As the kick-off event to Shore Lit’s spring season, author Jung Yun will be discussing her acclaimed novel O Beautiful novel at the Academy Art Museum on Thursday, February 9. The book interrogates the North Dakota oil boom through the lens of Elinor Hanson, a half-Korean, half-caucasian journalist who returns home to write about the changes the industry has brought to the Bakken region of the state. Here, she chats with Shore Lit Founder Kerry Folan about beauty, rejection, and belonging.
Kerry Folan: Beauty is a complicated concept in this novel. For example, Elinor’s beauty has benefitted her, allowing her to support herself as a model, but she also gets plenty of unwanted attention. The title phrase, too, is complicated—an elegy for a natural landscape being destroyed by the oil industry. It also calls to mind the contradictions inherent in the beauty of the “American Dream.” Can you talk a bit about the title, and why you chose it?
Jung Yun: I liked the grandness of a title that evokes the first line of “America the Beautiful,” and I also liked the song’s origins as a poem written by a woman. Thematically speaking, beauty operates on a few different levels in this novel. For starters, there’s Elinor’s beauty, which helped launch her first career but is proving to be a hindrance as she embarks on her second. Then there’s the physical beauty of western North Dakota, a region that Theodore Roosevelt felt in love with when he first visited, and there’s also the emotional allure/beauty of the American Dream that brought so many men to the state during the Bakken oil boom in search of their fortunes. But beneath all these different forms of beauty are deeper truths, damage, and ugliness that aren’t plainly visible from the surface.
KF: I really loved Elinor as a narrator—in part because she’s the rare heroine without a love story (at least not one within the timeframe of the book). Was that a conscious decision on your part?
JY: Very much so. There’s a scene in which Elinor reunites with her older sister, Maren, who asks if she’s dating someone. Elinor is pretty annoyed by the question because she’s in a stage in her life—early 40s, newly minted graduate degree, trying to carve out her second act in life as a writer—when she’s very focused on future. But Maren treats this decision like a character flaw, just one more example of her younger sister being selfish about her own needs rather than thinking about others.
It’s worth mentioning that Elinor’s capacity to love and be loved was profoundly damaged by her mother, who abandoned her and Maren when they were young girls, so Elinor doesn’t place a very high value on love—familial or romantic.
KF: Though you and Elinor have a few things in common—you’re both women in your forties from North Dakota with Korean heritage—your lives are actually quite different. Were you able to borrow anything for Elinor’s character from your own experience in North Dakota?
JY: A sense of surprise about how much the area had changed, certainly. I grew up in eastern North Dakota, but the Bakken Shale Formation is on the western side of the state, so my memories of that area were frozen in time from occasional trips when I was very young. Once I started doing the research for this novel and spending time in the Bakken as an adult, I was really surprised by the population density and development spurred on by the boom. I think that was helpful to me in crafting Elinor’s emotional state upon returning home, especially in terms of understanding the types of things that someone in her situation might notice that others would simply pass by.
KF: The oil boom in Avery, North Dakota, is a perfect storm of race, class, and gender conflict, and the novel engages all three of these live-wire threads. Was it difficult to balance the weight of each in the story without allowing one to take over?
JY: I was actually trying to create a sense of imbalance and unpredictability, mimicking the way these issues come up in real life—sometimes alone and sometimes overlapping. For example, there are moments when Elinor feels like she’s being treated in a particular way because she’s a woman, and other moments when it seems clear that what people are seeing is an Asian American or someone they perceive as a “foreigner.”
Then there are times when her gender is racialized and people make certain assumptions about her based on the fact that she’s a woman of Asian American descent. More so than balancing the weight of the issues, I really wanted to depict what the strain of carrying such weight might do to a human being.
KF: I read this as a story about the complexity of belonging. Elinor is a character who doesn’t quite “belong” anywhere, and there’s all kinds of tension around who belongs in Avery, who the land “belongs” to, even who the story belongs to. As the novel points out, the desire to feel that we are a part of something is innate—and, yet, that natural impulse can turn destructive, even dangerous or violent. Is that a fair read? If so, where does the novel land in its interrogation of that theme?
JY: We aren’t so different, all of us. I think human beings generally want to belong, whether we’re talking about belonging to families or communities or larger identities like “Americans.” Some people have it easier than others to find that sense of belonging, which has a lot to do with power and who has the power to bestow acceptance upon others (or withhold it). And the consequences of rejection—such as the kind that Elinor has experienced or the kind that the oil workers in this story are actively experiencing—can result in deep feelings of anger, resentment, and shame that sometimes manifest in unpredictable ways.
Author Jung Yun will be in conversation with Shore Lit Founder Kerry Folan at the Academy Art Museum at 6:00 on Thursday, February 9. Tickets are free but reservations are requested.
Kerry Folan is a assistant professor of creating writing at George Mason University . Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Southeast Review, the Washington Post, Glamour.com, Hippocampus, The Toast, Literary Hub, and River Teeth. She is the founder and director of Shore Lit, an organization that aims to bring literary events to the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland.