For Koreans, the word skinship translates to a kind of pure, tender physical intimacy, the kind embodied in a mother’s loving touch or the way two schoolkids hold hands. It’s a portmanteau of words borrowed from the English language (skin and kinship) that Koreans have co-opted to describe an essential quality of the way we live in this moment. That sense of leaning on someone—and the toll that caring so deeply for another can exact on one’s life—runs strongly through Yoon Choi’s stirring debut story collection, Skinship (Knopf, Aug. 17). Focused closely on the complex dynamics within Korean American families, Choi’s stories are “both closely observed and expansive, a feat of narrative engineering that places [Choi] next to Alice Munro,” according to our starred review. I spoke with Choi over Zoom from her home in California; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your process in working on this book? How did these stories come together?
The first story that I wrote for the collection was “The Art of Losing.” I had gone to a creative writing program [at Johns Hopkins] much earlier on in life, right after college, and then I got married, had kids, and I stepped away from writing for a while [before I was ready to write this story].
I used “The Art of Losing” to apply to the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program at Stanford—as soon as I sent it off, I was like, “Oh my God, I made a typo on the first page.” But I lucked out. I wrote most of the collection during those two years, when I had deadline after deadline, which helped me to not obsess over anything and just get the stories out.
When you were getting your master’s in creative writing, did you find the kernels of the stories that would end up in Skinship?
No. I became a different person and a different writer after leaving Hopkins. Back then, I was really young, and I wasn’t invested in writing about the Korean American experience. I used to sit around trying to figure out “How can I write a more European story? How can I write a more classically American story?” There’s been a huge cultural shift since then, but at the time, that was all that I saw. That was my reading experience, and I wanted to write books like the ones I had read and loved. I think particularly of Asian writers who grew up loving books but not seeing very many books written by Asian writers on our bookshelves. It’s not an uncommon experience.
Our review describes each of your stories as “luxuriously long.” What do you do to let a short story breathe?
As a mom, my life is full of distractions. I almost never have the time or the attention span to finish reading a novel these days. On the other hand, [while reading] the classic short story, that 11- to 13-page length, I felt like as soon as I was in a story with a character, I wanted something more. When I was writing the stories in Skinship, I really enjoyed the sense of being in a character’s life without the commitment of a novel. I was really interested in the idea of time and how it plays into ideas of plot.
Chang-rae Lee was one of my mentors at Stanford, and I remember having a conversation with him about the perfect length [for a short story]. He drinks a lot of nice wine, and I’m a wine drinker—not of wines that are quite as nice—and the formulation we came up with was “a glass-of-wine story.” As you read a 30-page story, that’s about as long as it takes to have a nice glass of wine.
What sparks a story for you?
For me, it’s a gesture or a character. By the time I was writing toward the middle and the end of the collection, I did want a certain diversity [in my characters]. I knew I couldn’t write a complete catalog of the Asian American experience, but there were pieces I wanted to touch upon.
I was conscious of the ages of my protagonists. To counterbalance the much older narrator that I had in “The Art of Losing,” I wanted to have a much younger narrator in school [in “A Map of the Simplified World”]. There are certain kinds of ideas that are unique to the Korean American experience that I wanted to get in there—for example, the fact that it’s not that uncommon for one parent to be living in Korea and one parent [to be] living in America with the kids [as in the title story, “Skinship”]. Another thing I wanted to write about was the way that different types of racism play out among younger kids [in “A Map of the Simplified World”] as they collide with different cultures. That collision is kind of how kids learn to interact with one another.
I noticed a lot of diversity among your Korean American characters. There’s a queer character, and there’s an adopted character, which I don’t see often from writers who aren’t adopted. How did you work to get those voices right?
I made a very conscious choice to focus on Korean American characters. I really wanted to write for a Korean American reader first. The stories had to work on our level. I felt a sense of, This is my small contribution to the giant bookshelf [that I imagine]. In writing these characters, I wanted to get the details and the names right and put them out [into literature].
“First Language” [which is told in the first person from a Korean immigrant mother’s point of view] is probably the voiciest story. I heard her voice a lot in my head. The story kind of clicked for me when I was driving my daughter and her best friend in my car and listening to their conversation. Her best friend’s mom isn’t a native English speaker, and she told my daughter, “When my mom texts your mom, she has me write the texts so she doesn’t make a mistake.” The pain of insecurity in a language where you don’t feel comfortable sending a text to another Korean American mom—that stuck with me.
How did you land on the title?
I wanted to call the collection Song and Song [the title of one of the short stories], but one of my writer friends who’s much more savvy than I am loved Skinship, and so did my agent.
My mom used the word skinship a lot to describe the affection that a mom has for a kid, although it’s not limited to the bonds within the family. I knew it hooked on some of the themes of the collection.
The word skinship really challenges stereotypes about Korean Americans, that we’re “stoic” or “unfeeling.”
Koreans are deeply emotional people. In Korea, there’s a sense of not only physical affection, but also national affection. There’s something really lovely about that.
Hannah Bae is a Korean American writer, journalist, and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.