U.S. imperialism ties Hawaii and Korea in Joseph Han's novel 'Nuclear Family' : It's Been a Minute We don't often think of Hawaii and the Korean peninsula as having any kind of shared history. But author Joseph Han disagrees — and he makes the case in his debut novel Nuclear Family. In this episode, Han and guest host B.A. Parker discuss the book and Han's experience as a Korean immigrant in Hawaii. And they unpack the long effects of U.S. imperialism and military presence in both places. Along the way, they get into ghosts, grandmas and Guy Fieri.

Joseph Han on U.S. imperialism, Korean ghosts and Guy Fieri

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You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm your host, B.A. Parker, and our guest today just released his beautiful debut novel that moves across two seemingly unrelated places, Hawaii and the Korean Peninsula.

JOSEPH HAN: "Nuclear Family" I would summarize as a Korean stoner ghost story and a family dramedy. It's about a Korean family in Hawaii whose plate-lunch restaurant faces backlash when Jacob gets caught attempting to cross over into North Korea through the Korean Demilitarized Zone. And so the family must struggle with questions of whether he will return and why he attempted such a crossing, not knowing that Jacob has been haunted by the ghost of his lost grandfather.

PARKER: That's writer Joseph Han. Joseph was born in Korea and immigrated with his family to Hawaii at a young age. His new book is called "Nuclear Family," and it explores how U.S. imperialism and military presence affects native peoples and their lands in the two places his family calls home.

HAN: I wanted to write a novel that shows how these histories are intimately entangled, and to show how war is ever present, not only in our physical reality or realm, but how it impacts generations.

PARKER: The novel is incredibly moving, but it's also really funny. And all throughout, Joseph draws from his own life, including his experiences with separation from loved ones and with Korean memorials and spiritual practices, as well as organized religion.

HAN: It's a story about reunion, ultimately - reunion with the folks that we have long lost, whether they are still alive or dead, and that's a big question for Korean families who are not sure if their loved ones are still with us and alive beyond the Korean DMZ and in the Northern Peninsula.

PARKER: Before we dive into the book, I want to share what Joseph said about when the story takes place. It's 2018, at a time when Hawaiian residents received an alert from the government that a ballistic missile from North Korea was expected to hit the islands.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: People ran for their lives after an alert mistakenly warned residents and visitors of an incoming ballistic missile.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And it's because of this alert - (reading) ballistic missile threat inbound...

PARKER: It was when tensions between the United States and North Korea were high following a series of nuclear and missile tests. As some of you may remember, the alert in Hawaii turned out to be false.

HAN: So the book is set in the months leading up to January 2018, and it flashes back to the entire previous year, where we catch up with Jacob as he has moved to South Korea to teach English and as he first starts experiencing the haunting of not only his grandfather, but of the spirits around him. I wanted to write about the false missile alert because I really wanted to question why Hawaii is currently occupied by the U.S. military for reasons that also explain why the Korean Peninsula is and continues to be divided.

PARKER: As Joseph in Hawaii, what was going through your mind when you got that alert?

HAN: I initially dismissed it as untrue and as an error. And when I found out that it was sent out and that it was, in fact, made in error, I was just incredibly frustrated because it made me reflect on the ways in which North Korea is always posited as a part of an axis of evil, as Bush infamously said in the early 2000s.


GEORGE W BUSH: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.

HAN: Yeah, so it made me think about how militarized our realities are and continue to be. Actually, every month, we have a Cold-War-era siren that blares.


HAN: And the state says that it's just to make sure that it works...

PARKER: Oh, God.

HAN: ...In the event that they have to use it, but their initial purpose was to warn the people of Hawaii about an imminent attack.

PARKER: You talk about this a bit through your characters, but coming from South Korea and immigrating to Hawaii, there is this strange feeling of trading one land that has been impacted by American imperialism for another...

HAN: Yes.

PARKER: ...And I wonder if you could expand upon that.

HAN: Like you mentioned, moving from one militarized context in South Korea to another militarized context in Hawaii - these two places are ultimately entangled through the way in which war has moved through Hawaii on the way to Korea in the same way that Hawaii became a stopping point for soldiers who were on their way to the Korean War.

Likewise, the island of Kahoolawe was bombed and used as target practice, and they set up practice North Korean vehicles and bombed the island some more, as a way to prepare for the Korean War. So when I talk about the Korean DMZ and visualize the fence reaching across the peninsula, I hope to link the fences that are there and around military bases in South Korea to those around the bases in Hawaii and that also likewise prevent native Hawaiian communities from returning to their ancestral lands.

PARKER: Coming up - writer Joseph Han on Korean ghosts. Stick around.

This relationship between the living and the dead...

HAN: Yeah.

PARKER: ...You've written about before, including - you wrote an essay for The New York Times. What about that idea is so compelling to you?

