Today we're talking with Disko Praphanchith, author of Courage: A Story of Love and Friendship
FQ: There are many Asian cultures that share most (all?) of the same values as the Korean culture. Given that fact, was there a particular reason you made Jenny a Korean-American rather than say a Japanese-American?
First of all, I’d like to sincerely thank Feathered Quill Book Reviews for reading my novel and for allowing me this interview. It’s an absolute honor, and I hope there will be many more interviews in the future as well.
There are in fact two ways to answer this question, though the first answer should be granted more weight and consideration than the second.
To put it simply, no, there was no reason at all to create a character that was, shall we say, ‘Korean-American.’ Had I created a character that was ‘white-American’ or ‘African-American,’ or ‘French-American,’ the main purpose—rather, one of the main purposes—of the novel would have still been met: that is, exposing the conditioning nature of language.
Language is ideologically motivated. This means that every utterance of voice, action, and thought is dictated by an ideology that exists before the individual. When we think of ‘African-American,’ for example, certain cultural, historical, and personal connotations will force us to think about the noun ‘African-American’ in a way that is unconsciously biased. I made Jenny Korean-American because I wanted to let readers see for themselves their own cultural biases when seeing the word ‘Korean-American’ on the page. Courage is not a novel that investigates themes of culture or ethnicity: neither the author nor the characters in the novel ‘act’ Asian, and such an Asian ‘presence’ in the novel does not warrant simple categorization of genre. To do so—to categorize Courage as an ‘Asian’ novel—would be to degrade the novel into something simplistic. The novel is less about being ‘Asian’ or ‘American’ or any type of signifying noun than it is simply being a work that attempts to understand the romance between friends and lovers. For one must asks themselves: does seeing the word ‘Asian’ in a novel make the entire novel ‘Asian’ in theme? Does having an African-American writer automatically assume him/her to be a writer about race in America? In other words: should language and words dictate who we are, and should the biases of others prohibit us from being who we wish to be?
The second reason why I created a Korean-American character was a bit more strategic. As a first-time writer, I know how essential it is to market myself and find a stable platform. South Korea—and everything else relating to its culture such as music, fashion, movies, celebrities, etc.—is absolutely hot right now in Asia. The Korean Wave, as it’s called, has been spreading through the entire Asian continent for more than a decade now, and it is still very, very strong. It not only has enveloped most of Asian mainstream pop culture, but it has also been slowly reaching overseas as well, gaining slow but steady footholds in places such as America, France, Brazil, and even in the Middle East. It’s no exaggeration to say that Seoul is the equivalent of Hollywood right now—its cultural feats in the past few years have been extraordinary. And as a beginning writer that must find his platform, it would only seem natural that I try my hand at appealing to the Asian market.
FQ: Jenny’s struggles with her Korean-American identity are very realistic. Does this aspect of the story perhaps in some ways reflect your own struggles coming to the United States as a young boy from Laos?
Actually, no, not at all. I grew up in Seattle, Washington, a very liberal, accepting, wonderful, and intellectually diverse place to live—I’ve never experienced racism in any form. I’ve moreover been lucky enough to retain a sense of my Laotian heritage since my move to America, and similarly share typical ‘American’ traits as well. In this regard, I pride myself for being a citizen (and stranger) in both lands, as such a distance from the two cultures—American/Western culture, Laotian/Eastern culture—allows one to objectively ‘see’ the type of ‘languages’ that exist in each culture.
The inherit realism that pertains to Jenny’s struggles with her Korean-American identity comes from nothing more than scientific imagination. That is, because I myself am bilingual and bicultural, I have an understanding of what it means to be with dual-identities. Because I have never experienced racism or an identity-crisis before, it then becomes easier for me to write objectively about racism, identity crises, and dual identities. Also—and this comes from my background as a scholar—I understand the crisis that occurs when one is in a realm of language that is ‘untranslatable.’ As we all know, it is impossible to translate everything perfectly from one language to another. Puns, wordplay, cultural metaphors, and the like always escape translation. If this is the case then, one must wonder: how does an individual exist as themselves if s/he is lost in an area of language that is ‘untranslatable’? If one is continuously situated in a realm of two languages that is cultural, which language will s/he speak? How will s/he communicate to the world?
FQ: The scenes with Jenny and her abusive husband, Tom, were quite vivid. Were they hard to write?
Interestingly enough, I’ve had similar questions like this before, and I am always surprised. As a first-time writer, I can’t ever know the amount of emotional impact my words may have, and can only humbly hope for the best. As such, my answers may disappoint a few readers.
I have never experienced domestic abuse before, and so, the vividness describing the abuse scenes was not at all difficult to write. This may come as a surprise to people, but readers must remember: language always motivates. It makes us angry, and it makes us sad. Certain words, verbs, adjectives, and nouns, when used properly, can dedicate the destiny of emotions. When I write, I attempt to see words and their possibilities, and excuse myself from their emotions. I weigh metaphors and similes seriously, and ask myself: does this analogy make sense? How would using a simile change the meaning of the sentence? What about utilizing metonymy? I want to use words precisely as I can to evoke the proper emotion, but must never allow my words to overtake me as an emotional writer—doing so would only cause me to become subversive to my own story, where I no longer become master of my words. In fact, I would simply become cliché and write in a cliché manner. In this objective manner of weighing and choosing the most precise word for a description—la mote juste, according to Flaubert—I remove myself from any emotional language that would prohibit me from writing clearly. The reader, then, in turn fills in this necessary ‘emotional gap’ where words have meaning, and they supplement the final destination of my words.
FQ: The same goes for the dramatic scene between Daniel and Bill. Without giving too much away, did you struggle to write that episode?
Not at all. My attempts with Bill and Daniel were twofold. I first wanted to give emotional depths to the two characters, and, secondly, wanted to explore one of the main themes of my novel: the theme of pity.
Daniel pities Bill because of his obesity. Yet at the same time, Daniel is aware of his pity, and is disgusted with the implication: in pitying someone else, the pitier must always become superior to the pitied. And with Daniel, someone who has lived his entire young life being “better” than most simply because of his intelligence, Bill’s self-hate of his body hurts him. Daniel wants to help Bill, but he also understands that by helping him, he inevitably must pity him. Thus Daniel is in emotional distress when simply wanting to help others around him.
Bill, on the other hand, wants to reject Daniel’s help, saying that Daniel is nothing more than a typical elitist that must rely on others’ miseries in order to assert his dominance. Somewhere in their last conversation together, Bill sharply asks Daniel where he would be in life with his intelligence were it not for all the other ‘stupid’ people he encountered. Moreover, Bill knows that Daniel pities him, and knows that no matter what type of friendship he may hope to develop, it will be all under false pretenses, and so, declares that Daniel can never be his friend.
FQ: I understand that you have a background in philosophy and Daniel seems to also enjoy really robust philosophical discussions. How much of you is there in the character of Daniel?
It’s difficult to say. I like to try and distance myself from my own characters lest I become accused of escapism, but I know that as an author, there will always be echoes of truth in every fiction.
Intellectually, there’s a large parallel between Daniel’s words and my own personal thoughts. This is especially true in the Interludes. I am in fact the author of all these essays that Daniel writes in the novel, and I am ninety-five percent behind with all that I write. In fact, the essays that are presented in the Interludes were drafts that I had written during my college years. Moreover, the sources that I used in the Interludes are all real scholarly sources that I am familiar with. Names such as Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Barthes, and Adorno will be recognizable to any student studying under the humanities. Daniel can be said to be my own mouthpiece when it comes to presenting any type of theoretical, cultural, and or philosophical idea in the novel.
Emotionally, then, I suppose that there too is another large parallel between Daniel and me. I suppose that much of Daniel’s isolation comes from my own subtle experiences with loneliness. While I’m not intelligent in any regard, my drive and curiosity throughout my educational career as a student has at times left me with a very few select number of friends. I too become a little hurt inside when declared smart or outstanding, as it’s equality with friends and the world that I wish to have as an individual, not dominance. In Daniel’s case, his intelligence prohibits him from loving those around him, as those around him will always perceive him with a language befitting of elitists. As such, Daniel’s love will always be perceived as a pitying love, as any attempts at an authentic love will be seen as ‘patronizing’ and ‘false.’ In turn, Daniel has no choice but to pity them, thus isolating himself and carrying a deep hurt in his heart. While I’m not like my characters, I too wish it that intelligence was respected and admired rather than perceived with fear and violence. And I too, like Daniel, hurt whenever I must pity, where my pity is not a condition of my so-called intelligence, but rather, the violence and fears of friends and lovers.
FQ: One particularly interesting discussion was between Daniel and his college girlfriend Emma. They talked about Hollywood, whether morality and/or ethics play a part and this soon develops into a discussion on freewill (my philosophy major son’s favorite topic!). Would you explain to our readers a little of Daniel’s thoughts on freewill?
Daniel’s thoughts are derived from 20th century existentialism and overlap with classical Marxist thought. The critique made against Hollywood using these two philosophical frameworks of thought are explored further in the Interludes sections part of my novel.
In brief, 20th century existentialism declares that all individuals are ‘condemned to be free’ in this world: we have no reason to exist and cannot rely on the premise of a Creator. Thus, every individual is responsible for his or her own actions. There is no excuse that we can place onto others when declaring our failures or successes—we are responsible for each of our lives, and can blame no one.
