Closing Keynote: Innovator Interview with Kim Sunée



Kim Sunee

Lisa Stone, Interviewer

Lisa: How many of you have ever considered writing a memoir? How many consider your blog a form of memoir? How many have written something on your blog that you might not have told people in person? How many of your mothers found that?

My good friend introduced me to Kim Sunee. For years I have wondered if I would be brave enough to write the story of my life. When I sat down and began reading Kim's incredible book, I was not expecting anything that I got. I want to take the next hour or so to talk to Kim, and talk about what shocked me about the book.

Kim: The subtitle is "Hunger, Love, and Search for Home." I think all of us have a story inside, and we're all working that out whether through our blog or other ways. Trail of Crumbs is about the trail we leave behind - in this case food - and how it grounds us and helps us find a way home - and home has many meanings.

Lisa: What surprised me first was that I had never heard of you. It's rare that you pick up a book about a person who started with the memoir. When I read it I was pretty shocked by your writing. She is an unbelievably gifted and haunting writer. You didn't have a home when the book starts.

Kim: The book starts in South Korea where I was left in a marketplace. I was basically left behind or lost. I was about three. I don't really know when I was born. That was a blessing to not really know how old I am. It was several days. I don't remember every aspect; I was told this over the years. Police found me on a bench, it happened quite often. They thought, "There's another lost child. Someone will come by and claim her." In my case, no one came back to claim me. That was the beginning of that story.

Lisa: When you arrived in the US with your new adopted family, something incredible happens with food.

Kim: It does. For me it was my adoptive grandfather, we were in New Orleans. I was in an apron standing next to him. What I got from him is a sense of food as a gift. His greatest pleasure was making these incredible meals. My friends call me the food pusher - that's the gift that I learned thanks to my experience in New Orleans.

Lisa: There are so many delicious crazy Cajun recipes. You talk about as a child, he takes you on some of these journeys. Crayfish, etoufee, everything is absolutely delicious.

Kim: Reads from book, "We called my grandfather Papi because I couldn't say grandfather. My sister who was also adopted named Suzy. Everyone says Papi should own a restaurant. We watch him finish in the kitchen…Suzi and I are the only Oriental girls, as we are called in our school. The comfort of Papi's kitchen is our refuge..."

On being Korean in New Orleans in the early 70s… "We drive along the Mississippi river every day…I take my sister's hand and our lunch boxes and march right up to the front of the bus. … My sister wipes her nose on my sleeve and I close my eyes, think of new names for myself. 'What do you think Papi made us for dinner,' I ask, hoping to distract my sister… Then I tell her he'll make her favorite dessert. We're going to get naturalized, I tell her. 'We're going to get natural eyes?' she asks"

Lisa: What happens next, I didn't expect you to go from an abandoned three-year-old, to living the life of a French, near-aristocrat. Food is wrapped around the experiences you had, food was your first comfort, but there are fascinating stories, where your boyfriend in Sweden brings home his other girlfriend and she insults your stew.

I wonder how you would describe a total sensory experience. Food, wine, sex, everything.

Kim: There is a journey from South Korea to New Orleans. It was an amazing life, but a lot of that was this search for home. After I went to school at the University of Nice, I didn't want to come back to New Orleans. As Koreans do, I went to Sweden after that, and then to France. The journey in Europe of eating and tasting was an amazing experience - I couldn't not write about that.

Lisa: I'm thinking about food and the various roles it plays in your life… There are points where slowly but surely you're discovering yourself, and your memories of food come out in sharp relief. There's a scene on the beach in Corsica when you're in your 20s. Two obviously very French women are comparing their bodies to yours. They say something that calls your past so harshly and they are utterly incapable of understanding what they brought to the surface.

Kim: We all have our scars, internally and externally, and these were external. We were in Corsica. Everyone is basically without clothes. I'm a young American, prudish, so I don't want to. But I eventually did. They sort of taunt me and they don't realize that the marks on my legs - they're like stretch marks - those marks were from hunger in my childhood, then I ate American food.

Lisa: Your questioning about who you are is in utter contrast to what those women are saying.

Kim: We have this journey, we're writing about it, but there are people who can judge you on such superficial aspects. I encourage everyone to do that, to forget about the superficial parts.

Lisa: I'm looking at Francis Mays' blurb… "brave, emotional, and gorgeously written…already awaiting Volume 2."

Kim: When I got that blurb, I thought - "brave?" - what have I done? When you're writing about yourself, you have to put yourself out there.

