my telling of the stroke. I gained new understanding of myself, my life, and the place my stroke had in my story through writing the essay. When I subbed it to my editor, I thought no one would read the thing—and then my essay went viral. It’s an understatement to say that I was in disbelief.

Ultimately, agents and editors reached out to me opening dialogue—which then turned into a two-book deal with Ecco/Harper Collins, the first of which (Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember) is based on that very essay. The second book is my novel, The Golem of Seoul.

Q: This book deals with some very difficult topics. What was it like to write about them, especially given your struggles with short-term memory loss in the wake of your stroke?

A: In 2014, I had an infant and was recovering from postpartum depression. My husband left me for someone else. And I began writing Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember.

I was going through a darkness so intense that the stroke felt like a light in my life. All the other pain, because of the age of the pain, felt like paper cuts next to the new pain.

Memory is sometimes ignited by emotion. I could remember rape and abuse and depression and sickness because they were linked by pain and suffering.

Even though I had short-term memory problems, the one thing I was able to retain were emotional memories. And so I returned to them over and over in my journals and also in the telling of my recovery.

Q: How would you compare yourself today with the person you were before your stroke?

A: The person I used to be is a person who planned everything to the most intricate detail. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. I still plan, but not to that extent—I’m just too tired, or maybe I’m wiser. Sometimes, honestly, I can’t tell. Maybe wisdom comes from an exhaustion that forces my mind to take lessons from what my body will not undertake.

Also, the person I was before the stroke took no as a viable answer. And I just don’t do that anymore. I go around the no. Life is too short.

Q: How was the book's title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: The original title of my memoir was Whole. My editor asked me to pick another title, because she felt it did not really encompass the entire experience of the memoir. So I made a list of titles as they came to mind, from very bad ones to ones I thought might be acceptable.

Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember popped into my head because I felt like that was the challenge laid before me. And that was by far everyone’s first choice.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m working on my novel, The Golem of Seoul. It is in many ways the sequel to the memoir—because this is the very novel to which I strived to return while in recovery. It tells the story of two Korean American immigrants in 1972 New York City who make a golem to help them find a lost family member. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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