“The Men My Mother Loved”: An Interview with Soo-Jin Lee

I met Soo-Jin Lee over drinks, at Peet’s Coffee in Burke, Virginia. She has a prominent and special presence about her. The way she carries herself is hard-working and professional, yet charming and casual. We share mutual friends in the DC Metro Area, she being the connective tissue. A lover of drama and prose, Soo-Jin is a seasoned writer who brings refreshing and lively air to the theatre scene in Virginia and DC Area. Born in South Korea and raised in Virginia, Soo-Jin has earned her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. Her plays include Peaches, Why Koreans Don’t Hug, and Tigers, Dragons & Other Wise Tails! I spoke to her about her new play, The Men My Mother Loved.

Andrew: How did you manage to maintain an endurance and momentum, in order to finish your play?

Soo-Jin: Really, it took 8 years of procrastination—2009-2017. When life happens, when a child comes into your life, it becomes really hard to have a personal life. As you’re raising a little person, it gets difficult to do anything full-time and so, your personal life is then erased. But now my son is 6 years old now. I’m now at a point where I can spend some chunks of time away from him. I’ve had to create that chunk of time for myself. I blame time; there’s not enough time.

Andrew: When you went about casting actors for your play, how did you go about selecting and vetting the ones who’d be a right fit?

Soo-Jin: I had to start with the people I knew, very few of them. I had to ask them and then they would let me know. My director Flordelino Lagundino contacted a venue called Arena Stag and he asked his casting director for some actors and headshots; basically, he did some networking. He’s worked them for about 20 years ago.

In addition to his help, the actors also vetted for each other. I also went to the HUB theatre and went to an Asian play and checked it out, did some recruiting and met some Asian actors.

After that process, I looked at casting agencies online and looked up their photos. However, it’s different when you’re trained for theatre. They need a properly trained voice. In a way, they’re kinda like opera singers.

Andrew: What do you think about the current state of theatre in the DC Metro Area, and on a larger whole, American theatre?

Soo-Jin: It’s been for a while—this whole thing—the theatre movement in this country that the people in power of these theatre companies were saying, “Hey there’s not enough women being produced, not enough female playwrights and female directors.” They’re not in leadership roles.

Also stories of people of color are not being exposed. Generally, people of color will write for people of color; their own personal stories. Asian roles are not going to Asian actors, but rather, Caucasian actors. We see Hollywood actors—Asian actors—not getting their due. I think theatre is not having enough representation. However, that’s why it’s great that a film such as Moonlight is getting recognition.

Immigrant children are not getting allowed to express themselves through art. Especially, not in DC. Asian communities—like Korean ones—believe you have to be super rich to do the arts, to have that artistic career. I feel the parents aren’t letting their children do the arts. The pot is small for Asian stories. With so few writers, so few stories, pretty much means there’s less opportunity for Asian Americans in the arts. There are no roles, for Asian people. It sucks. We need more Asian writers.

Andrew: What do you think is the strongest feature of your creative writing?

Soo-Jin: Dialogue is the easiest thing for me to come up with it. It’s very natural for me. I took piano lessons when I was a child. But I was very average. In my late teens, I met some church people who never played piano, much less took a lesson.

Yet, they played by ear, and did incredibly well. They didn’t have to work too hard. They were gifted. In that same regard, I feel I have a gift to write, by ear. I have the ear to listen to dialogue, and it sticks to me.

I have a sense for interesting conversations. I really don’t like boring conversations. Now, the trickier part for me is to piece the scenes together. And then making a satisfying journey.

Andrew: At the current moment, who are the three writers inspiring you?

Soo-Jin: Right at this moment, most recently—I like to read all of their books— Mohsin Hamid. He’s known for “Moth Smoke.” A friend of mine who is Pakistani introduced me to Hamid’s work. His craft is so sophisticated, and after reading his work, I fell in love with prose and storytelling again. He really loves languages. I read five of his books, one after the other.

I’ve also been really inspired Jhumpa Lahiri. She’s a Pulitzer prize winner. “The Interpreter of Maladies” is really good. “The Namesake” even got turned into a movie. It really unwrapped this world for me, reading her—she shares the immigrant experience. But for her, it’s the Indian immigrant experience. Her parents were both in a PhD program. And she shares that experience for us, the readers. And her writing is so good, so strong, can’t tell if she’s male or female, gender doesn’t matter. She’s a master of prose-writing.

And I kind of went through this Asian thing recently. Min-Jin Lee—“Free Food for Millionaires.” It’s about a Korean daughter and she was raised for immigrants. Graduated from a prestigious college. Worked on Wall-Street. But what she really wants is to make hats. She’s really into fashion. Really nice hats. And she’s finding her way into the world—post-college. The prose is in the hands of a master writer. You can relax and enjoy the story. I like to read about lives that are similar to mine, but not quite. Those three people, if they can do it, I can do it. I want to try to be as strong as them.