HAN: So much of this book is about honoring our ancestors and in the Korean ancestral rites and the practice of jesa, which I touch upon in that New York Times Magazine essay. We need to feed the dead and remember how what they have endured and survived shapes who we are. So I hope this book becomes an occasion for readers to also think about whom they are beholden to, both living or dead, and how we can move toward peace and not feel that our peace is deferred until our own deaths, as the phrase always suggests.

PARKER: Who or what do you feel beholden to, Joseph?

HAN: That's a really beautiful question. I feel beholden to my family, especially the family members whose names that I do not know. I feel beholden to the countless families who have endured separations during the Korean War. I was raised in a very Korean Christian household by my grandmother, who turned to Christianity as a form of healing. The way she taught me to understand reunion with family members is that it's always deferred until the afterlife - that it's by living a good life that we are able to reunite with our families in heaven. But as I've grown up, I wanted to ask - why must we wait to reunite with our loved ones? Why can't we have peace while we're alive, and why must we wait until death? So the book is about how the dead are not resting in peace, as we assume they are, and that they are actively asking us to see how they are not at peace. And in the Korean context, that goes back to the ongoing state of war.

PARKER: I thought of my grandmother the entire time...

HAN: Oh, wow.

PARKER: ...While reading the book. You'll understand - how it piqued my interest is my grandmother was obsessed with Guy Fieri.


HAN: Aren't we all these days?

PARKER: And the family in your book ends up on the famed Guy Fieri show, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," where Guy travels around looking for the best out-of-the-way eateries.

HAN: Yeah.

PARKER: But how has Guy Fieri become this new harbinger of the American dream?


HAN: Yeah. He's like a cultural ambassador for white America to give his stamp of approval on the mom-and-pop immigrant restaurants around the world. I wanted to write about his visit to put that into contrast with how the family has and will be appearing in media, with Jacob's attempted crossing into North Korea, and how that totally upends everything that Guy Fieri stamp has provided for the Cho family and their restaurant, and how quickly everything can fall apart, as it has for Koreans across history, for always being considered a potential spy or someone who might betray the interests of the national security of the U.S. And that only reinforces that longer history of Koreans having to turn against our brothers and sisters in the North. And so "Nuclear Family" is also about reconciling those relationships and affinities that were so present prior to the invasion of the superpowers that ultimately turned the Korean War into a civil war that continues in our imagination to this day.

PARKER: Up next - writer Joseph Han on demystifying the Demilitarized Zone. Stay with us.

Right off the bat, the book frowns on tourists who visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone - or the DMZ - which is this strip of land that divides the Korean Peninsula into North and South, but somehow it's become a really popular tourist attraction. Like, I vaguely remember an old Conan O'Brien bit...

HAN: Yeah.

PARKER: ...Where he's in a room at the DMZ, and he jokingly, like, edges towards North Korea.


CONAN O'BRIEN: And we've been told that when we cross past this table, we will be in North Korea.


STEVEN YEUN: You're in North Korea.

O'BRIEN: I'm in North Korea first.

YEUN: I'm not in - I'm still in South Korea.

O'BRIEN: Oh, congratulations.

PARKER: And it made me finally sit and think about - what do tourists actually get out of that experience? Like, do you think it's more nefarious than I'd like to think?

HAN: Yeah, I think it's for that thrill of being so close to something that is unknowable. North Korea's often ridiculed and infantilized, while also being one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. But, yeah, one thing that I always think about is - North Korea always makes the news each time it tests a ballistic missile. But I also want to wonder - what would it look like if the U.S. military made the news each time it tested its own weapons or fired weapons? And in the same way that the Korean DMZ has kind of become a tourist attraction, so, too, is Hawaii a tourist attraction that is predicated on military occupation, where the military base of Pearl Harbor is one of the main attractions for visitors.

PARKER: In the book, Jacob's dad dreams of Jacob or the family, quote, unquote, "returning" to Korea one day. I wonder if you or your family had a similar experience where you were being physically based in Hawaii, but imagining a future in Korea.

HAN: I always grew up feeling in between places - that I was neither Korean or not Korean enough. But as the late poet and professor Haunani-Kay Trask famously said, to identify as American is to identify as a colonizer.


HAN: So I had to really reconcile with what I was doing in Hawaii and what my life and my work and ultimately my writing would be devoted to. And, as I mentioned, that was to honor the places where I live and where my family comes from. I embrace being a settler here on Hawaiian land as a way to engage my responsibility to the place in which I've called home for most of my life. It's my way of understanding how that ultimately shapes the kind of futures that I struggle for and hope for through my work and through my every day.

PARKER: Joseph, thank you so much. And congrats on your book, and thanks again for joining me.

HAN: Thank you so much. This was a really lovely conversation. I'm so glad we could connect.


PARKER: Thanks again to writer Joseph Han. His debut novel, "Nuclear Family," is out now.

This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee. It was edited by Jessica Mendoza. Don't forget, this Friday, we'll be back with another episode. And for that, we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. All you got to do is record yourself and email the file to us at ibam@npr.org That's ibam@npr.org. All right, that's it for us. Thanks for listening. I'm B.A. Parker.


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