The sheer weight of responsibility of being free is what propels individuals to dive into escapism. Remember: freedom requires responsibility, and responsibility is often times burdensome. Freedom thus can be frightening and produce angst. In the fictional world of Hollywood, actions are played out to the point of satisfaction where freedom—and thus freewill—is temporarily suspended. When freewill is suspended, this burden of responsibility is lifted from the individual, where the individual is now liberated from life. Hollywood is constructed through stereotypes, clichés, and archetypes, and when the individual is in company of these familiar themes—when they know the damsel-in-distress will be saved, when they know the villain will be vanquished, when they know their naïve worldview of other cultures is upheld—a relinquishing of life is made, and their ego is comforted. It’s much easier, as Daniel states, to worship celebrities on the Red Carpet than it is to see one’s self as already beautiful and handsome: to worship one’s self would require work and diligence where failure may very well be an outcome. Such failure, consequently, propels individuals to worship Hollywood figures that are ‘better’ than them.
Daniel also counters arguments that state that escapism is a form of entertainment. Using language borrowed from Marxist theory, Daniel critiques American capitalism, stating that capitalism does not instill equality within a society. In Daniel’s mind, because capitalism is about competition, there inadvertently will always be ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ The majority of the American population, of course, are ‘losers.’ Moreover, because capitalism requires labor, the losers of capitalism often become weary. In becoming weary, the losers must find a way to compensate for their wretched existence. Just as with existentialism, individuals have a choice of how to live out their life: they may accept their position as ‘losers,’ attempt to find a solution to their plight, or simply flee. The majority, according to Daniel, flee from life, and so are called ‘philosophical cowards.’ The office cubicle, the 40-hour work week, the paying of the bills, and the commute through traffic—these all prompt the individual to flee from life, where life for the fleeing individual is compensated through fantasy. Freedom is again relinquished in order to find temporary relief. Yet at the same time, as Daniel remind us, once the credits have rolled, the bills still must be paid: going to the theater was simply a cowardly way to temporarily push aside life for one brief moment. This is why Daniel calls moviegoers philosophical cowards and states that human beings don’t want freedom—they want enslavement.
FQ: I found a quote from Daniel (pg. 472) very interesting – “I don’t know what life’s going to be like now that we no longer have people telling us what to do.” That says so much about the characters of Jenny and Daniel, particularly with Jenny and her slow loss of her true identity. Would you discuss this a bit?
At this point in the novel, Jenny and Daniel are about to graduate from high-school. Daniel’s statement about the unforeseen future is a comment that we all have felt at one point or another as teenagers: now that four years of high-school is about to come to an end, what are we supposed to do with our lives?
Daniel’s comment implies something that has already been discussed: the burden of responsibility through freedom. In saying that he doesn’t know what life will be like when there is no longer someone telling him what to do, Daniel is essentially stating that he now must be the creator of his own life, the dictator of his own destiny, and the originator of his own actions. As stated by Sartre, Heidegger, and every other 20th century existentialist, there is a level of anxiety and angst that comes with realizing one’s freedom—Daniel states this anxiety offhandedly, but means it very specifically, where he realizes that he now must be the creator of his own identity. Again, now that we no longer have teachers telling us to turn in our homework, what are we supposed to do in life?
Jenny too realizes this, but she succumbs to the social pressures that surround her. Again, freedom requires responsibility, and sometimes if one is unwilling to take that responsibility, they often times will substitute their lives with other forms of living. Jenny wishes to be her self in life, but in order to be so, she must fight against stereotypes, racism, and cultural conformity—this is her burden. But to fight against these things is often times difficult, so she conforms. This is seen where she dyes her hair, begins to wear makeup, and finds a Korean boyfriend. Like so many of us who are unwilling to accept our realities in life because living is so difficult, we flee into fantasy and Hollywood, just as Jenny fled into lies of happiness being with her Korean kinsfolk.
There is also another very important scene between Jenny and Irene that further investigates this notion of freedom and fear. In this discussion, Jenny tells Irene that she married Tom because she was afraid. She states straightforwardly that she was afraid because she was free, and in being free, she had no one telling her what to do. She could have fought for her individuality, but to do so would be to fight an endless battle against society, bigotry, ignorance, and Hollywood. So, she gave up her identity to be with Tom. It was so much easier to give up her identity and just let Tom live for her, she states; while the beatings hurt, they were, at least, not as painful as being free.
FQ: I wanted to hate the character of Irene, Daniel’s wife, but you made her very likeable. Authors frequently make the ‘other woman’ a very unsympathetic character but I’m glad you didn’t. Why make her such an understanding and likeable person?
In my view, there are no evil or good persons in life, but simply individuals with different perspectives. To assume an absolute evil or an absolute good would be to assume an Absolute in language—or what is often called a transcendental signified, coming from my field of study in post-structuralism and theory. That is, we know already that there is no such thing as a universal definition of ‘Korean-American’ or ‘woman,’ so it would be silly to think that there can be anything universally ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in life pertaining to individuals in general.
