In the novel Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim, Jade is sold to a courtesan school by her desperate mother. At around the same time, Jade also meets JungHo, an orphan with whom she forms a deep friendship. The story transports the reader to Korea during the Independence Movement.
The novel reads tenderly, passionately, and elegantly about friendship, love, heroes, and beasts.
I asked Juhea Kim about time in this story, how she wanted women — particularly courtesans — to be in this story, how she wanted men to be in this story, and how this novel holds courage.
Thank you, Juhea Kim, for your responses to Feminist Book Club.
[cw: rape, animal eating, Hiroshima]
What is your definition of feminism?
Feminism is a belief in the equal rights of people regardless of their gender. This is the definition I’ve used to identify as a feminist since I was a teen. I also think this is a definition that everyone can support, in an ideal world. But my personal definition of feminism goes further to also uphold the rights and dignity of nonhuman animals, especially those exploited for their reproductive systems such as chickens and dairy cows. In fact, I first became vegan at age 19 because of my feminist beliefs.
Beasts of a Little Land spans decades. How did you want time to move in this story?
I didn’t think of time as something moving, but something to build. I was visualizing my novel as a cathedral, which is how I experienced Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. When you build a cathedral, you have to build all four sides at once, but from the beginning, you have to have an idea of where the keystone would fit — meaning, these characters had to start far from one another, but their lives would cross and interlock eventually. There is a sense of arrival at the end of the novel, but a circularity rather than linearity.
Courtesans have a wealthier clientele. They are also destined to get married and have children. How did you want women to see themselves over the course of their stories?
Actually, courtesans are not destined to get married, typically. Some of them did, but many lived independently, which made them very unique in a patriarchal society where the only role of “respectable” women was that of a wife and mother.
Not only were courtesans financially independent, but they were also extremely well-educated, artistic, and frequently altruistic and courageous. Throughout Korean history, famous courtesans sacrificed their lives during foreign invasions, which of course culminated in their role during the independence movement. While much of their wealth and power came from their attractiveness, that attractiveness wasn’t solely based on their physical beauty. Often, it was their courage and talent that won greater renown. By showing complex Korean women characters who take charge of their own lives and forge their country’s, I wanted to honor the legacy of historical courtesans — and inspire modern readers to also lead such full lives.
How did you want men to have a role in this story, particularly as lovers?
I think what we see here are men and women who struggle with some of the very issues we deal with today. They wonder: Should I get back together with my ex? Why won’t this person marry me; am I not good enough? Should I have an affair? And men in this story think and behave much as men do now because these concerns are universal.
During the research process, I read a lot of fiction written by early-20th-century Korean writers, and that’s what stood out to me: the complete relatability of relationship problems back then. So, the roles these men play came about very naturally, because I’ve had my own experiences with love and relationships, and could easily envision these male characters.
Only one male character’s role as a lover was very particularly designed on my part, and that was JungHo. He devotes himself completely to Jade from a young age, which might seem extraordinary to the American reader but in keeping with the Korean idea of soonjeong, or pure love, that is so important to our cultural life.
There is a line in the novel, “If you need courage, just look at the sky.” Please describe this novel as the sky.
Many, many variations of the sky appear in the novel, from the clear blue of autumn to the violent yellow of a hot afternoon, to frosty white with snow. If this novel were just one kind of sky, I think it would be the rosy one that MyungBo sees as the sun rises over the new republic.
What organization would you like to amplify to our audience?
I love this question, and thank you for asking me. I donate a portion of my author proceeds from the worldwide sales of Beasts of a Little Land to the Phoenix Fund, a Vladivostok-based nonprofit working to protect the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard.
In the wild, there are about 500 Siberian tigers and just 110 Amur leopards remaining. These leopards are the most endangered big cat species in the world, and one of the most endangered mammals, period. What’s important to remember is that species with so few individuals have come back successfully — with sustained effort.
In my conversations with the Phoenix Fund, they told me tigers and leopards don’t come back because of a five-year plan, but you have to work with the next 20… 30… 50 years in mind. This was a valuable epiphany for me. If you really want to make a difference in the world, choose a cause that you’re passionate about, and support it long-term. My mission as an artist is not only to create art, but to use my platform to do good, and I’m looking forward to lending my voice and financial support to this organization for many years.
While you can’t send funds to Russia due to the war in Ukraine, please support this conservation organization by checking out their work and following them on social media. For all the innocents on both sides, I hope the war will end soon and that the global activism network can be restored.