Wiley’s ‘When We Fell Apart’ is a buzzing debut novel

Peter D. Kramer

Death comes quickly and triggers a deepening mystery in “When We Fell Apart,” the acclaimed debut novel by Soon Wiley, who grew up in Nyack, New York, in a family with the same make-up that fuels her fiction.

The son of a white father and a Korean mother, Wiley says it wasn’t until college that he began to feel the inner conflict he gave to his character, Min, a man with his feet in America and Korea, which never feels at home in either. .

In America, Min is too Korean; in Seoul, his square jaw and non-Korean nose make him an outsider, kyopo.

But Min puts her biculturalism to work, teaching Samsung executives about American culture, mostly by showing them TV shows to give them insight into the American psyche and how it could be exploited to Samsung’s advantage.

He meets Yu-jin, a Korean student who is also looking for her place. A devoted girl who has always put her studies first, she longs to reinvent herself in Seoul and quickly abandons her high school friends for the clean slate offered in the big city.

Soon they are inseparable, walking around the city with a splicer tying their headphones together, allowing them to experience Seoul on the same soundtrack.

Then she died. The police say it’s a suicide, but Min is convinced that the Yu-jin he knew would never do such a thing.

He begins to reconstruct and deconstruct the previous hours, days, weeks, hoping for clues to make sense of his death. His investigation takes him to alleys and nightclubs, to a forested island and to the highest level of South Korean power.

“When We Fell Apart” received a favorable review from Kirkus, who called it “a dark coming-of-age tale in mystery form”.

“Fueled by deep feelings and a powerful sense of place, the book gains real emotional pull by capturing the despair of struggling individuals pushed to the margins by conformist norms,” ​​Kirkus concluded.

A name that stands out

Korean wasn’t spoken in the Wiley household, nor was there a deep connection to Korean things, but his name definitely stuck out in Nyack High School, where he recalls the Asian club had more Filipinos and Indians than Koreans.

Wiley graduated in the class of 2005. In his early days at Nyack, Wiley says he didn’t struggle with his cultural identity.

Of course, there were questions. “My name was more part of the opening salvo,” says Wiley. While his birth certificate honored his grandfathers — Nathaniel and Soon-nam — he went by the shorthand “Soon.”

“It’s not a name like Matt or Mike or Chris or anything like that, so that, I think, always raised some eyebrows,” he said. “But I was always very happy to answer those questions.”

When he traveled to Seoul after college, he taught English at a private school, as part of a Korean school day that started at 8 a.m. at the public school and could easily s extend until 9 p.m. in private schools.

He remembers looking forward to being in Seoul, to being somewhere where his name wouldn’t stand out, only for his boss to insist that he use the name Nathaniel, or Nathan, as a way to reinforce his good faith. American among the parents of the school.

When he left campus and found himself in social settings, he learned that Soon-nam got stuck, for a different reason.

“People would die of laughter because Soon-nam is like a really old-fashioned name, the equivalent of, like, Ethel,” he says. “I don’t mean to offend any Ethels, but it’s a very old-fashioned name that had fallen out of favor.”

He expected to be accepted, but instead encountered what he says Korean Canadians and Korean Americans often experience.

“They will return to Korea and ethnically their full Korean,” he says. “But even then, most Koreans will say, ‘Hey, you’re not really Korean, are you? If you grew up in Canada, you’re not Korean.'”

Nyack native Soon Wiley signs a copy of his first novel

‘Live your life’

Yet her American childhood was not defined by her racial identity.

“My parents were less focused on ‘you’re half this or you’re half that’ and more ‘you’re a human being, go out and live your life,'” Wiley says. This life took him to Connecticut College and Wichita State (for his MFA) and Johns Hopkins for a Masters in Writing.

It also led him to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC when Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia were students. It was there that he began writing “When We Fell Apart,” a work that took him seven years to create.

While at Sidwell Friends, teaching students whose parents had high expectations of them, some of that seeped into the story of a Korean girl whose high expectations from the father weighed heavily on her daughter. . Expectations are everywhere in “When We Fell Apart.”

“Working there and writing letters of recommendation to children and seeing them overjoyed when they entered the school of their choice or discouraged when they didn’t, all of that, I think, is definitely got into Yu-jin’s kind of perspective,” he mentioned.

He now lives in Darien, Connecticut and teaches senior level English at Greenwich Country Day School.

Susan Williamson hears all the time from authors her clients want to meet at book signings at her Booksy Galore store in Pound Ridge, New York. It is not often that an author comes himself to plead the case.

That’s what happened when Wiley walked into Williamson’s charming Westchester bookstore not too long ago.

“He lives in Connecticut, so he’s local and he came over and we talked about it a bit. Then they sent you and me the galley and say from the first chapter: It’s well written and gripping. What I like is that it’s contemporary and deals with a lot of contemporary issues in a really engaging way.

“Especially now, with a lot of politics and identity politics, people can kind of be like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not my story, so I’m not interested,'” Williamson says. “I love that he wrote in a very, you know, universal way.

Two worlds, two stories

The characters of “When We Fell Apart” – Min, Yu-jin and her roommates So-ra and Misaki, who is Japanese – all exist in two worlds, one realm that Wiley finds fascinating and compares to Nick Carraway in one of his favorite novels, “The Great Gatsby”, a character inside and out.

“He’s one of that group of people that he’s both quite obsessed with, but also repelled by,” Wiley said. “For me, the characters are most enthralling and exciting when trying to navigate two worlds.”

Nyack native Soon Wiley signs a copy of his first novel

To accentuate this, Wiley tells side stories in brief, alternating chapters – Min and Yu-jin, one a roller coaster of suspense and suspicion, the other a gradual awakening – leading up to the scene of Yu’s death. -jin. What started as Min’s first-person story evolved into two voices with perspectives on the same event.

“At the end, I was like putting puzzle pieces together, putting these chapters together, making sure Yu-jin didn’t reveal anything until Min found out,” he says.

But there are secrets held and kept, secrets that define and deepen the characters.

There are moments here that call for the film rights to be signed: a father-daughter fishing trip where lessons are taught gently but must be followed with rigor; a moment on an idle driving range where a woman claims her voice for the first time; and a betrayal that leads to the destruction of a character.

There is another character, the one Wiley presents with as much care as his young lovers. This is Korea, a nation that has seen conquerors bent on destroying it, erasing its ambitions.

Yu-jin’s military father put it this way: “Korea is a bridge. Geographically, culturally, geopolitically – countries have penetrated us, crossed us, burned us and rebuilt us. It does something to a place, to its identity. Being neither on one side nor the other is the difficulty of being a bridge. You are simply in between.

Contact 34-year-old employee Peter D. Kramer at [email protected] or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories.

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