This reading group guide for What We Kept to Ourselves includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nancy Jooyoun Kim
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction The New York Times bestselling author of the Reese’s Book Club pick The Last Story of Mina Lee returns with a timely and surprising new novel about a family’s search for answers following the disappearance of their mother. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What We Kept to Ourselves
is told in alternating timelines, one set in 1977 and the other in 1999. Sunhee (later Sunny) and John change significantly between these two periods of their lives. What were your first impressions of them in 1977 in comparison to them in 1999? Did these impressions change throughout the novel?
2. John and Sunny are both Korean refugees, but they did not experience the war and its effects the same way. How were they different? How do you think their pasts dictate the people they become and ultimately the choices they make in the novel?
3. The Kim family is broken into two generations: the parents, Sunny and John, and their children, Ana and Ronald. How do the two generations and their experiences in the United States contrast? Discuss how these differences impact their behavior and how they each respond to the tragedies and struggles throughout the novel.
4. Sunny and RJ develop a strong friendship throughout the novel. Discuss their relationship and its significance to each - of them. What were they each looking for when they befriended each other? Did this change throughout the years as their personal lives evolved?
5. Ronald and Ana are able to learn about RJ’s past as a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam before he became unhoused in Los Angeles. Discuss the factors that led to such a drastic change in circumstances? Do you believe the “system” or society failed him? Did it fail any other characters?
6. Art becomes an outlet of freedom for Sunny, returning her to a part of her past that she had given up. Do any of the other characters have the sense of freedom that she craves?
7. Sunny’s relationship with Professor Cho evolves throughout the novel. What does Professor Cho symbolize to Sunny at the different points in their relationship?
8. Sunny’s experiences in the US have a cumulative impact on her worldview and happiness. Discuss the most significant of those experiences. What pushed her to a breaking point and led to her departure?
9. Sunny and John both develop friendships outside of their marriage, Sunny with RJ and John with Priscilla. Compare and contrast these friendships and what they meant to Sunny and John.
10. Throughout the novel, what city a character lives in has a significant impact on their experience. Discuss how both Los Angeles and Seoul affect each character and how each character’s experience of both cities evolves throughout the story.
11. Each character brings something different to the novel. Which character did you connect with the most and why?
12. The novel culminates in two surprising events. How did the conclusion make you feel? Were you satisfied with each family member’s narrative arc and the lessons they each understood throughout the novel? Enhance Your Book Club
1. RJ is an integral part of Sunny’s story. As an unhoused veteran, he represents a growing population in the United States. A recent Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study found that nearly 600,000 people are unhoused on any night. Look into programs in your area to help the unhoused. Donate or volunteer at your local shelter with your book club members.
2. Food is a key part of the family and community throughout the novel. Try this recipe from the author with your group. SHROOMY VEGGIE-HEAVY JAPCHAE
Japchae is a savory and versatile noodle dish perfect for gatherings and parties. Although japchae is best after being warmed up in a pan, it can also be served at room temperature, which makes it easily transportable and great for potlucks. My version below is meatless but can be tweaked by substituting the dried shitake mushrooms with a bit of bulgogi that can be purchased at a Korean supermarket or made separately. Ingredients
6 oz. (or a handful) of dried dang myeon (sweet potato noodles)
pan-frying oil (grapeseed, vegetable, olive, etc.)
toasted sesame seeds
½ white or yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, cut into matchsticks
4–5 large, dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for about half an hour, stemmed and thinly sliced (or substitute in bulgogi if you prefer to include beef)
½ pound crimini or brown mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
1 inch of ginger root, grated
1 bunch of spinach, washed well and thinly sliced
1 yellow or red bell pepper, seeds removed and cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon of grated or finely chopped garlic
2 scallions, thinly and diagonally sliced
Boil a large pot of water for the noodles, following the package directions, until they are cooked through, about five or so minutes. Drain and rinse the noodles until cold. Shake them so they’re dry as possible, and then set them aside in a large bowl.
Mix the noodles in the large bowl with about 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, and a teaspoon of sugar. Make sure the noodles are evenly coated. (Some people like their noodles oilier, sweeter, or saltier than others, but start with these proportions and adjust to taste later.)
Cook onion over medium heat in a skillet with pan-frying oil until soft, stirring occasionally. Season with a little salt. Then add to the large bowl of noodles.
Cook carrots and shitake mushrooms, separately, using the same instructions as the onion above. Add pan-frying oil as needed to get everything nice and soft.
Cook the fresh mushrooms with ginger, and stir until the mushrooms have released their liquid and the pan is mostly dry. Then add the cooked mushrooms to the large bowl of noodles.
Add more oil if needed and cook the spinach until it wilts, for about two minutes, and then drain any liquid from the pan. Continue to drain the greens in a colander above a sink or dish.
Cook the bell pepper like the carrots above, until soft.
Squeeze excess water from the spinach, which has been cooling down and draining in a colander.
Toss everything together in the large bowl along with the grated garlic, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1/2 tablespoon of sugar, some cracks of ground pepper, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon of roasted sesame seeds. Taste and adjust seasoning to your preference.
