When author Nami Mun was 13, she ran away from her family's Bronx apartment. She survived by holding down odd jobs and living wherever she could — on benches, in shelters or squatting in abandoned buildings. In her early 20s, she found steady employment, got an apartment and went
Now Mun, 44, volunteers at the National Runaway Switchboard in Chicago, a 24-hour hot line for at-risk teens and runaways that receives more than 100,000 calls each year. Once a week she answers the crisis line and speaks to desperate teens.
Joon, the fictional protagonist of Mun's debut novel, "Miles From Nowhere," could have used an understanding voice. Mun's gritty urban novel follows Joon, a 13-year-old runaway, as she tries to make her way on
After a recent volunteer shift at the switchboard, Mun talked about her work. Here is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the National Runaway Switchboard?
A: It is a national crisis hot line for at-risk youth. For me, it's an opportunity to have an impact on a part of society that really needs our help. I teach and I am a writer, and I think those have an influence on society as well, but this feels different. Volunteering here feels more direct and more immediate.
Q: How much of "Miles From Nowhere" is based on your life?
A: Almost none of it is autobiographical, maybe 1 percent. The premise (of the book) is very much similar to my life. I ran away when I was 13, and so does Joon, but after that, with the exception of a few setting parallels, the actual events of the book — the scenes, the dialogue, the action — are completely fabricated.
I chose to not write about my own experiences because I already know what happened to me. I wanted to take more imaginative leaps. That said, I do sometimes call the book not an autobiography but an "emotionagraphy" because it emotionally feels really true to some of the feelings that I felt and some of the feelings that I think other runaways feel, like the sense of alienation and disconnectedness from society.
Q: When you ran away, the highest grade you had completed was eighth grade. What made you want to go back to school?
A: I was waitressing at a French bistro in Los Angeles, and I had these two customers. They looked like post-MBA grads: very shiny skin, crisp white skirts, in their mid- to late 20s, cocky and confident. Apparently, they had a bet going, and they waved me over to settle it. They asked me what a line that touches a circle but does not intersect it was called. At this point in my life, I was making a good living as a waitress and I was living a good, normal, clean life, so I was enjoying that, having pushed aside education. When they asked me that question, I was embarrassed that I didn't know the answer, but I took a guess and said adjacent.
As soon as I said it, both of them started laughing hysterically. They told me that one had bet that I would know the answer because I was Asian and the other had bet that I would not know the answer because I was a waitress. I couldn't believe that this very prejudiced statement was actually being thrown back at me in this very obvious and overt way. I had to laugh along with them because they were my customers, but I was absolutely furious.
When I got home that night, I realized I was actually mad at myself and embarrassed that I had pushed aside education. A week later I took my GED and started taking classes at Santa Monica College soon after that.
Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: No, I wanted to be so many other things. I didn't come to writing until I was in my 30s. It was Jan. 1, 2000. I remember the date exactly because becoming a writer was my New Year's resolution. That is when I started my book. While I was writing, I was a criminal defensive investigator for a few years, working in San Francisco and Alameda counties. Before that I was a bartender and waitress. My first aspiration was to be a photojournalist.
Q: You're a professor now; what do your students teach you?
A: To take risks. I teach at
Q: What does winning the 21st Century Award mean to you?
A: It's a huge honor, especially since I have only been in Chicago since 2008. I feel it's actually more a statement about Chicago, and specifically about the Chicago Public Library Foundation, than it is about me. We are going through a huge recession, there have been so many cutbacks in the Chicago Public Library system, and yet they are still taking the time to give this award. To me that says that Chicago cares about the humanities and nurturing Chicago authors.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I am working on a novel and a short-story collection simultaneously. I usually don't talk about what I am working on.
A: If I say something, I usually do that thing. I very rarely do not do what I say that I am going to do. In writing, I don't want that kind of limitation, I want to be able to change my mind.
Nami Mun will be presented with the 21st Century Award during the Chicago Public Library Foundation's
In addition, Don DeLillo and Walter Isaacson will be honored with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award during the foundation's dinner.
Reception at 6 p.m. and dinner at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday,