Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Nancy Jooyoun Kim to discuss WHAT WE KEPT TO OURSELVES, an intricately crafted mystery and heart-wrenching family saga about a Korean American family in Los Angeles, their missing mother, and the dead stranger that appears in their backyard. Nancy discusses the themes of motherhood, immigration, grief, the challenge of communication between generations, and what it means to disappear, all of which tie to her novel and her real life. She also describes her path to storytelling and gives us a glimpse into the book she is working on now!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nancy. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” now to discuss What We Kept to Ourselves: A Novel.

Nancy Jooyoun Kim: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s so great to be here again. Congratulations on Zibby Books and your bookstore. So exciting.

Zibby: Thank you. I love this cover. Do you just have bowls of little clementines around, or tangerines, oranges?

Nancy: Those are persimmon. That’s a fuyu persimmon, which are actually in season right now. You can find them at your local grocer.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll bring your book into the grocery store. If I do this, I will tag you. I’ll try and do it today. Oh, my goodness. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Nancy: What We Kept to Ourselves is about a Korean American family that lives in Los Angeles that is unraveling during — it actually begins in Y2K, December 1999. It’s unraveling for a lot of reasons, but primarily because of a missing mother who disappeared the past year and then a dead stranger who appears in the backyard. It begins with a real bang in a lot of ways. Through this process of coming to terms with what might have happened to her mother, the mother who, the stranger is in their backyard, the family begins to confront, really, what they know about their mother, what they know about themselves, and what they’ve been keeping from each other all along. It’s a family saga. It’s got a little suspense, a little mystery, some thrills, some tears, a little bit of laughter. It’s quite a book. It’s quite big too. It’s about four hundred pages long.

Zibby: It’s fast reading. The way you write is — not fast in a bad way. It doesn’t feel long and heavy and difficult to get through. It doesn’t feel intimidating. That’s the word.

Nancy: Oh, that’s great. Thank you so much. It’s definitely a saga, and I hope an approachable saga because these people are all very real.

Zibby: Yes, an approachable saga.

Nancy: These people are all very real. Whether or not they remind us of people in our family, we’ve encountered people like that. We know the dad who is holding onto his dilapidated car that means so much to him and probably shouldn’t be driving as much as he does anymore. We all get that.

Zibby: You also have that universal regret when people we love are no longer with us in one way, shape, or form. What I wouldn’t give to have another moment with this person or that person. If only I had known, this wouldn’t have annoyed me.

Nancy: Exactly. That is entirely universal. In many ways, this is very specifically an immigrant story, but it’s universal in the sense that — within immigrant families, and this is something that I explore in my book, there’s this intergenerational conflict between language and not having the language to tell each other different things. We have Korean-speaking parents, English-speaking children. I honestly think that that’s just an intense representation of what we all go through universally. I think we all spend many hours in our day worrying about what to say to people, how to say it, thinking about how someone said something to us or didn’t say something to us, and so the struggle to communicate how we really feel and to be heard and seen by people we love, it belongs to everyone. It’s our collective struggle, especially during the holiday season. This is the boiling pot.

Zibby: That’s true, yes. It can feel like you’re not even speaking the same language.

Nancy: Exactly, between generations, with our kids. Sometimes we literally aren’t. With our parents, sometimes we’re literally not. It’s wild even if you all speak English.

Zibby: The big gulfs. I like, also, how you explore a mother disappearing because everyone wonders — there’s a piece of ourselves that always disappears when we become a mother. There’s another part that grows and maybe takes the place of, but there is something that you lose. Sunny was so young and so clueless getting into this whole relationship. I feel like she was almost duped a little bit. Not duped, but she was sold a bill of goods and then was like, oh, wait, you’re not this dashing prince I thought you were. Here I am in America. You’re working at a gas station. You explore that. What does that mean? What would happen if we all got up and left to find ourselves? What would that do to the people who remain?

Nancy: It’s so fascinating to me. As you say, I think we do disappear in a lot of ways. Even though Sunny physically disappears, I think that’s a metaphor for the way that we all disappear and the ways that we can kind of find ourselves metaphorically without physically disappearing. Definitely, this isn’t a promotion to disappear literally. I think that there are ways that we can, in our daily lives, make time for finding who we are. I became a mother while I was writing the final version of this book. I really hunkered down and wrote this book during 2020 to 2022. That was peak pandemic. I was also a new mother. In that process, of course, I knew firsthand what it was like. I disappeared from my friends in a lot of ways. Suddenly, I was a mom, and I didn’t have any time for them. I disappeared as a daughter to my mother. My mother started to sort of miss me because I wasn’t around anymore. I disappeared to myself in so many ways because I couldn’t spend time doing the things that I know myself for doing, reading, writing, watching movies. Oh, my gosh, I love movies. The three hours is such a luxury. Two to three hours for a movie is huge. I think this is, in some ways, an invitation to kind of reckon with the parts of ourselves that disappear and realize that there’s still many manifestations and versions of our life that we can live. They’re still out there. They’re waiting for us. It’s just about timing and coincidence and when things happen to work out, as they do or don’t for Sunny in this book.

