A poignant mother-daughter story and surprising mystery, The Last Story of Mina Lee is an electrifying debut novel that illustrates the devastating realities of being an immigrant in America. We spoke with author Nancy Jooyoun Kim about the inspiration for the novel, her own experience as an indie bookseller, and more.
“The Last Story of Mina Lee is a fierce, gripping call to love and memory. Nancy Jooyoun Kim has written a beautiful debut novel that is unafraid to delve into the scary, deeply vulnerable places of our hearts. It’s a riveting dance between mother and daughter, moving fluidly back and forth through time, documenting the quiet traumas that can divide generations.”Kristen Arnett, New York Times bestselling author of Mostly Dead Things
Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.
The Last Story of Mina Lee began with a short story that I wrote back in 2008 with the protagonist, Margot, a young Korean-American woman who had moved to Seattle to escape both her mother (and all that she represents), and, essentially, herself, her own childhood, and her own identity as well. As the only child of a single parent, Margot loves her mother more than anyone else but also finds her mother’s anxiety and her “neediness,” as a non-English-speaking immigrant, to be suffocating, too. So every single of one of their long-distance phone calls is a mix of love and worry and annoyance and resentment.
But one day, Margot calls her mother, and her mother doesn’t pick up the phone. The phone simply rings and rings for days. She is terrified for her mother, of course. But what else does she feel—guilt, yes, but maybe even a bit of relief as if she is finally free. The image of Margot on the phone stuck with me for years until I finally had time to unpack the complexity of this mother-daughter relationship by writing this novel from 2014 to 2019.
Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?
I haven’t yet listened to my audiobook, but I’m excited to experience how the narrator, Greta Jung, handles all the different languages and voices in this book, the nuances of how and when and where the characters have lived in this world. This book is very much about silences and the unsaid, conversations that can never happen because of differences in language or simply a desire to protect one another or ourselves. So I’m thrilled to hear how a single narrator navigates all those spaces between and within these characters.
Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?
I listen to audiobooks on road trips during which my husband and I can enjoy a story together. We don’t generally have the same taste in books, but sometimes, miraculously, we overlap at nonfiction. The last audiobook we listened to was the chillingly disturbing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara. Coincidentally, as we drove down the coast from the SF Bay Area to Los Angeles, we passed through or near many of the areas where the serial killer lived and committed his gruesome crimes. This was a particularly frightening drive. Good book, but I would never do that again.
What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?
I spent about a year working as a part-time receiver at the wonderful Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, so I know firsthand how hard booksellers work and how vital they are to our communities. Most booksellers are extremely passionate about books and would love to help you find the next thing you’ll want to read and think and talk about with everyone.
Bookstores have always been a refuge for me, a place to discover new favorites and sometimes simply to revisit old ones. It’s particularly thrilling to get lost in the shelves and either revisit a book that you love or remember a book that you’ve been wanting to read for a long time but haven’t made time for—but will now. These physical spaces remind us of how we are all joined together, connected, experiences shared, just as a book is meant to be, living on a shelf. For me, bookstores and libraries are the heart of a community and are vital to making our social spaces feel welcoming, intimate, alive, and engaged with the world.
Header photo by Andria Lo