Author Frances Cha spoke with InStyle about the inspiration behind her debut novel (K-pop, The Joy Luck Club, and misconceptions about South Korean culture among them). 

By Isabel Jones
Updated Apr 20, 2020 @ 8:00 am
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If I Had Your Face isn’t just a good book — it’s a book we need, badly. Frances Cha’s debut novel about a quartet of South Korean women in modern day Seoul is hitting the U.S. market just as racist acts against Asians are on the rise in America.

“It’s an interesting time,” Cha tells me of her novel’s release, “especially with Korea in the forefront of news so much nowadays for an entirely different reason.” In the span of mere weeks, U.S. coverage concerning the nation shifted from praise of its film industry (Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite earned the Academy’s highest honor at the Oscars in February) to analysis of its effective coronavirus precautions (only 230 deaths have been reported). “At first, it was very much like, ‘Don't let anyone in from South Korea.’ And then the narrative shifted to, ‘Look what Korea did so well versus what a shit show it is here,’” Cha surmises.

Having grown up in both Korea and the U.S., Cha has a foot in both Eastern and Western cultures. “Bookstores were always the thing that grounded me to my destination,” she says of her childhood. “I didn't even realize that the books I was reading in English were white protagonists in a white setting. I didn't even consider the fact that an Asian protagonist was a possibility until one day I read The Joy Luck Club. Even though the narrators were Chinese and I was Korean, I could still identify with it on such a personal level.”

Writing If I Had Your Face was the fulfillment of a dream she’d nurtured since reading Amy Tan’s generation-spanning novel as a teen: “To write something I wish I had had growing up.” In this case, a novel with a “Korean protagonist in a Korean setting.”

The novel follows not one, but four Korean women living in the same Seoul apartment building: Kyuri, a worker in one of the city’s exclusive room salons who’s undergone myriad cosmetic surgeries in the pursuit of conventional Korean beauty; Ara, a mute hairdresser with a complicated past and an all-encompassing obsession with a K-pop star; Miho, an ambitious artist in a relationship with a wealthy heir; and Wonna, a newly married woman struggling to have a baby amid economic hardships.

Cha — who admittedly “fell off the deep end into K-pop” during a dark period of her life, BIGBANG her drug of choice — embedded pieces of herself in all four characters, each of whom exhibit a depth and complexity that allows the reader to forge a bond with them despite the singularity of their circumstances.

As a former CNN Seoul reporter, Cha strived to do something with her novel that her experience in journalism primed her for: Provide cultural context for an audience largely unfamiliar with modern Korea without sounding like an encyclopedia. “There's a very fine balance to that,” Cha says, adding that she was also careful not to exoticize her characters and their circumstances.

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That precision is felt as Cha takes readers to places they’ve likely never been, like inside the upscale room salon Kyuri works in — an exclusive lounge characterized by the wealthy businessmen who visit and the women paid to keep them company. “You never talk about room salons in polite society, and yet, it is a very big part of the business culture [in Korea],” Cha explains, “to the point where it establishes a very real glass ceiling because women are not invited to these places, and really big business deals are taking place there.” Her decision to include this piece of Korean society in the novel was in part to change widely-held misconceptions about the women who fall into this line of work. “I think there is a lot of judgment toward these women — that they choose this type of life to make easy money. And I don't think that's true. The more research that I did into this industry, the more that became clear to me.”

This wasn’t the only misconception Cha sought to correct. Her inspiration for the novel was drawn in part by the dearth of English language fiction set in Korea. “I think Korea is still associated with the war, [and with] North Korea,” she says. “And it's such a different landscape from historical fiction that has been in American fiction to date.”

There is one other thing American audiences might associate with modern day Korea: Cosmetic surgery. The country has one of the highest numbers of cosmetic procedures per capita, with BBC reporting that around 60% of women in their 20s have undergone some sort of aesthetic procedure. If I Had Your Face delves into this phenomenon with both Kyuri and Ara’s roommate Sujin, who’s convinced cosmetic surgery will dramatically alter the trajectory of her life. But there’s a key difference between the characters’ frank discussion of double-eyelid surgery and jawline reduction procedures and the hushed “did she?” of Americans looking up “before and after” photos to determine whether their favorite A-lister had her nose done.

“As a Korean woman, I am actually asked quite often if I have had surgery,” Cha tells me. “I have not. But if I had, personally, I don't think that warrants the judgment that is then imposed by the American perspective, which I understand comes from a good place. [In America], plastic surgery is considered very frivolous, and vain, and unnecessary and you should adhere to the values of being happy with who you are. In Korea, I feel like it's [seen as] a very practical way to better your life in such a hyper-competitive academically obsessed society. And if it does change your life so drastically in love and in your career where everything is so dramatic and extreme for a lot of these women, that is a solution. And it's not undertaken lightly. There's a lot of pain involved and fall out.”

And despite what you've heard, Korean women are not trying to look Caucasian, says Cha. “Nobody goes and says, ‘Make me look white’ But that is a narrative that is perpetuated here.” (While Glutathione skin-lightening injections are popular in the region, experts maintain that the practice has nothing to do with an emulation of western beauty standards.)

Though If I Had Your Face brings many facets of Korean culture to light for an American audience, it never feels like an explainer. The vivid characters at the novel’s core make for a compelling read, and in a time of such global division, hopefully a uniting one.

If I Had Your Face will be released on April 21.