Lisa: You wrote very specifically about your family - what kind of fall out was there?

Kim: I talked to other writers out there, and if you think about what drives your story, for me it was hunger, love, and the search for home. Everything that related to that was what drove this narrative. I didn't think about I have to be brave or courageous. Obviously there's a very technical structure… but my editor says, did you write this book for anyone else, or did you write it for yourself? For yourself? Then screw everyone else. Obviously you tailor things. But when you're writing your story, you have to be true to what you want to say. My mother is not very pleased with the book. I don't want to talk about that too much.

You write about someone, hopefully it's not done out of cruelty or meanness. Do any of you censor yourselves? I see a lot of nodding.

Lisa: How do you tell your story without hurting someone? How many of you publish something that you know is going to hurt someone? How many of you are waiting until someone dies? How did you make the decision, I'm going to write about my family in a way that shows my search? Your story reminded me so much of my own 30s.

Kim: It goes back to the subtitle . How do you decide what you include, what don't you include? For me it was because I had these themes. I didn't want it to be gratuitous. I wanted to keep it what nourished the theme. If it didn't help the narrative, I left it out. Of course I had an amazing editor, Amy (?) Einborn, She's very sad that there was this fall out . She said 'I would have never let you publish something that I thought was cruel or would hurt anybody.'

Lisa: Tell us about what it was like to get the reviews and the comments on your website - the good, the bad, and the really bad - aka the haters.

Kim: My publisher was amazing, and we had very good response and reviews. Then there are the anonymous reviewers on Amazon. My editor and agent told me in the beginning, Do not, do not read those reviews on Amazon. Like a child, that's the first thing I did. Everyone had had this experience - you read those horrible reviews. People can be very mean, very cruel. You recognize the source, and you move on.

Lisa: What were those things?

Kim: The ugly - why would anyone care about searching for their identity? I was in South Korea in 2008, the book came out in Korean. It was a totally different experience. I was jet-lagged, exhausted, the book tour turned into a search for my birth family by the Korean media. I hadn't slept in how many days, completely jet lagged. I get this email at the same time from a young Korean/American man - The subject line was 'The story of me.' He said, 'My girlfriend gave me your book for my birthday, I'm a Korean adoptee, I want to thank you for writing the story of me. I've never been given the opportunity to lament my situation. My whole life I've been told I should be grateful.'

I've received a lot of letters from adoptees and parents of adopted children - that is a wonderful community. Those are the moments - for every horrible, ugly anonymous review, you have these bright lights. That is worth everything.

Lisa: After the book, you've gone to work for magazines, editing, you also had a really interesting experience judging Iron Chef . So you go from a heart-ripping memoir to working with Jeffrey Steingarten.

Kim: He is who he is. Nothing can prepare you for this sort of experience.

Lisa: How did you get recruited - would you recommend Iron Chef?

Kim: I was in South Korea - got an email from the office, saying Food Network wants you to be a judge on Iron Chef. Originally they asked me, would you eat offal? I missed that one. I would definitely recommend it. It has actually brought a lot of other opportunities. I've gotten Facebook requests from strange men. Obviously television is a platform that propels you into a different experience.

Lisa: I love this particular outtake - Runs a clip of Iron Chef.

Kim: Jeffrey: "It's no coincidence that beautiful women have bad personalities." Kim: "What does that have to do with the secret ingredient?"

There was a lot of editing. I actually rolled my eyes. But it was playful banter. They did say, don't let Jeffrey walk all over you. It was a scary experience.

Question: Lisa had asked if you've tried to write a memoir. My agent said you're not famous, don't go there. How did you do it? Did the story speak for itself?

Kim: I went to an IACP session while writing my book proposal. I had the nerve to get up and ask a question about memoir and food. I was curious and was speaking with the agency but hadn't gotten a deal. One of the editors said, "If you're not famous no one will ever publish your memoir."

Francis Mays has been an amazing mentor to me. She sent pitches out for her book. one of the agents wrote back and said, "Who wants to read about your summer vacation in Italy? She said, of course I was devastated, but I didn't care, this was a story I needed to write. You just have to do that. There are agents, publishers, nontraditional ways to do it.

I pitched an idea to a few agents before I was ready. I got very positive responses. We love your writing, you have no platform, you're too young to write a memoir. It took me a few years . Just having that conversation, meeting with an agent... It's wonderful if you have a blog with hundreds of thousands of readers.

