Author Q&A: Esther Yi


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Esther Yi’s debut novel follows a young Korean-American woman in Berlin, bored with her copy-editing job and unsatisfying relationship. Her life changes when she attends a K-pop concert and develops a fixation on Moon, one of the band’s five members, and begins writing Y/N fan-fiction, in which the reader inserts themselves into the story. When Moon abruptly announces his departure from public life, she abandons Berlin to search for him in Korea, the homeland she barely knows. Intense, surreal and contemplative, Y/N explores obsession, creation and the quest to know the self and others.

Few of the characters have straightforward nominative identities, from the unnamed narrator (and the protagonist of her fan-fiction) to the “pack of boys” with their celestial pseudonyms, and the Music Professor, the Caregiver and the Teacher. If names are destiny, what are we left with when we forsake them?

A parent imbues a name with all of their love and hope, seeking to propel the child in a happy direction. To shed that name, then, may involve choosing against one’s own happiness. Perhaps I refused to give most of my characters normal names because they have an appetite for odd risks, for casting off the benevolent “parental” hand so as to drill, with manic fervour, into the dense kernel of their particularity.

Ironically, this seems to invoke their casting in seemingly generic terms: Music Professor, Caregiver, O, Y/N. The last one is especially ambiguous. What happens when Y/N is taken at face value, as a name unto its own? Is that Y/N a mere space-filler, someone of so little personality that as soon as she’s dislodged herself from the “home” of her original name, she’s easily absorbed into another pre-existing storyline?

Is Y/N, in other words, a pawn of her times? Or has Y/N, through trials of experience, seized upon her singularity and transmuted it into the universal? Into the trenchantly human? Is Y/N general or universal? Is Y/N an algorithm or an autodidact? Is Y/N the least human or the most human of all?

Fan-fiction has been called the democratic genre, but is there actually any room for democracy in fandom, which is entirely premised upon imbalances of power?

I began writing from a young age as a means of interacting with the objects of my desire. It was the only way I could be in the “same room” as them, too self-conscious as I was to attempt anything in real life. But these journal entries only exacerbated my desire, adding fantastically impractical wings onto the original fuselage, such that I grew to equate writing about a person with annihilating my romantic chances.

If I desire you, I cannot have you – that became the principle. In this despairing manner did creativity begin for me. Here, then, was my first taste of real power. Perhaps fans who compose stories about their favourite stars feel similarly. After all, writers seem to know how to convert their weaknesses into strengths.

The novel often feels dreamlike. Is this a more honest way of storytelling than straightforward realism?

If realism purports to represent reality, then must not realism include the dreamlike? I dream every single night. Sometimes I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. I know certain of my intuitions are irrational, but I also know I’m not wrong.

When I’m captivated by a person, I can feel them squirming in their thoughts – existing – on the other side of a city. Even on the other side of time. Indeed, there are ten or so dead people I think about constantly. I feel closer to them than I do to most of the living. Realism, to justify its name, should reject its blandest certitudes, reject itself.

Although many of your characters are, in varying ways, disconnected from reality, they often strike at the heart of emotional truths. Is the boundary between sanity and insanity less concrete than we would like to think?

My characters could be said to lack the bovine complacence, the effortless belonging, of an animal. If I were their friend, I would nod my head in sad but approving consternation. It grates on me to hear my narrator called “mentally ill”. Medical adjudications have no place in my work. My characters are battering themselves against the wall of a single question: “Why am I here?”

It’s a nefarious question, one that steers them into bizarre commitments. It seems to me that when a person interrogates the incongruity between their consciousness and their flesh-bound facticity – in the manner of art or philosophy, or even in emboldened thinking or living – they can go mad. They might also break free.

Language is important to the characters, especially the narrator. Does it offer us a way to make sense of a nonsensical world, or can it only ever be a hindrance in our attempts to express ourselves?

The hindrance is the sense. The hindrance is what illuminates. In the hands of the writers I admire, language is rendered with crystalline severity, no word goes to waste, and yet something collects high above the text. Up there, in the vapour – that’s where I find myself strangely expanded by my own confusion.

A work that draws with precision the contours of a fundamental mystery. A work that shows me exactly how I don’t know anything at all. A work that does not take for granted the natural advantages of literature: its plodding exactitude, word for word, building up, calmly and systematically, toward deadlock and unspent energy, an intricate catastrophe of consciousness put together with gentle hands – such a work is the dream.

Throughout the book, characters are forced to contend with the fact that they do not know others as they thought they did. Can we ever truly know another person – and can we ever present a true version of ourselves to the world?

I barely know myself. The situation isn’t one of feeling “held at bay” from reaching some glowing centre at which true knowledge lives. It’s rather that no such centre seems to exist. I do make an effort to learn about myself, but it’s more like learning a language no one else speaks than it is like learning a set of facts. Other people are even more bewildering. I really like this about them.

Y/N by Esther Yi is out on 8 June, published by Europa

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