Zibby: Interesting, so for anybody who is struggling with motherhood…

Nancy: Oh, my goodness, I think you will relate quite a bit to, at least, this desire to disappear. There’s a good amount of fiction — I think of Lisa Ko’s The Leavers. There’s a lot of books about mothers who disappear. It’s all about, did something happen to her? Did she do this to herself? How could she possibly leave us? That’s actually really a fascinating question. I think that within society, it’s almost considered unthinkable and unforgivable. It’s kind of considered an unforgivable act. In my own family, my father actually left my family when I was six. He disappeared. He didn’t pay child support. I grew up in a single-parent, working-class family. He eventually came back. My parents were divorced. He was a Sunday father, but my father disappeared. I think we see that a lot more. That’s a more familiar narrative. That’s actually, in some ways, a more acceptable narrative, the father that leaves, because, you know, men have complicated lives. They’ve got to go take care themselves, but what about women?

Zibby: Isn’t that in Celeste Ng’s I Know This Much Is True? Remember? The mom goes away for a while. Doesn’t she? Maybe I’m mixing up —

Nancy: — Everything I Never Told You?

Zibby: Yeah. What did I say? I think I got it wrong.

Nancy: I want to say that, yes, you’re right. I Know This Much Is True.

Zibby: Oh, god. No, that’s Wally Lamb. Oh, my gosh.

Nancy: Wally’s titles are very, very similar.

Zibby: Multi-word titles.

Nancy: I think they all have a similar cadence to them. They have the same rhythms.

Zibby: Okay, so we won’t tell anyone.

Nancy: I think she does disappear for a little bit.

Zibby: Doesn’t she? Then she comes back or something. Yes, I see what you’re saying. In truth, any parent disappearing, it’s not a good thing.

Nancy: Right, of course.

Zibby: Disappearance, that is the most destabilizing thing, when you don’t have answers too. It’s one thing when you — not to say anything is better or worse. At least when you lose someone, you can start the grieving process. You know how to go through that. Other people have gone through that. When there’s so much uncertainty, then what?

Nancy: John, six months after his wife disappears — this is in the beginning of the book. He tells his kids that she’s dead because he thinks that’s easier. That is easier in some weird way because then they can begin to move on, but the kids don’t believe him, of course. One of them does, and one of them doesn’t. That’s also very complicated between siblings. That makes total sense to me.

Zibby: You have a sibling?

Nancy: I do. I have a sister. Not close, necessarily.

Zibby: You almost didn’t even need to say that.

Nancy: There’s a lot of love, though. There’s a lot of love. We all have such different experiences of the things that we go through as children. We all grow differently too. It’s fascinating. Siblings are fascinating. Very complicated relationships.

Zibby: Also, now is just one of the seasons of your relationship with her. You know what I mean? You don’t even know in ten years.

Nancy: Right, you don’t even know. I had never anticipated any of this either. I think that’s what makes life so interesting, to a certain extent. You just never know how things can come together and how they don’t. Both of my books deal with the loss or the disappearance of a mother or mother figures and mother characters. A lot of people will tell me about how this book reminded them about how they had wished they had asked or spent more time with certain family members. They wished their parents had talked more about this or that. I completely identify with that feeling. I think that’s why I write the books I write. I also hope this is an invitation for people to think about the stories that they tell, not necessarily just their children, but the world, about who they are and to not assume that people aren’t interested. I think that’s what we do. I was at a party this weekend. Somebody was like, nobody’s ever going to want to hear my story. That’s kind of just an assumption because it’s really all about how you frame the story that really draws people in. Any life can be made extraordinary by the way it’s told. The ticket is really thinking, how are you going to pull people in with a story that might seem very ordinary on the outside? To us, our own lives are always ordinary.

Zibby: Then look at Seinfeld. That was just making the everyday into something that makes us all laugh and relate to everyday annoyances.

Nancy: I hope this book is also an invitation to share as much about ourselves with people that we love as possible that’s safe for you and in a way that feels authentic to you. That could be in a form of telling a real story. It could be in the form of the way you dress, in the meals that you cook. There are so many ways to tell stories that matter and that last. Really, down the line, I think that’s what people will remember about us and what people hold onto the closest when they need us and we’re not able to be there.

