Brenda Paik Sunoo is an American writer of Korean ancestry who worked for various media organizations as a reporter and editor. Her view of life changed dramatically after the sudden death of her teenage son, and she became a freelance writer. Her works have been published in the United States, Vietnam, and Korea. One such work was a photo essay highlighting the everyday lives of haenyeo, the woman sea divers of Jeju, as a result of her close affinity with the island that developed through her numerous visits there. For the last several years, she and her husband have been living on the island, where they built a house to preserve Jeju culture. Recently, she has published a collection of essays reflecting on her settlement on Jeju. The KF spoke with the writer to hear more of her story.
First of all, thank you for accepting our request for an interview. As the author of four books, how has your identity as a Korean-American woman shaped your topics and themes?
My first book was a memoir on grief: Seaweed and Shamans—Inheriting the Gifts of Grief. My second book was a photo essay with poems entitled Vietnam Moment. My third was Moon Tides—Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea. And my most recent book is Stone House on Jeju Island—Improvising Life Under a Healing Moon. I consider each book an homage to my native homeland (US), my adopted homeland (Vietnam), and my ancestral homeland (Korea). Thematically, my books are all about comfort, community, and compassion. Initially, I thought my most recent book was about the joys of living in Jeju Island since I had already written about grief and healing. Building a house, of course, was an adventure and positive creative project. But the house was really a metaphor for the elephant in the room.
Why do you think your relationship with Jeju Island is so special?
When I came to Jeju to research the haenyeo (the female divers native to Jeju Island), I came here alone without knowing anyone. So this is where I became empowered both personally and professionally. Over the course of three visits in 2007, 2008, and 2009, I conducted my interviews and began to make many local friends. They became like family. Also, Korea is my ancestral homeland. In 2016, the South Korean government awarded my grandfather a patriot’s award—posthumously—for his role in supporting Korean independence as an overseas minister in the US. As his descendant, I was able to apply for citizenship in 2016. That decision has made me ponder how best to participate in civil society in both countries. My book is a love letter to Jeju because this island is my muse.
Did the construction of the house and the essays change your experience of it? Could you say that the essays form an artifice placed on top of the house, and the house itself in some way became a book?
I thought I was simply writing about building a house. Well, Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” I think that’s so true. My husband and I built the house with the intention of supporting cultural preservation. That was very much my public message. I look at this house and it’s art. It’s a creation because I was able to use Korean design elements, bringing in stone, wood, hanji paper, clay tiles, hwang-toh (clay), the maru platform and heated floor, known as ondol. The greatest joy, of course, is the family and friends who have filled this house with so many wonderful memories. That joy is probably the heart of it all because it’s living.
Are there any particular aspects of Korean culture that have influenced your writing?
Since the time I wrote my first memoir, Seaweed and Shamans—Inheriting the Gifts of Grief, I’ve searched for Korean belief systems that might comfort me as a bereaved mother. There are some particular practices or beliefs that have either entered my writing or made me appreciate Korean attitudes toward life, death, and the spirit world beyond. In Seaweed and Shamans, I wrote about two Mrs. Kims that each brought me seaweed soup—once after the birth of my first son, and once after the death of my younger son. In both cases, the miyeok-guk is to nourish the mother and give her strength. Koreans also believe that when magpies sound off in chorus, it signals the imminent arrival of guests. In fact crows are considered as messengers between the physical and spiritual worlds. I also wrote about this in my first memoir, as I was searching for signs of communication between me and my son in the afterworld.
What’s next for you and the book?
I have book receptions planned in February and March in California. As for future creative projects, I am working on a children’s book and would like to pursue my passion for mixed media art and articulate the relationship between the language of art and the language of prose.
Interviewed by Joey Rositano