Killing People as a Growth Experience, Part 1 — Why Kim Oh’s the Way She Is

I’ve been busy with another book for the last several weeks, so I’ve put off thinking about my big new project,The Kim Oh Thrillers. But in my brief off moments, I have mulled over something that readers have asked me about. Specifically, why did I make my protagonist Kim Korean? Or more specifically, Korean-American?

That strikes me as a good question, since I’m so obviously not Korean in any sense, other than whatever have been the effects of listening to a lot of Korean pop music (current fave: 2NE1’s “Ugly,” of which I really should do a more elaborate exegesis — I think it’s that important) and Korean cinema (highly recommended: Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 thriller THE MAN FROM NOWHERE). Not sure I have a definitive answer, but here are some musings in that direction:

1) In a very real sense, I didn’t “make” Kim Korean or Korean-American or anything else. I realize that this is one of those things that cause civilians to consider writers and other creative types as more-or-less insane, but which every writer I’ve ever talked to admits as being true. The way Kim Oh is in the books I wrote is the way she came into my head, fully formed, and once in there, there was no way I could get her out except to write of her as the way she walked in the door. The vast majority of writers — and some other people as well — would concede that’s all I would need to say about the matter. She is who she is — and I don’t have to say anything about why she is that way;

2) In another sense, if she weren’t already that way, Kim doesn’t need to be Korean or Korean-American. I could go back through the books and substitute the words “Polish” or “Italian” or any other ethnicity and there wouldn’t be that much violence done to her essential nature. As readers of the books will have seen, Kim doesn’t think of herself as Korean or Korean-American — the term she uses for herself (and everyone else) is “Feral American.” Like everybody she sees around her, she doesn’t have any clues from her background that show her how to simply be something — she has to make it all up on her own. As she tells the hit man Cole’s girlfriend Monica:

“I’ll tell you what it’s like.” Something unrestrained came bursting out of that unlocked door inside me. “When I was a kid, I mean a little kid, like fourteen or something – a couple of the foster parents who were taking care of me and my brother, they dragged us to some Methodist church every Sunday. And I wound up in the choir. Not because I could sing, but because having me in the front row made it look all diverse and stuff. Like Token Asian Kid. They liked that sort of thing. And then –” I drained the last of the beer and slung the bottle into the water. “The freakin’ choir goes to Spain. To sing at some dopey festival. I don’t even remember it. But I’ll tell you what I do remember. What I remember is that we all took some train ride, when we weren’t singing, to go look at some cathedral or something. And we wound up at some train station in some little town in the middle of nowhere. I had to take a pee, and I knew just enough tourist Spanish to know which was the ladies room. I go in there by myself – and there’s a freakin’ hole in the floor! That’s the plumbing. And I’m standing there, this fourteen-year-old girl, a million miles from home – a million miles from Korea, for that matter – and I’m looking at this hole in the floor. And believe me, it’s not a pleasant hole – it looks like people have been doing something in it since Year One. Only I don’t know what it is. What I’m supposed to do with it.”

The empty beer bottle had landed with a splash. The oily water, glistening in the moonlight, smoothed out again.

“And that’s what it’s like,” I said. “My whole life. That’s what it’s like for everybody, I guess. All the time. It’s like being a fourteen-year-old girl who has to pee, and you’re someplace where you don’t even know how that’s done there, and you have to figure out on your own how to pee!” I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s right.”

“But it’s the way it is.”

“Yeah.” I took the bottle out of her hand, tilted my head back to drain the last bit, then threw the bottle after the other one. “It’s the way it is.”

So as far as the character is concerned, Kim’s a sharp cookie with a desperately wry sense of humor, who’s trying to find her place in this
world, and who happens to have Korean-American parents (though she remembers virtually nothing of them) and Korean grandparents. But the important part for both the character and the story is that she’s trying to find her place in this world; the Korean part’s not so important in this sense. What’s important is that she has the same problem everybody else does nowadays; and

3) The same as everyone else, Kim wants to be a complete human being. Nobody should be forced or convinced to think of herself or himself as less than a complete human being. Kim is just in the relatively unusual position of becoming one through the “growth experience” of learning how to kill people. It’s just her luck that the first person to take a real interest in what she could become is a sociopathic redneck hit man like Cole. The only thing he can teach her is how to kill people — but that’s enough.

But to the degree that she becomes a complete human being — eventually — then she has to acknowledge that other people are human beings as well. And if that’s the case for her, then most of her “human being-ness” is stuff that she shares with other people, even the ones that she hates enough to kill.

And if that’s the case for Kim, then a twenty-year-old Korean-American
female killer like her has more in common with a sixty-year-old Caucasian thriller writer like myself than she doesn’t have in common with me. She and I are both Feral Americans, trying to figure out things on her own — as you very likely are as well — which enables me to write from her point of view with at least some degree of accuracy. There are of course some things about a person like her that a person like me cannot understand — but in the important ways, we’re close enough. As the Roman dramatist said, Nothing human to me is alien. And if that’s the case, then every writer should be able to write about any human being, no matter the differences between them.

I’ve got more to say on the subject, but I’ve got to finish up that other book project I’m working on — so I’ll continue at a later date, but hopefully not too much later.

Kim Oh 1: Real Dangerous Girl for the Kindle