If You Leave Me and Fear
Crystal Hana Kim's novel If You Leave Me opens with three teenagers living in a refugee camp in Korea in 1951 and follows them for many years after the war, as two of them settle into a bad marriage and all three into some serious regrets.
I'm interested in a scene early on. Haemi has been sneaking out at night to drink with her friend Kyunghwan. She thinks she's been discreet, but an acquaintance at the market has hinted that everyone knows. Then she walks home.
“Haemi!” Mother yelled from the front of the house, her voice a knife cutting my name in two. Punishments surfaced and sank in my mind. The backs of my legs beaten. Arms held up to the skies for hours. My hair hacked to the scalp, so anyone I encountered would know I’d shamed my family. I stuffed the remaining cigarettes into my underwear. The butcher’s wife had told, or Mother had found out from someone else. The village had turned against us.
Mother came charging, dragging Hyunki by the arm. “Tell me! Why weren’t you watching him?” She waved a broken cigarette, still lit but dying. “He was smoking. He said he picked it up on the road to the market.”
What I love about this passage is how the narrator's fears surface in her storytelling, and the reader experiences them—momentarily—as actually happening. When she fears that her mother must know, she states that her mother does know. "The butcher’s wife had told, or Mother had found out from someone else. The village had turned against us." The narrator does not hedge with a "maybe" or "perhaps" or "I wondered if."
Part of how this happens has to do with the way the punishments are acknowledged as imaginings, but then we slide out of Haemi's imagination with the next lines. So when we get to the second set of imaginings, they can feel both real and inside Haemi's head.
Let's look at it line by line.
"Punishments surfaced and sank in my mind." This puts us firmly in imagination.
And the next lines are what she imagines. "The backs of my legs beaten. Arms held up to the skies for hours. My hair hacked to the scalp, so anyone I encountered would know I’d shamed my family." It's worth noting that even though they are clearly only thought about, these punishments are concrete and visceral.
After these terrors, we move from inside Haemi's mind to her body and her actions. "I stuffed the remaining cigarettes into my underwear." Because the sentence is not about punishments, but about avoiding them, we understand we've moved outside of her head. It also reminds us that the torments described have not actually occurred. Her body becomes the magical object that shifts us from her thoughts to reality.
Does the "in my mind" still apply to the next line then? Well, it does and it doesn't. The reader may or may not have dismissed it. "The butcher’s wife had told, or Mother had found out from someone else. The village had turned against us." But whether or not the reader remembers, Haemi does not remind us that she may be relating a fantasy. It's proclaimed strongly. It is said as if it is real and so it is real—for at least a few sentences.
(Remember, as with all stories, even Haemi's outer world—her home, her body, her reality—is created by the words she tells us. What is the difference then? If she says it happens, it does.)
And the next sentence begins with the same intensity, on the same plane of boldness despite the paragraph break. "Mother came charging." Even if we have been aware that Haemi is only guessing that her mother knows, this seems like confirmation. Her mother is angry, and so we think that Haemi is correct in her fears. There's even a sense that her fears have actualized because she is thinking them. Perhaps she has pushed them into her mother's head, and that is how she knows and why her mother is charging.
But then we notice Hyunki, Haemi's little brother, is being dragged forward. Haemi is in trouble, but not for sneaking out with Kyunghwan. It's because she did not watch her brother well enough, and he has been smoking.
The quoted passage is not enough to understand this aspect, but there's a way Haemi's fear turns deeper and inward at this moment. Haemi's outward punishment will be less severe than she has imagined. She won't be beaten or humiliated. But Hyungi is very sick with a lung condition, and Haemi would do anything to protect him. Accidentally allowing him to smoke cigarettes will weigh on her conscience deeply.
It's a coincidence, of course, that while Haemi is fearing she will be scolded for one thing, her mother is actually scolding her for another. But it's one that brings her fears and the world together. The concurrence also emphasizes that Haemi's fears and anxieties are ever present. In this life, there isn't a break from fear.
But more important than underscoring their persistence, this storytelling method—the way Haemi's imaginings are told as if they are really happening—makes the fears felt.
And aren't fears often this vivid? In real life, I mean. Doesn't our blood chill with thinking of what might happen? Regardless of whether the feared event comes to pass, a strong fear is a visceral experience on its own.