Top everything with the sliced scallions and a sprinkle of more seeds. Make it pretty, as my mom says, and serve.
3. To learn more about Nancy Jooyoun Kim, learn about events, and read her debut and Reese’s Book Club pick, The Last Story of Mina Lee
, visit Nancy’s official site at www.nancyjooyounkim.com. A Conversation with Nancy Jooyoun Kim Q: Stories focused on family dynamics are evergreen in literature—why did you choose to explore the different relationships within the Kim family?
A: On the surface, the Kims appear to be an average immigrant and working-class family in Los Angeles. There are security bars over their windows, concrete instead of plants and dirt, neighbors who are too busy or suspicious to get to know each other. They are a very American family—yet in mainstream culture, we rarely see nuanced representations of people like them.
But as I’ve thought about this book off and on for almost twenty years (!!), the Kim family, upon closer inspection, is also a microcosm of a divided America, seemingly at war with itself, sometimes so much that it reminds me of the Korea from which the Kims fled, first internally as refugees in the 1950s, and then externally in the ’60s and ’70s as immigrants to the United States.
There’s a father who can’t move on and refuses to admit that he had given his life to a dream that might just be that
only, or even the opposite—someone else’s nightmare. A progressive daughter who can’t figure out a way to live her values and not die from boredom or a lack of pay. A mother who is a woman who has gone missing long before she actually disappears. The silences, the secrets, and the shames of this family aren’t too different from the ones we might experience more broadly in a country that hasn’t seemed to quite yet figure out how to live and move forward with the weight of its past. Q: What was your inspiration for writing the novel?
A: I started writing a version of this novel almost twenty years ago, and my first inspiration was the sudden death of my father, whom I had been estranged from and hadn’t spoken to in months. My parents divorced when I was young, and our relationship had always been difficult.
When he died in a car accident, I had suddenly become responsible for not only his body but the many artifacts, the evidence of who he was that he had unknowingly left behind. So the tragedies and the failures and the ways that he found to cope and endure despite them inspired the character of John, and the novel’s opening—a man in his sixties driving a large, dilapidated car that he doesn’t even quite need into a sunset before the apocalypse.
The plot of the novel was partially inspired by encounters I have had with the unhoused in California, which has the largest relative proportion of unhoused people in the country. This crisis is very much a part of everyday life here in the Bay Area, and I wonder often about the stories behind what are at times the most abject cases.
I don’t understand how we can continue to accept such extreme poverty in a country that is seen as the “land of opportunity” abroad. Thus, this novel explores what it means to own a home, for immigrants and working- and middle-class Americans, when the basics of community and shelter have been readily denied to so many through policies and practices that don’t protect people equally. Q: What novels were you drawn to growing up? Have these changed as you evolved as an adult?
A: I was a “very serious young reader.” Growing up, I was mostly drawn to what I would consider to be “difficult books.” I adored the modernists, and I had a thing for writers of the American South, like Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
College, interestingly, exposed me to genre and what people often deem to be “less academic” reading, which I completely disagree with now. I took a course in African American detective fiction that changed my life.
Now I’m open to reading the best of everything—nonfiction, science fiction, detective, romance, etc. Genre to me is an expression of authorial intent and theme, and certainly worthy of study for a variety of reasons. Q: What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
A: That there are many ways to create and share your own story right now. That generations before us, even if we might not have had a common language, attempt to speak to us all the time—through food and culture and music. That if we ever question why people kept us in the dark or didn’t share enough, we must equally question ourselves and what we leave behind for others to help make sense of and create meaning in this life. Q: Why did you choose to set the novel in the 1970s and 1999?
A: The year 1999 was a pivotal moment for the internet in what felt like a very close encounter with a potentially human-made and completely stupid-seeming apocalypse. The internet and the personal computer changed how people, in their homes communicated, silently, sometimes anonymously, across a vast span of distance, and occasionally reversed the roles of parents and children. Adults could now learn something very valuable from their kids. This shift reminds me a lot of a dynamic that has been eternally present within immigrant families—the child as translator, sometimes chaperone of parents through a foreign country.
I chose the 1970s primarily because my own mother immigrated to this country in that decade and that meant less research for me! But as I thought more about the decade and what it meant to us a country, I came upon this realization through a Nathaniel Rich article in the New York Time Magazine
—that despite its great hair, glitz, and glamour, the ’70 was also the beginning of the decade when scientists fully understood the danger of climate change (1979–89) and, depressingly, it could’ve been stopped. This reminded me of the everyday role of gasoline in people’s lives during that time period, how my father, like John himself, owned a gas station in south LA, and why in the ’80s, gasoline had become cheap enough to “guzzle.” There’s so much combustion in my novel, right? Q: If you had to pick a favorite landmark in Los Angeles, what would it be?
A: I have so many, including the Griffith Obsveratory, the location of such emotional scenes in this book, but if I have to choose one, it’ll always be the Santa Monica Pier, which I featured in my first book, The Last Story of Mina Lee
. Both locals and tourists from all over the world visit the pier, and walking down it is an adventure and immersion in so many languages, cultures, and ways of life. It’s also a poignant reminder that no matter where you come from, most people simply want to be outside and to keep falling in love with being alive.