Patricia Park’s debut novel, “Re Jane” (Pamela Dorman/Viking: 340 pp., $27.95), is a retelling of everyone’s favorite Gothic Victorian Brontë romance, “Jane Eyre,” transferred to New York and South Korea in the early 2000s. Her heroine, Jane Re, is a half-Korean orphan raised by her uncle’s family in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood that feels “all Korean, all the time.” When a prestigious post-college job offer falls through thanks to the dot-com crash, Jane takes a job as an au pair in Brooklyn in order to escape Queens and her uncle’s grocery store.
Her employers are Ed Farley and Beth Mazer, two Brooklyn English professors with an adopted Chinese daughter. Ed, as you may have guessed, is brooding and manly, with a strong jawline and a Brooklyn accent -- pure Kryptonite for our wide-eyed, 22-year-old Jane. He lives in the shadow of his older, more accomplished wife, an eccentric feminist scholar with an attic office, who takes it upon herself to educate their sheltered au pair.
With her mixed blood and her torn loyalties, Jane embodies the confusion of both young adulthood and the hyphenated American experience. Impressionable and accommodating at the start of the novel, she struggles to find her own identity as the places and people in her life try to claim her. Her journey is a pleasure to follow, immensely rewarding and speckled with humor and romance.
Like her Jane, Park grew up in Queens, the daughter of Korean immigrants, and she currently lives in Brooklyn. Since graduating with an master’s in fiction from Boston University, where she studied with Ha Jin, she’s spent her time writing and teaching in the U.S. and Seoul.
Park spoke by phone about New York realities, Korean manners and of course, Jane Eyre. She will be reading from “Re Jane” at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Tell me about your relationship with Jane Eyre.
I was born and raised in Queens in an immigrant Korean household and I encountered “Jane Eyre” when I was in the 6th grade. I was immediately struck by it -- it was the first time I saw a heroine self-described as “poor, obscure, plain, and little” get so much airtime. She was so different from the Disney princesses I saw.
And growing up in a strict Korean home, I felt like there were so many parallels to the strict, conservative Victorian England Jane lived in. When I was little and I would misbehave, my mom would say in her broken English, “You act like orphan.” I realized that the postwar Korean construct of the orphan was one that was kind of wicked, mischievous or rather shameful, someone who acted like they didn’t get a good family education. When I revisited “Jane Eyre” in grad school, I noticed a lot of these epithets were thrown at Jane.
What were some of the challenges of adapting and updating this novel?
I think Jane Eyre is so beloved because she was refreshingly independent and ahead of her times, but she was also part of her times. In my earlier drafts, Jane Re was so passive, in the vein of those old English novels. It took many drafts to get her back up to speed and have all the richness of a modern-day lead female character. These are probably fighting words to purists, but I had a lot of problems accepting Rochester as Jane Eyre’s romantic endgame. He betrayed her almost unforgivably. I guess some of the challenge of writing Ed Farley’s character was making him round and sympathetic.
And how about that madwoman in the attic?
I confess I’m being a little playfully meta and poking fun of academia by casting Beth as a women’s studies scholar. I really have problems with this notion of female hysteria. I think it’s such a cop-out that women are written off as crazy. In Beth Mazer I wanted to create a character who seems crazy, at least to Jane, but who she starts to read with new and empathetic eyes.
Right, because she’s 22, which really is a specific time of life. How was that time for you?
When I entered college, I had a very different idea of how things would turn out when I graduated. The economy was still booming, and I thought everyone got cushy job offers. But when I graduated, the economy had tanked and we were all competing for unpaid internships. I moved right back into the home I was trying to get out of when I shipped off to college. I think for Jane, she never got the experience of going away for college. She always did the smart, practical nunchi-ful thing. She thought she would move away, and that was denied to her.
The concept of nunchi is one of the defining principles of your book. So,what is it?
Nunchi has no translation in English, but it’s kind of anticipation and foresight. It’s the ability to walk into a room, read the situation and anticipate how you and everyone else in that room is supposed to behave. It’s the governing principle of Korean society. In some ways, it has a parallel to Victorian society, which is very scripted, where people are expected to know how to behave.
Jane Eyre is constantly shot looks of nunchi. What is a governess doing in a parlor? I’ve found personally whenever I move from Korean society to “mainstream American” society, my nunchi radar is off and I find myself behaving in strange ways and having to readjust. It’s not as clearly defined in Western culture, so I felt like I needed to introduce nunchi in “Re Jane” because a Western audience might not understand Jane’s own impediments or social restraints without it. She’s trying to follow a specific code of social behavior as she tries to make her way through the world.
Jane shuttles between Brooklyn, Queens and Seoul, and the settings really define the moods of the novel. Can you talk about what these places mean to Jane, and to you?
I was born and raised in Queens and my parents have a grocery business in Brooklyn, so I’ve been shuttling between the two boroughs my whole life. As a native of the outer boroughs, you grow up basically in the shadows of Manhattan. My whole life, my goal was to end up in Manhattan. That being said, we’re living in a time where the commodification of Brooklyn is almost a cliche. There’s cultural and artistic cache to Brooklyn, and Queens is on its way as well. I find it ironic that the places I grew up thinking of as undesirable are coming into a renaissance.
Korea was the place Jane was always told was the “motherland.” And for me, as a Korean American, I also grew up with that mentality. But Jane arrives in Seoul and finds that it feels even more foreign, there’s such a disconnect between Korea in her mind’s eye and technologically advanced Seoul. Jane feels like a foreigner in Flushing in Brooklyn and in Seoul, and it’s only after she tries on her assigned identities that she comes to learn who she is and carves out her own space.
Ultimately, I want to challenge neat, little, boxed identity categories, that question of “Where are you from?” followed by “Where are you really from?” I would hope that anyone who feels or has felt out of place can find something in this book.
Cha is the author, most recently, of “Beware Beware.”