Andrew: Which relationship is strongest in the play? The one between the mother and her former lovers? Or the one between the mother and the daughter?

Soo-Jin: In the draft you’ve come to hear, yes, there are a lot of flashbacks, and a lot of term are pertaining to the mom and her former lovers. But the current draft will have more of mother and daughter’s relationship. I want them to be both stars. Past. And present.

Andrew: How did you go about constructing the structure of the play?

Soo-Jin: I wrote the play autobiographically. Chronologically. Linear. I had to research the past. Go through things I’d heard and then I had to write that chronologically. And by going through those events, I was able to keep writing them. Several drafts ago, I had to make the trip to Korea linear. But for the past, I had to make sure to make and put in the emotional, pertinent parts in as well.

But then I also started with the ending scene, the last scene. And then I asked myself what came before, and then what came before that. Kind of like lining up dominos. Now, I’ve started the play with the wedding.

My dramaturg Christine Mok and my director Flordelino Lagundino both felt a connection and pull with the emotion in that particular scene. So I agree with them; the theatrics kick in at that time.

Andrew: Why isn’t the father more present in this story?

Soo-Jin: The father didn’t go on the trip, so, that’s why. I feel if he was present in the trip, I feel it would be more of a question of infidelity.

Andrew: Humor is a character in your play, and has a strong role, even more so than a supporting part. How did you come up with your humor?

Soo-Jin: I think humor is in the blood. My son’s really funny. Of course, my mother’s funny. As well as my sister. And my dad caught it from living with my mom. I’m attracted to humor too. When I’m reading, and if there is not much humor and wit, it’s hard to get through that piece. When I was in class, I really was drawn to Oscar Wilde. Like everything he wrote was a zinger. I was also into Noel Coward. He’s great as well.

Andrew: What was your favorite scene to write?

Soo-Jin: I guess, and people kind of responded to this, the climax scene. It’s when Jang Mi confronts her first boyfriend Young Hoon for cheating. It’s entirely her scene. It’s a long and compelling monologue. It was her first read, for that actress. It was a one go; I didn’t edit that. I feel that scene came out organically, not a lot of crafting. And it was a fun scene to write. I like that scene, very much.

Andrew: The mother and daughter walk the line between flirting and infidelity, how do they manage not to fall over that line?

Soo-Jin: They’re not like chronic cheaters. They’re not nympho-maniacs. They’re the opposite of recklessness. I think culturally, maybe these characters are harder to get. Plus, it’s not like the men they’re dealing with here are pushy, or sexual predators; they’re not going to jump your bones. These women do have relationships back home, and they’re respecting that. It was fun teeter-tottering.

Andrew: Have you always writing Asian-American stories? Do you feel an obligation to do so?

Soo-Jin: I’ve always done it. I want to write Asian stories, because there are not enough out there. It’s out of pride. Cultural pride. I think their stories are interesting. I was told once, that I would get more plays produced, if I wrote more about white families—white characters. There are Asian writers out there, who don’t feel it’s their job to write about Asian people. I feel it’s a burden, or rather an inspiration, to get there.

Andrew: Now for the hard questions: Who do you prefer more? Beyoncé or Adele?

Soo-Jin: I like Beyoncé. She has more soul. I love listening to her music. Although, it took me a while to appreciate her. At first, she seemed like just another beautiful girl. But the older she’s gotten, her albums have become more meaningful. Her work is maturing. Adele is still new to me. She has a gorgeous voice. But maybe, because Beyoncé is American, I feel closer to her. And Beyoncé has more versatility. Star-spangled banner, or a different range. And I like that she’s a mom too.

Andrew: Toni Morrison or James Baldwin?

Soo-Jin: I haven’t read enough Toni Morrison. But I love them both. I feel like Baldwin is like a preacher—he used to be a preacher. Morrison’s stories are different flavors of the same thing. I appreciate them both. They have super-powers. That’s what my sister would say. When you have a gift, you have super-powers.

Photograph by Hatnim Lee 
A stage reading of The Men My Mother Loved will be performed at MetroStage, VA on Monday March 20 at 7:30 PMPost-reading discussion and dessert reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.
Andrew Tran is a childhood educator at a Jewish Community Center in Northern VA. During nap time, he writes prose and poems, and occasionally, reads Twitter. He enjoys playing tennis and bragging about being able to change diapers on the fly. He sometimes performs standup in DC. He has applied to a few MFA programs, and is considering going, if accepted. He loves his family, he loves his friends. And most of all he loves his record player. Mac Demarco and Nate Kittinger are his baes for indie music. He has graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in English. He has won honorable mention for Creative Nonfiction at the VCU writing awards. Follow slivers of his life on Twitter: @AndyT187

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