Fiction reading illuminates urban childhood

Fiction writer Nami Mun gave a reading last Thursday of excerpts from her first novel, Miles from Nowhere (2008), for which she won a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize. Her talk allowed the audience in Griffin a glimpse into life on the streets of New York City. 

Born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in the Bronx, Mun had worked as an Avon salesperson and an activities coordinator for a nursing home before deciding on Jan. 1, 2000 to become a writer as a New Year’s resolution.

Mun’s novel explores the young life of Joon, a girl left virtually parentless and forced to make her way on the streets in New York by whatever means possible, including odd jobs, petty crime and drugs.

Mun shared a full chapter of the novel and then a brief segment of another. The first scene opened with Joon sitting in Union Square Park with her friend and on-the-streets mentor Knowledge, who asks bluntly, “‘Where are you shacked up?’” Joon attempts to deflect the question by answering “‘I’m fine,”’ but Knowledge can see through the veneer: “‘I didn’t ask how you were, I asked where are you staying,’” she responds.

“‘On the streets, she was my teacher, my mother,”’ Joon says of Knowledge, adding that she is “‘the hardest working pusher I knew.’”

In comic fashion, the two girls’ conversation shifts to tourist attractions and how lame they are, focusing on a particularly tourist-y woman sitting nearby. Adopting the frank narration that the audience can already associate with Joon, she declares, “‘The sun loved us that afternoon,’” but as for the tourist woman, “‘The sun was loving her a little too much.’”

Showing her naïveté and openness, Joon strikes up a conversation with the gaudily-dressed woman, proceeding to discuss the ubiquitous pigeons, how much the birds enjoy cookies and how she herself is from Savannah, Georgia. And before Joon or Knowledge can warn her, a man swoops in and absconds with the woman’s wallet. Knowledge takes off after him.

At this point Mun’s text delves deeper into Knowledge’s psyche. Through Joon’s later reflection, we discover not only that Knowledge quit school after ninth grade and died young – at some point during Joon’s lifetime – but also that she managed to squeeze in at least one proud moment in which she refused to commit the bank robbery her boyfriend assigned her, deterred by the idiocy of his note with the word “money” misspelled.

“‘She had worked too hard to go down like that – she had standards,’” Joon explains. “‘Knowledge had standards, she had principles. It was her principles who ran after the man to get that woman’s wallet back.’” After the two girls catch up with the thief, Joon recounts how Knowledge – with only her voice as a weapon – forced the man to strip and ultimately found the missing wallet. This time, he took off with nothing in hand.

“‘There was Knowledge: pusher, transient, a wealth of misdemeanors,’” Joon proclaims. Knowledge quizzes her on the lesson of the day. The answer? “‘Help only strangers,’” she intones, “‘because friends will become dependent, “and that won’t get you nowhere.’”

But when the stranger tourist woman catches up with the girls, an odd moral twist presents itself: The woman makes to give Knowledge a cash reward, but Knowledge insists on only a thank-you. And insist is the operative word. When the woman does not thank her, Knowledge grabs back the wallet and makes her way down the block at full speed.

The second portion of Mun’s reading focused on an excerpt featuring Joon and her boyfriend Benny, whom she “‘can’t stop dating.’”

“I’ll leave it up to you guys to decide whether this is a healthy relationship or not,” Mun cautioned the audience.

The scene opens on Benny and Joon as they’re experimenting with drugs. “‘I want to see your insides,’” Benny said. “I want to cut you open.” Joon explains that in the moment, under the influence of dust, “‘Everything made sense. Benny made sense.’”

Joon, feeling ill after the nearly half-gallon of milk she had consumed to coat her stomach against the affects of dust, admits that she hated the taste of milk. “‘So Benny mixed it with beer,’” she explained.

But the scene’s humor evaporates almost instantly: Benny makes a deep incision below Joon’s right shoulder. “‘Did you feel that?’” he asks. Of course, she doesn’t, and his experimental game continues. Benny proceeds to mutilate his girlfriend’s skin, going as far as to tap her bone.

“Weeks later … Benny told people that it was his idea to get the doctor,” Joon recalls, “and not for my sake, but so he could steal the stethoscope. He never got the laugh he wanted.”

The reading was followed by a brief Q&A session.