Nami Mun finds her calling with her first novel.
Nami Mun admits she isn’t a natural writer. She says telling the story of Joon, the teenage runaway at the center of her debut novel, Miles From Nowhere (Riverhead, $21.95), was something she felt she simply had to do. Writing was a slow, meticulous process, during which she became intimately acquainted with the young cast-outs, queers and addicts who populate her book. Each character is the result of a determined and imaginative effort that, if somewhat involuntary, was personal and organic, as if they sprung from her own life.
Miles From Nowhere follows 13-year-old Joon from a broken home in the Bronx out into the jungle of pre-Giuliani New York. When the transition to life in the States cripples her Korean-immigrant parents’ marriage, Joon abandons them for days of danger and escapades among her new homeless peers. She dabbles in prostitution, falls in love repeatedly, obtains and loses a string of odd jobs, and swims through a flood of drugs.
In conversation, Mun cannot stress enough that she thinks her book is hopeful, despite its rapes, abortions and depravities. The optimism she maintains shines out from the text in both quick flashes and prolonged, subtle glows. Mun says this effect springs from the research of marginalized people she conducted after she wrote the story’s first draft.
“I’d watch documentaries or I’d read letters that teenage runaways would write to their parents—these little tiny artifacts,” says Mun, who now teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. “And what I got from them is this sort of tone, where it wasn’t all just harsh realities and cruel and painful existence—there’s some really funny, weird, magical things that can happen when you’re living in the margins.”
Mun, who was a teenage runaway in New York herself, maintains that the episodes in Miles From Nowhere reflect her actual past. Her memories served as entry points, she says—“some detail or setting I had experienced myself, something about the carpet or the lighting”—and from there she followed her imagination. She summons Rainer Maria Rilke’s credo to explain her impulse: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.”
Maybe more than a writer, Mun admits, she’s a reviser. While other authors may enjoy the initial creative burst, she relishes the trimming and reworking of words.
“I used to think it was this writerly thing,” she says, “but it turns out that your brain secretes some chemical when you finish a task, and it makes you feel good. So I think it’s actually just physiological. With the revision process, I swear that every time I take a word out, that chemical gets secreted. I’m like, ‘Yes! That is the sentence I wanted!’ ”
Her attention to detail pays off. The sound and rhythm of her sentences enable her to convey the deadpan of a jaded teen in a terrifying world with understated poeticism: “One time I rode on a bus that ran a red light and crashed into a family wagon, killing the baby in the backseat.” Sometimes, her language is just plain lovely: “It was sunny and raining. Blades of white light cut through the clouds and shined on the glassy tubes of rain as they streaked the air and tapped my jean jacket.”
Mun says she never meant to be a writer. But as the short stories she jotted down—while working odd jobs—began to coalesce into what she thought were worthwhile pieces, she shopped them around to literary journals. One of these was the Evergreen Review, whose editor, Barney Rosset of Grove Press fame, published her first story and encouraged her to continue.
An M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and a handful of awards later, Mun is a writer, whether she meant to be or not.
Mun reads Friday 9.