October 27, 2023
Carol Roh Spaulding
For Carol Roh Spaulding, reading is a vital form of understanding culture. The act offers insight into experiences different from our own. It expands our perspectives. It helps us travel the world as we sit in place.
Join us to celebrate Carol's new release, Waiting for Mr. Kim and Other Stories, at Storyhouse Bookpub on Friday, November 10th. Carol will read from her collection, which explores the perspective of living at the intersection of multiple identities. These linked stories explore the shifting definitions of what it means to be an American and the dynamics of a family across generations.
Enjoy drinks and dessert in Storyhouse before heading upstairs to Raygun to hear Carol read and discuss her work. Purchase your tickets for the event here.
Carol shared with CultureALL her ideas on writing, literature, and the role of culture in her life as a writer.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What has your professional career been like? What drew you to writing?
I’m a California native, which I mention because my book is set in two significant places in California – the Bay Area, where I was born, and the Central Valley, where I was raised. I’ve been a writer since 8th grade, when my teacher, Mr. Gregory, encouraged me to pursue writing. I wrote many stories throughout high school and my undergraduate years. But it wasn’t until I came to Iowa for graduate school in the 1990s that I began writing the stories from my Asian American heritage that resulted in this book.
What was the motivation or inspiration for writing Waiting for Mr. Kim and Other Stories?
These stories are inspired by my Korean American family heritage, which I knew little about. My mother didn’t tell me a lot about her past. I got the sense that she didn’t want to talk much about it. But she used to give me tidbits of information about her family and her experiences growing up, and it’s those bits I imagined into the stories of this collection. It was a way of writing myself into a relationship with my Korean American heritage.
What do you hope readers get from reading this collection?
Sometimes it may seem like reading is only for escape from the world’s troubles, which can feel overwhelming. But I write stories to help create understanding across cultures and generations. In this collection, you see families struggling to understand one another, navigating silences, identity, Americanness, and the backdrop of war and diaspora. These are domestic stories, though – they’re not epic; they don’t have that vast historic sweep some readers might expect. Instead, they move through the smaller moments and spaces that make up a life.
You've stated that you use the pen name Carol Roh Spaulding to blend your European and Korean roots. Why was that important to you as you established an identity as a writer?
It was these stories that originally helped me find my voice and purpose as a writer. My parents divorced when I was a young adult, so I took my mother’s family name, Roh, as part of my pen name in solidarity with her. I also wanted to understand her journey as the daughter of immigrants and the wife of a Caucasian man who raised her children in a mostly white suburban community in the 1970s.
How does your culture influence your writing, both in the sense of the content you write and how you live your life as a writer?
I don’t identify as an Asian American writer. In fact, I don’t see myself as claiming a culture or identity so much as actively and vocally resisting being named as Asian or white or even racially mixed. Recently, Sherman Alexie agreed in a response to a column I wrote titled “Asianish” that multicultural categories have become mostly marketing concepts. Identity isn’t bad; in fact, it is necessary and unavoidable. But it can become calcified and serve as the basis for an “us” versus “them” mentality. I think people need constant practice in adjusting their self-concept, never allowing it to settle and always being willing to learn more. That is the “identity” I write from, which isn’t really an identity at all.
How do you incorporate the concept of culture into your teaching at Drake University?
I try to teach both writing and literary interpretation in such a way that students can recognize the significance of language and literature in shaping how we view ourselves and others. For example, in Waiting for Mr. Kim and Other Stories, you will see many different and even conflicting depictions and self-concepts of Asian American characters, much of it inflected by gender as well as race. I want to show the complexity because whole people are complex; they are not stereotypes. We can use writing to define, discover, and resist how we want to be seen and understood.
How do you think literature functions as a way to share one's culture with others? How does it function as a way to learn about other cultures?
I don’t think a writer’s job is to “share” one’s culture, as though culture is this thing an author represents and a reader consumes. That transaction may seem harmless, but it relies on fixed and essentialized notions of cultural identity that can be taken to extremes that we see in countless ways around us today. I hope my stories promote the kind of cultural learning that constantly makes us revise or rethink what we thought we knew. It’s not that we are all the same, but stories should continually introduce us to the full worth and humanity of those we might define as other.