Zibby: How did you learn how to tell stories?

Nancy: That’s such a great question. It must be through — just like the characters in my novel, I grew up in families where there were Korean speakers and English speakers. I’m not fluent in Korean, so I couldn’t access a lot of information. I think for that reason, I became a storyteller, because I had to fill in a lot of gaps within my family’s life. I was very imaginative. I had a lot of free time and free play, if that makes sense. I was a very big make-believer. I love make-believe. I was always caught dreaming. Somewhere in that space, I feel like I was so freely given an opportunity to imagine and play and make-believe that I learned to somehow organize that information through writing. I think it’s just a form of organization in some weird way. It’s kind of a dream space that you’re in that you’re trying to communicate to others, but you can’t exactly translate what’s in your head to people without writing it down and then going through the process of revising and revising. For me, it was in that sense.

I also have storytellers in my family in the sense that my mother is an extraordinary cook, and that’s her form of storytelling. She got that from my grandmother. That was a very traditional women’s role, which is to pass down traditions and meaning through food and gathering. My grandfather was an artist. That plays into the novel because I have a lot of painters and artists in my novel. That was his form of storytelling. He was a silent man. He was so quiet. When I look deeply at his paintings, I realize what he was trying to tell me through them. I think that that’s really, really wonderful, regardless of what he knew about the effect of his paintings as he was creating them, that he has left me paintings. It’s an artifact of where I come from without him having even known that he was doing this for me personally.

Zibby: Interesting. My grandmother did the same thing. Later in life, she took up painting and had the paint tubes everywhere and would give me things. I have all her paintings. I was like, of course, I want them. They meant so much to her.

Nancy: You look at it on the wall, and it’s a reminder of — it’s just such a powerful form of storytelling for people who either personally couldn’t express themselves or for whatever reason the social circumstances didn’t allow them to. My paintings are so meaningful. Hopefully, my daughter will care about them at one point in her life. Just knowing that we have this focal point to be able to discuss our family in a way that isn’t overwhelming, it’s an introduction to start a conversation. That’s great art, great design.

Zibby: In your family, I know your title is What We Kept to Ourselves, what do you keep to yourselves?

Nancy: That’s a great question. For many years, I had never heard my mother express how much she loved me, how much she cared for me. She worked so hard. Her emotions were so overwhelming. I think that she just didn’t know how to express that in words. She did it by putting her head down. She was a single mom, working class, non-English speaking, Koreatown, Los Angeles. She worked so many jobs. I think that she could not find the time to put the words together, for whatever reason, either it was too painful, it was too overwhelming. She just couldn’t process her emotions in that way because she was so busy. I remember very explicitly — I carry this for the rest of my life. When I was in my teenage years, I was very worried about applying to colleges, college applications. Everyone else seemed to have so many more advantages than me. I was struggling so much in so many ways in my life, not necessarily academically, but with the dynamics of my family. I remember my mother one time telling me over the phone very slowly — she doesn’t speak English. She said, very carefully like she looked up every single word in the Korean-to-English dictionary — this was before the regular internet where we had it everywhere. She said, “I believe in you.” She said it in this very soft, robotic — she had strung together this sentence with all of her might. I broke down because I realized that she’s always believed in me. She’s always loved me. It took her a herculean amount of energy to express this to me. I realized that a lot of people go through life this way.

I think as writers and as readers, we’re very, very lucky. It’s easier for us to express ourselves. So many people go through life without the language, regardless of what language it is, but without the language to feel like their voice matters, to feel like they should be heard, that it matters to say that to someone. So many people feel that way. Those four words, which was her own little form of telling me how much she believed in me, was her way of affirming not only her emotional life and the things that she feels and what she’s kept to herself, but that I had inherited so many of the qualities that had created her ability to do that. It was so affirming on so many multiple layers. That is what my family kept to itself. Unfortunately, it withheld love when I needed it when I was young. I think my mother just worked too hard. I think that for her, for a lot of families, it’s an expression of vulnerability, of intimacy. It’s a very difficult thing to manage when the world requires you to be so tough in so many ways, especially for working parents who are spending so much of their lives putting on a face to show up at work. We all relate to this. Then suddenly, we are encountered with these creatures. Children are so lovely because they’re so vulnerable. They’re so real. To be able to switch that quickly on a dime when the world wants us to be so hard is very, very difficult. That’s definitely something my family kept to itself. Hopefully, I’m the opposite with my daughter. I’m almost annoyingly loving. She’s only three. I’m already, all the time, like, I love you. You’re amazing. I’m so proud of you. She’s just rolling her eyes at me already.