With a memoir you can write several in a lifetime.

Question: As you go through life, experiences are painful, but it creates who you are as a person. Did it take the memoir to make you realize that? At what point did you realize that all of these things made who you are today?

Kim: I think that you write about yourself, but you're also a character in a book. The good thing is, you know how the book ends. There is this self-awareness. It's strange because the book is about a very specific time period. I don't travel with it or carry it around. It has become sort of other. There's a constant continuation of self and the search for self. I think writing a book about a very specific time period helps put that in perspective.

Question: Do you find the the experiences, how you felt about them 5 years ago, you have a different perspective today?

Lisa: ...and do you still agree with your interpretation?

Kim: I don't think I would change anything. I try not to think about it too much. It's not like a how-to manual. The memories and the food and the people, they remain the same.

Question: Did you write the book in pieces, or start at the beginning and plow through?

Kim: With a book proposal, you have to write the chapter outline. From the time I sold it until turned it in, I had nine months. I had sections I had written. I took whole sections out of journals. Some I had to translate back from French. Then I wrote according to the book proposal.

Question: I was scared away from writing a memoir because I was told there would be a lot fact-checking. Was there a lot of fact-checking?

Lisa: Right - as a publishing company, how do you make sure it is an appropriate version of the truth?

Kim: The publisher had an outside attorney. Said, these are some issues we might have trouble with. I asked Olivier if he minded that I was writing about this period of my life. There is a process with vetting a manuscript. As far as accuracy, there is so much controversy with memoir. Example - my brother who was not adopted. He read the galley and said "Don't you remember that time…" For me I didn't remember that. I didn't impact me the way it impacted him. His story, my sister's story, would be very different. Luckily I had a lot of journals I could go back to. You have to really try as hard as you can to remember.

Question: The fall out from your memoir, pertains even when we write blogs. Did you do anything to prep people before, or anything afterwards?

Kim: I did, some of my family members were very excited, they thought it was a cookbook. I said, it's not really a cookbook. At what point do I let people read it? I gave it to them because I wanted them to read it. I didn't want to ask permission, necessarily. Everyone will have an opinion. Overall I really tried to be true to the story . I told my mother, this is not necessarily a story about you and me. this is a larger experience, the search for self. I'm not writing about you or against you. Why do you want approval from everyone ahead of time? Everyone's going to want to change something. If Olivier had said, I want you to change my name, I would have.

Lisa: It's pretty unvarnished in some ways. What would you say about regret or potential for regret?

Kim: I think there was a point where I thought I would have made myself come off better. Look what a miserable human being I am. I don't think I would change anything. There were a few scenes I left out because they were very difficult to write. I had to come back to those scenes and write those. I wrote them in a way where this happened, this happened, this happened, then sent it off.

Lisa: When I say unvarnished, I mean I believed it. I connected with the realness. I'm glad you didn't edit any of that.

Question: Is there going to be a movie?

Kim: The way movies are made, an actor has to sign on and champion it. My agent says, they can change the book, and turn you into who they want to . They can make you a blond.

Lisa: Isn't there some way to have creative control?

Kim: Have a great agent. Francis May had said to me, people wanted to turn her book into a murder mystery.

Question: If you had control, and were directing, who would you cast?

Kim: I don't know. Being Asian, everyone automatically assumes - Lucy Liu or Sandra Oh. I don't think it'll ever come to that.

Lisa: What are you working on now?

Kim: It's kind of culinary scrapbook. I have a lot of poetry to incorporate into a cookbook. It's less about me, more about other amazing people I've been fortunate to meet. That will be out in 2013.

There will be 75 recipes, visually there will be handwritten things, maps, snapshots, poems.

Lisa: Any last advice for people?

Kim: Continue to write every day. Writing is a glorious process for me. We're in a community, we have our computer, we're reaching out to people. Believe in your story. Every time I talk to someone, everyone does have a story to tell. That's such a cliche, but it's really true. I'm inspired by that. You can inspire and you do. That is the beauty of the internet as well.

Lisa: It must be so liberating to have written a memoir that wasn't on your blog. The book has to be something special that's not on your blog.

Kim: Here's a question for everyone: Are you writing things on your blog, and are you not writing certain things because you want to keep it for a book?

Answer: I definitely do, both with recipes and with writing. I don't have the complete idea yet, but I do guard them and keep them close, maybe allude to them. I want to delve into them in a printed form.

Lisa: Kim, thank you so much!


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.