Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is as beautifully layered as it is devastating; in it, we encounter the resilient Haemi, who is thrust into marriage at sixteen, and charged with the care of her ailing younger brother, Hyunki. Through the eyes of five different narrators, we see how Haemi responds to each new role that she takes on, whether as a mother, sister, caretaker, lover, or wife. As it travels between the decades during and after the Korean War to reveal the traumatic decisions that war forces each person to make, the riches of If You Leave Me will leave you contemplating the passage of time and its impact on the ties that we keep.
ELLE.com spoke to Kim about how her grandmother inspired the story, the impact of last words, and why the idea of “unlikable” women is so silly.
The events of If You Leave Me have a lot to do with timing. What are your thoughts on timing and relationships?
I wanted to explore this idea of: What if at a critical moment, you make a decision that you then, for years later, are not sure if it was the right decision? How does that linger—and how does that affect you, everyone around you, and even your children and the next generation?
You interviewed your grandmother as part of your research for the novel. What was that like?
My grandmother raised me when I was little. I was born here and my parents are immigrants; they needed someone to help take care of me because they were working a lot, so my grandmother came from Korea. So I’m very close with my grandmother and I keep in touch with her a lot. I heard stories about her being a teenage refugee—they were so moving and horrifying and so different from my life here that I knew I wanted to write about it one day.
Haemi is not my grandmother, but her initial situation is very much inspired by my grandmother. My grandmother also really wanted an education and wasn’t able to receive it. She also had to marry young, so those are the parallels. I’m really grateful that I got to interview her in a more formal setting because now I have this story about her that I can carry on. My grandmother can’t read English. She hasn’t read the book, but I’m hoping that it will get translated so she can read it.
There are a lot of departures in your novel. It’s natural to want to cherish the moments before you know you are going to leave someone—how do you balance good memories with bad?
Right now, it’s easier to balance the good memories because we have social media and we have cameras. But in the novel, they’re very present in the moment because they don’t have any way to capture the memory. Then it’s so dependent on personality what parts of their interactions they’ll remember, because some will remember the bad more than the good. I think that’s based on temperament and the way that you view the world.
Last words are so impactful and they become etched into these characters’ minds—especially for Haemi and her childhood friend, Kyunghwan. Why is that?
I wanted to explore this idea of departure and leaving, which is in the title, and I wanted the title to apply to all of the characters in a certain way, because these characters are growing up in a time in Korea that’s very tumultuous—politically, socially. There’s a lot of violence, so I wanted that to impact the way that they think about themselves. A lot of the characters see life as very fleeting, because they’re so haunted by the war that they feel like life is ephemeral. So leaving or desire to leave and last words have an impact on them. Regret is something I wanted to write a lot about, because once you make a decision, regret doesn’t do anything except linger inside you.
Haemi and Kyunghwan want to run away together, but such an escape would also entail sacrifice. Do you think impulses can backfire?
I think so. Because my main characters grew up during the Korean War, they’re very practical and they know what it means to suffer, so it’s hard for them to act on that because they know what the consequences are. They’ve had difficult lives and they know how difficult it is to be hungry or to be poor, so that stops them from being impulsive.