Bay Area author Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s debut novel, The Last Story of Mina Lee, serves up a deliciously dark bouillabaisse of thematic ingredients: the sadness of the war refugee experience, the complexities of the immigrant mother-daughter relationship, the frustrations of amateur sleuthing, plus intergenerational trauma, abandonment wounds, loss, grief, displacement, and drop-dead gorgeous paeans to the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles.
In the opening few pages, 26-year-old Margot Lee tries to track down her mom, Mina Lee, who won’t answer the phone. Upon returning to the Koreatown apartment of her youth to look for Mina, Margot discovers her mother’s dead body, triggering a brutal matrix of emotions. Was Mina’s death an accident? If Margot had kept in closer contact, would her mom still be alive? Was Mina’s life as a Korean war orphan, a single mom and a struggling undocumented immigrant in LA worth all the trouble? Should Margot have been more grateful for her mom’s sacrifices? Should Margot have actually learned Korean? All of life’s shouldas, couldas, and wouldas rise to the surface. Overwhelmed by it all, Margot begins a search to find out what really led to her mom’s suspicious death, discovering many things about her mom that she never knew.
What follows is a detective novel, an immigrant family story and a heroic journey of women trying to deal with life’s traumas. You don’t need to be a mom or a daughter for the book to resonate.
“Whether you’re from immigrant families or maybe a working class family, there’s a variety of people that can relate to just how complicated our relationships are with our parents,” explains Kim, who lives in the East Bay, but whose LA childhood gave her plenty of source material for the novel.
The character of Margot Lee, for example, knows that her mother made many sacrifices, but neither of them can accurately articulate their feelings due to language barriers or fears of being judged by others. Plus, there is Mina Lee’s personal history, which becomes clearer as the book unfolds. It turns out there are many traumatic experiences she never told Margot about.
“It’s really about the things that maybe our parents couldn’t tell us, or maybe didn’t find the time to, or maybe were protecting us, or protecting themselves,” Kim says. “They were hoping it was done with. Or that it was part of the past. And, ‛I’m going to get through life by not talking about things.’ I think not talking about things is very common, especially in immigrant families.”
In the novel, interwoven with Margot Lee’s present-day search we get the backstory of how her mom first came to Koreatown and tried to make ends meet. We learn that she had a husband and daughter back in Korea — both of whom died in a tragic accident, spurring Mina’s to head for America. As both stories unfold, the timeline of Mina’s life in Koreatown gradually catches up to the present-day life of Margot.
As the novel evolves in the heads of Mina and Margot, we get many authentic depictions of PTSD-style triggers and intergenerational traumas. When Mina goes on a date, only to be swarmed by crowds at the Santa Monica Pier, it triggers memories of the crowds that engulfed her while she fled North Korea, separating her from her parents in the process. While working a grocery store, Mina encounters a father and daughter that eerily resemble her own deceased husband and daughter, throwing her into a near-breakdown.
In other scenes, Margot, without realizing it, replicates her mothers’ heartbreak and dissociation when grappling with her own histories and erasures, and the ways in which she keeps various parts of her life — friends, boyfriends, previous jobs — hidden away. Although Margot never knew her mom’s full story, her mother’s trauma reverberates in their relationship. It’s part of Margot’s DNA. Her mother’s emotional breakdowns surface in Margot’s own behaviors, even if much more subtly. Although these traumas are not unique to immigrants, the source material for Kim’s novel can be traced back to when she grew up in the Asian and Latinx communities of LA. In the ways writers naturally do, Kim absorbed snippets of stories she heard and stored them for future use.
“The types of stories, the things that Mina goes through, that Margot goes through, they were very much a part of that world,” Kim explained. “They’re very familiar stories to me. I think they’re shocking to the reader, but when you think about it, we all probably have these stories in our families, but nobody ever talks about them. … And so in a lot of ways, this novel is about writing into and through those silences.”
The Last Story of Mina Lee thus becomes a novel about storytelling, or, perhaps, a mosaic of stories about storytelling. The internal narratives that family members hide from each other become the foreground instead of the background.
And as one would expect, the external landscape plays an important role, with the novel also functioning as a love letter to the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles. If Philip Marlowe reincarnated as a single mom in late-20th century Koreatown, his name would become Mina Lee. Especially when it comes to ethnic grocery stores, undocumented workers, riots, Korean churches and downmarket swap meets, The Last Story of Mina Lee emphasizes that LA is a place where real people have real problems, even if they’re ignored by everyone else.
“This is definitely a book where the city is its own character,” Kim explained. “It’s about looking at Los Angeles as a place where people live, rather than where people visit, or just consume in a way.”
The Last Story of Mina Lee is available now from Park Row Books.