An Interview with Ji Hyun Joo

By Aki Kuromochi

Ji Hyun Joo is a writer raised in San Diego and Gyeongido, South Korea, and currently based in Astoria, New York. She completed her M.F.A in Fiction at Columbia University, where she is a recipient of the 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship and a nominee for the Henfield Prize. Her stories have been published in New England Review, The Margins, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Her story “Chubby Asian Superhero” appears in this issue of West Branch Wired.

West Branch:  “Chubby Asian Superhero,” is about an Asian American young adult, Darwin, who lives and works with his parents after being rejected by all the colleges he applied to. Your story tracks Darwin as he interacts with family, customers, and friends. What inspired you to write this story?

Ji Hyun Joo:  I wrote the first draft of this story quite a while ago—back in 2018, before I started grad school. Initially, I wanted to write a story about a young man who self-isolates and lives vicariously through his comic book character. Aspects of that original idea have definitely stayed in the story, but as I fleshed out the character of Darwin, themes about power dynamics (whose experience is seen and unseen) came out more significantly.

WB:  Why did you choose to structure the story over the span of three summers?

JHJ: An important component of Darwin’s life that I wanted to show was stagnancy; more specifically, the ways he experiences progression and regression. I wanted him to grasp the feeling of change—whether it’s with his weight or the moment of intimacy he shares with Chelsea early on—then lose it. I felt that the three-summer structure most effectively showed that back and forth, which helped with further building the sense of suffocation for Darwin.

WB:  In my reading of the story, Darwin objectifies Chelsea. Do you think Darwin’s dream of being a comic book artist influences his objectification of Chelsea? For example, when Darwin describes Chelsea, he thinks that “If someone folded Chelsea Han in half, her eyes, nose, mouth, would align like they were one. She’s perfectly symmetrical, as if her mother drew her up with a ruler and compass” (6-7). At what point do you think art begins to project unreasonable and unhealthy expectations upon society, and upon women?

JHJ: I certainly think that the observations Darwin makes about Chelsea are influenced by his aspirations of being a comic book artist. In that line that you pointed out, Darwin sees her the way one would’ve drawn her. It’s interesting because Darwin, in his mind, doesn’t see himself as objectifying Chelsea, as you experienced in your reading of the story. He sees his attraction to her as simply that—attraction. He’s not able to see the expectations that he has toward Chelsea to appease him, to make him feel understood, even when none of that is her responsibility.

Such a great question; I believe that art begins to project unreasonable and unhealthy expectations upon society and upon women when it is uncritical of oppressive standards that are currently in place.

WB: When Chelsea says men are repulsive and Darwin agrees, my first instinct is to question whether he means it. I’m curious to know what you think. Can Darwin mean it, as a man himself?

JHJ: I do think that Darwin can mean it, even as a man himself. However, I think the way Darwin means it is vastly different from the way Chelsea means it. Chelsea is talking about the repulsiveness in the way that she, as a woman of color, has experienced it in her day to day life of men sexualizing her, and thinking they are owed something from her. She has always had to navigate this treatment. She has always had to prepare herself for it.

Darwin, on the other hand, agrees that men are repulsive because he is, for the first time, experiencing a moment of extreme imbalance of power with the customer. The acknowledgement is also arising from his assumption that his mother is enduring the same treatment, which he struggles to grapple with throughout the entirety of the story. When he’s agreeing to Chelsea’s statement in that moment you mentioned, Darwin is newly processing the ways in which it is relevant to his own life.

WB: Could you talk a bit about the sexual assault in this story? I was wondering about your decision to write “the regular’s” sexual assault of Darwin first as a memory, then off-screen when Chelsea is also at the nail salon, and finally, in-scene when Darwin imagines raping Chelsea in the car.

JHJ: I had chosen to write Darwin’s first interaction with “the regular” as a memory simply because of timeline. I wanted him to have already had that experience and be in the midst of working through it when he reunites with Chelsea at the grocery store. I wanted to show the visceral experience within that memory so that when we went off-screen, the effect of the reader knowing what was occurring would still be as strong and prevalent.

The decision to write Darwin imagining sexually assaulting Chelsea in-scene was purely so we could sit with him as he thought through what he would do. I wanted to go straight into the scene so that we, initially, don’t know whether he’s actually done it or not. I wanted Darwin to be shocked at the damage he could cause. I wanted to show the very real possibility of him causing extreme violence in this way. 

WB: It’s noted that Darwin feels the need to protect his mother, while he’s horrified when he bears resemblance to his father. Growing up as an Asian American myself and a child of immigrants, I felt an obligation to respect my parents, because they would tell me that’s how they were raised. At times I would question their authority, leading to tension with my parents. In your experience, how does a child of immigrants negotiate gratitude and bitterness?

JHJ: It’s difficult because I think the ways in which children and parents within immigrant families experience one another has similarities, of course, but are also extremely specific and layered as well. I can only speak for and from my own experience here. I feel like I move through gratitude and bitterness in my relationship with my parents, who immigrated to the U.S. then reverse-immigrated back to Korea about 15 years ago, based on how much I get to know them as people beyond their identity as my mom and dad. Naturally, as I get older, they show more of themselves to me, or perhaps I ask more questions (or both), which helps me understand on a much deeper level why they have certain expectations from me, why they have the perspectives that they do. 

WB:  Does the Chubby Asian Superhero ever save lives in Santorini? Or Korea?

JHJ: He doesn’t! Unfortunately, Chubby Asian Superhero is very much local to San Diego.