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R.O. Kwon on her novel 'Exhibit', desire and taboos


In R.O. Kwon's new novel, we meet Jin Han. She's a photographer who's at a crossroads in her life. Struggling in both her art and her marriage, she meets Lidija Jung, an injured ballerina. Lidija sparks a passion in Jin she hasn't felt in a long time. But will this newfound friendship between the two artists unravel Jin's carefully curated life, or will it be a catalyst for her work? R.O. Kwon's new book is called "Exhibit." And just to let you know, if you happen to be listening with little ones, we will be talking about S-E-X.

R O KWON: One way I've been describing the book to people is I've been saying "Exhibit" explores what you'd risk to pursue your core desires, what you might give up for what you want most. And Jin and Lidija, one of the first things that really draws them to each other is that they're - they see in each other the depths and heights of their ambition, and they meet in such a way that they're quite open with each other about it and in ways that they don't tend to be open about it with others.

RASCOE: Is there also a thing about honesty and what it means to be honest with who you are? Because it seems like Jin is definitely being pulled in two different directions. She does have this loving husband, Philip, but he has now decided to ask of her something that does not seem to be honest to Jin. And then she has this new friendship with Lidija, which is about a form of honesty but very complicated honesty, I guess, if we're real with that.

KWON: Oh. I love your questions. This is such a beautiful way...


KWON: This is such a gorgeous way of putting it.


KWON: One of the ways in which Jin, who is the narrator, is trying to move toward more honesty in her life is being more honest with herself and in how she lives her life about what she wants. And one of the first sparks for this book for me was that I was hell-bent on exploring a question, which is why is it that I feel so strongly pushed by the world, the zeitgeist, to want certain things, and just as strongly pushed to not want other things? And every day of my life, I feel a great deal of pressure to want to be a very good daughter of, a wife of, a mother of, a sister of, a community member of, a friend of - it's all mediated through that, of. The things I feel pressured not to want, to hide my appetite for, includes sex, food, definitely an artistic ambition, any ambition at all. Even a day to myself feels like something that I kind of have to defend. And so in other words, what I feel pressured not to want is anything for myself.

RASCOE: And I mean, in this book, you really get into that because you dive into Jin's desires. But she also wrestles with her, as an Asian woman, wanting things that she feels like are stereotypical or somehow fit into a mold that is harmful to Asian women overall, which is such a big thing to have to carry in your sexual life. It's like, oh, well, this isn't good for the culture. Like, how do you carry that into the bedroom? You understand what I'm saying?

KWON: (Laughter) Yes, yes.


RASCOE: That's a lot of pressure, right?

KWON: Oh, my God. Yes, it is. It's so much pressure. And Jin's under a lot of it (laughter).

RASCOE: She's feeling - you know, she wants to express herself sexually, but she feels like it's demeaning.

KWON: Oh, that's such a real question. So I worked on this book for nine years. And during that time, including after the Atlanta spa shootings of 2021, I was also publishing essays and speaking on the radio, about gender, race, queerness. And as a result, I heard from thousands of people about their experiences of anti-Asian violence and the racism surrounding really painful, absurd ideas about Asian women. Probably the most available idea about people who look like me is that we're docile. We're willing to be mistreated. And it was and is a profound honor to be trusted with these griefs. It's also true that as I was writing this book, the anxiety just kept rising about how this novel could be misinterpreted as supporting this painful lie about people who look like me. Because I think I was and am genuinely afraid that by adding to these lies about Asian women, I will in some way hurt us, that this book could bring greater harm to us, could get more of us killed. And, yeah, that's a lot to carry, and Jin is carrying that too with her own work.

RASCOE: Part of the struggle for Jin comes from her relationship to Christianity, which she was very religious, and she, like, embraced it as a very young person. But then she leaves that part of her life in her early 20s. Do you think that part of her shame comes from that Christianity that she had even though she shed that part of her life?

KWON: Yes, absolutely. So Jin grew up Catholic, and then she turned evangelical Protestant for a while and was so fervent about it that she really did intend to become a pastor. She wanted to devote her life to serving the Lord. It's also true that as a Korean woman, there are a lot of strictures around how Korean women should behave, and Korean women really aren't supposed to be talking about sex. The fact that I'm on the radio, that I'm on NPR talking about sex is a little wild for my body. And there was a lot of anxiety in the process of writing this book. I had a lot of anxiety attacks and panic attacks, and for Jin as well as for me, existing underneath this triple heap of shame that comes from being ex-Catholic, ex-Christian, and Korean, I think what I've realized is that I'm possibly never going to be able to shake off that triple helping of shame. But that said, what I've also realized is that if I'm going to live beneath the shame, if I don't feel fully liberated, as I don't, and Jin doesn't, one doesn't have to be fully liberated to do liberated and liberating things.

RASCOE: Not to give anything away, but I'm wondering, do you think the book ends on a hopeful note?

KWON: You know, I've been thinking the way the book ends - the women involved are choosing to move toward a path that leads them toward living their fullest possible lives as they define it. Not as the world defines it, but as they define it. They're also electing to live a life in which they and what they want can be at the center, which of course is something that is under threat in our world in this country. It's something that's going to be questioned. So they move toward freedom.

RASCOE: That's R.O. Kwon. Her new book is called "Exhibit." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KWON: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. This is such a joy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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