Relegation Books released Sonya Chung’s new novel The Loved Ones last month. In September, a starred review in Kirkus called the novel “a gorgeous multigenerational saga of love and race, loss and belonging,” and in October, the American Booksellers Association picked it as an Indie Next title. That’s a big deal. The list, which comes from recommendations by independent booksellers across the country, helps build momentum during the first few weeks of publication. On the heels of the release and the big publicity push, I had the pleasure of speaking to Chung, an assistant professor at Skidmore College, about narrative voice, the publishing grind, and her upcoming event Thursday (Nov. 17) at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs.
Structured around two narratives, The Loved Ones follows Charles and Alice Lee, a biracial couple whose marriage is disintegrating in tragedy’s wake, and Chong-ho and Soon-mi Lee, a Korean American couple whose teenage daughter Hannah serves as Charles and Alice’s babysitter. Both narratives stem from love stories that are subversive and defiant. As she skillfully reveals each character’s backstories, Chung charts a course where these two families, from vastly different cultural experiences, collide. The result is a deeply intimate portrayal of love, loss, and family ties that bond, stretch, and occasionally snap.
On the phone, Chung and I talked about her character-driven approach to novel-making. Chung puts a lot of early work into character development, and to the reader, the result of that work is clear. Each character in The Loved Ones is finely wrought and complex, they exhibit a rich interior life, and their struggles and fears vibrate on the page, but it’s the narrative voice that unifies the novel and packs an emotional punch. “The narrative voice was my primary concern,” Chung explains. “From the start, I knew I wanted to use an omniscient narrator, and I wanted that narrator to have its own voice in relation to the others.” That is easier said than done, but Chung’s narrative strategy–its intimacy and its steady hand–succeeds in opening up the novel, shining a light on deeply guarded fears and insecurities.
“Ultimately, you’re creating an experience for the reader,” Chung notes. The narrative voice accomplishes this goal. Following the narrator’s lead, the reader dives into the emotional life of the characters. Skillfully guided by Chung, the readers’ own assumptions and anxieties mingle with the story on the page. This interplay between author, line, and reader builds connections to characters and cultivates empathy.
Of course, that strategy comes with some risk. I ask Chung if she had any hesitation about writing across race and experience, particularly when it came to writing from the perspective of Charles Lee, an African American man. “You have to feel the risk, feel the danger. That’s when you know you’re in the right zone,” she answers.
Chung grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. When she was young, she moved to a predominantly white neighborhood, while her father, a doctor, served a predominantly African American community in the neighboring county. “These segregated worlds rarely collided,” she notes. “In the novel, I wanted to explore what happens when these experiences collide and what happen when we get to know the characters as complex people.”
Earlier in the year at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, novelist Lionel Shiver donned a sombrero and caused a stir by proclaiming that writers should have free reign to craft whatever characters and voices these chose, without being critiqued or accused of cultural appropriation. To do otherwise would be a form of censorship, she argued. Literary Twitter exploded. On Sept. 24, in The New York Times, author Kaitlyn Greenidge penned a reasoned response (“Who Gets to Write That?”), which drove to the heart of the issue. The piece concludes with this sentence: “Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to character who look like them as character who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing–how much further fiction could go as an art.” The Loved Ones succeeds at the very task that Greenidge describes. Chung presents all of her characters with a depth of humanity and nuance to character, and Greenidge is right–doing so lifts the novel above the fray and offers something deeper and more artful to the reader.
As I write this piece amid the wreckage of the Presidential election, it feels as if this discussion about the importance of nuanced, fully-formed characters in fiction and in reality has never been more relevant. The Loved Ones showcases the power of fiction to explore complex characters and recognize our blind spots. Let’s hope the discussion continues.
We ended our conversation by talking about the importance of independent bookstores and publishers. Chung’s publisher, Relegation Books, is an indie press out of Virginia that specializes in “craft publishing literary fiction of fine vintage.” Her first novel was released by a major New York imprint, and she is grateful for that early support, but Relegation’s approach and individualized plan seems to have worked wonders with The Loved Ones. When I ask about the process, she is eager to answer, and I can hear the joy in her voice. “It’s a one-book-at-a-time, collaborative, intuitive, and nimble process,” she says. “It’s team-oriented. We all work together.” She admits that she was a little discouraged after her debut novel came out in 2010, but now she’s optimistic about the future of publishing. “It is great to know that there’s not one narrow road you have to follow. There are many paths to finding an audience.”
Setting the novel aside, Chung is a staff writer for The Millions and founder of Bloom, a literary site that highlights work by “authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older.” Of her many achievements, she’s received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, a Bronx Council on the Arts Fellowship and Residency, and the Charles Johnson Fiction Award. Her short work has appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and the Crab Orchard Review. While on sabbatical from Skidmore College this semester, Chung has been on the road promoting The Loved Ones. Her tour takes her to Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs on Thursday (Nov. 17) at 7 PM.