Zibby: It’s almost no surprise that you write books searching for moms who can bring their love back, right?

Nancy: Yes, definitely. For sure. I have such a special bond with my mother. I think we all have special bonds with our parents in various ways. For us, because we were a very small family — most of my family is in Korea or in Canada. We really had to be everything for each other in a way that was kind of dysfunctional. There were times when I was her mother, and she was my daughter. I had to take her to the DMV and take care of her. That reversal of roles that sort of happens with elderly parents that we experience actually happened when I was very young because my mother couldn’t navigate a lot of the systems that she was in in America as a Korean-speaking single mother. She was on her own. She had her little daughter taking her to the DMV and filling out forms for her, which I am planning on doing now, actually, for her simply because of age.

Zibby: Isn’t it crazy how our brains just use all this information and then turn it into a story that’s immersive and wonderful for other people to read and yet has all these little bits and pieces of our own lives and feelings? Yet there it is. Crazy, right?

Nancy: Yeah, it’s wild. That’s what makes it so magical. I know there are people who would like to replace us, but the whole point of reading books is really a connection with another human being. The fact that it connects me and you together, we’re from two very — I’m not sure what time zone you’re in right now. I’m on the West Coast. We’re from two different lives. Yet we sat together at some point in time, maybe not at the exact same moment, but we sat together within a world, within a space, and we both found some kind of meaning within in. It made sense to us in a way that is conversational and beautiful without, even, us actually meeting each other. I think that that is really the point of reading and books. Ultimately, if books aren’t really written by people, there’s no purpose. I feel like there’s so many other things we could be doing. I could be gardening.

Zibby: You could be at the DMV.

Nancy: Exactly, I could be at the DMV. I make the time to make connections with books because I connect with people through them. I find the best people, like you Zibby, through books. Really, don’t we meet such cool people? We meet the coolest people.

Zibby: Such cool people. The coolest people. You have to look at the world in a certain way. I totally agree.

Nancy: It’s just so fascinating. People that I would’ve never met without books. It’s great.

Zibby: What it really is — I like to say that no two people who have read the same book are really strangers because we all have mutual friends. It’s like, oh, you know that girl from college? It’s a shorthand. Every book we read, it’s a shorthand with other people.

Nancy: It’s a community, which is really fascinating. I kind of think of books as instruments. Everybody picks it up and plays it a little differently.

Zibby: Ooh, I like that.

Nancy: We’ve all held the same instrument. We all understand its nuances to a certain extent. It could create really beautiful conversation or music when it’s played together in a really interesting way. I love the idea of the book as this object that people can kind of channel themselves through. Everyone will have a different way of playing the book. That’s why we have books, and some people hate them and some people love them. At the end of the day, a person passed through that book in a really fascinating way. Nothing really replaces — that’s almost the point of life.

Zibby: Nancy, I think they should take us on the road here and just talk about reading. Look at us. We’re just a big advertisement for the power of reading.

Nancy: I think so. We’re great. Who’s out there? Who’s listening? We’re available, kind of. I think a lot of people will hear, and I think it’ll click. We know our people are out there.

Zibby: Yes. Hopefully, they’re listening. Quick question. What are you working on now? Do you have another book? What are you up to?

Nancy: My brain is half in this book and then half in another book. I’m working on a third book which would be considered the third book in a kind of trilogy. They’re not sequels in the sense that you don’t have to read one to understand the other. They’re reflections on family. They all involve crime and punishment, secrets, shame. My third book will be literary also, but it’ll play on elements of thriller, which, to me, is new. I used mystery and I used suspense in my first two books, but I’m interested in a different kind of pace for my next book. That’ll be an adventure. It’ll also be a Korean American family in Los Angeles. It should be fun. I’m trying to just keep it fun, to be honest. I know the content of my stories, it’s very emotional. It can be heavy at times. I’m trying to keep the playfulness alive. Everyone’s motivated by different things. What motivates me is I need to constantly be challenged. This is my next challenge.

Zibby: I love it. If it’s not fun for you, it’s not going to be fun for us to read. You might as well enjoy it. Congratulations. What We Kept to Ourselves.

Nancy: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m off to the grocery store now, so I can take a cool picture.

Nancy: Brought to you by persimmons. This was paid for by persimmons. No.

Zibby: Paid for by persimmons and the American Reading Association.

Nancy: I love them both. We’ll see. We can all use a little bit more fruit and vegetables in our life.

Zibby: That’s true. Who knew I would get mine on a book cover? That’s it.

Nancy: Thank you so much for catching up with me. That was so fun, Zibby. Happy holidays.

Zibby: You too. That was so fun.

Nancy: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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