With that being said, I want to be the type of author that gives realistic and emotional depths to his characters that surpasses these cliché notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Irene is kind and likeable because she is ‘real’: that is, she has all the natural flaws that are inherent within a single human being. She has her virtuous traits, and then she has her vices. Yet an abundant of either virtues or vices wouldn’t necessarily make her a bad or good character; it simply would make her a character with specific habits. I want to love Irene not because she is ideal, but because she is real. I moreover want my readers to love my characters because of these realistic faults/virtues.
FQ: There’s another line from Daniel on page 138 that really sums up the book beautifully, “A place without friends to love is Hell.” Would you explain to our readers a little about this quote and how it changed the lives of Daniel and Jenny?
This quote indeed is the heart of the novel, and I hope you’ll allow me a brief chance to explain the heart of the author in order to answer this question.
I wrote Courage as a way to investigate themes relating to love, friendship, life, and regret. Let me explain: I am only 24-years-old at the time of this interview, and Courage was published right when I graduated from the University of Washington, class of 2012. At that time, I began to notice how fragile friendships were, as all of my friends—the ones that I once loved, the ones that I cherished, and ones that I adored—slowly began changing and removing themselves away from me. In noticing this trend, I became forlorn, and realized that love and friendships were not idyllic ideals, but rather, indifferent themes. “Friends are nothing more than environmental consequences” Daniel states in his journal under the Interlude Reflections on Friendship—and they are words that were poignantly written from the heart. In observing the abandonment of friends and lovers, I went and looked at culture, and analyzed the possible reasons for why friends would part from one another at this time in life. I’ve concluded that friends abandon each other in life because life demands an elimination of love in order to exist. As Daniel states for me: “How can speaking about love with friends pay off the mortgage?” Moreover, Hollywood, clichés, materialism, the culture-industry, and etc. all grant the weary individual temporary relief from the labors of life in capitalism, and offer solutions that friends in reality cannot. Friends and lovers, despite their attempt, cannot end fully the turmoil in their friends’ hearts—but, when watching Superman save the world, this turmoil at the very least can be temporarily forgotten, where our friends’ presence in reality no longer matters. Thus we conform to culture, await the latest social trends, the latest media buzz, the latest viral videos, the next celebrity gossip, the next award shows on the Red Carpet…and simply forget the friends that once loved us when we were younger.
In analyzing why friends conform to culture and thus change, I ask myself: will there be a point in the lives of my friends where they regret something about their past? Will they regret for having thrown away the individuals that once loved them? Will they regret not doing something in their youth because they conformed to the ways of society? My Interludes are a way to investigate this theme of regret, for I have, already at the time of this interview, received praise from my friends for my accomplishments; and in their praises and veneration, I hear already in their voice the brief sighs of regret that comes from labor and life. And I, like Daniel of course, hate myself for having to pity them.
“A place without friends to love is Hell” was a phrased expressed with words during my time as a university student. I say ‘expressed with words’ because any other expression other than with words would have been an inadequate way of describing the remorseful feeling I had of losing my friends at that time in life. The Interlude, Final Thoughts, expresses my deepest and truest thoughts on this subject.
Jenny lives her life in hell because she has no friends, or, at least, no longer has Daniel. She surrenders her identity to life because life is too unbearable; she thus enters Hell and marries Tom. Daniel, however, in preserving his identity and by becoming a writer, obtains love in the form of Irene, and is in a blissful heaven. It goes to say that one should never abandon their friends or ever give up their identity in life: Friends are worth holding onto and loving at all stages of life, no matter how miserable life may become.
FQ: Are you working on another novel now? If so, would you share a little with us about the story?
I’m currently working on three, in fact. I am currently working on a novel with a tentative title called The Silhouette of Shadows that explores the body of women. That is, how can a woman become free socially, sexually, and culturally, if in each of these realms she must conform to certain standards of society? The novel explores sex as a symbolic concept and deals with a straightforward dilemma: what does a woman do knowing that her husband is cheating on her?
My second novel, Chopin in the Library, is an avant-grade novel where I utilize theories borrowed from Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. I try to explode all literary codes within this novel, and exaggerate this notion of plaisir versus joussiance to a new theoretical height. I also invoke a bit of Vladimir Nabokov in the style of Lolita as well. The premise—on the surface—is simple: a young, intelligent, and bright young man encounters a piano prodigy in the library. He falls in love with her; the story thus unfolds.
And thirdly, I am hoping to finish a manuscript that satirizes Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, and expose all the unintentional racist, ethnocentric, and sexist themes inherent in her writing.
Once again, thank you so much for your time and this interview. I hope that we can meet each other in future and again continue our discussion about literature.