LJ Talks with Monika Kim, Author of ‘The Eyes Are the Best Part’

Monika Kim is a second-generation Korean American living in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. She learned about eating fish eyes from her mother, who immigrated to LA from Seoul in 1985. The Eyes Are the Best Part is her first novel.

Monika Kim is a second-generation Korean American living in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. She learned about eating fish eyes from her mother, who immigrated to LA from Seoul in 1985. The Eyes Are the Best Part is her first novel.

What about horror as a genre inspires you as a writer?

With respect to writing horror, I love how the genre is so flexible and encourages us as artists to challenge boundaries. That can mean shocking or scaring our readers through the use of violence and gore, but it also creates a space for us to add social commentary or make a political statement, like I try to do in Eyes.

To be honest, I actually stumbled into the genre almost by accident. Growing up, I was never exposed to horror. My immigrant parents didn’t really watch scary movies, and despite being a voracious reader, the closest I came to horror was the “Goosebumps” series. A few years ago, however, I watched Jordan Peele’s cinematic masterpiece Get Out and was amazed at how he was able to create a work that made me laugh and cry and cringe and, most importantly, think about the film’s searing political critiques. Being first and foremost a feminist author, I realized that this genre was the perfect vehicle for me to talk about the experiences of Asian women, but in a fun and interesting way that also provided an outlet for my own…sense of humor.

Can you talk about how you incorporated real-life frustrations and anger into this book?

I think it’s fair to say that this book came from a deep-seated anger that had been brewing in me for a long time but really erupted during the pandemic. At that time, the Asian community saw a rash of violence and an increase in hate crimes—our elders randomly attacked, women pushed onto train tracks, people being murdered in cold blood. And then, in 2021, we were horrified by the news about the killing of six Asian women at an Atlanta spa. The killer, a 21-year-old white man, claimed that he had a sex addiction and saw the spas as a “temptation he wanted to eliminate.” Adding insult to injury, we saw government officials just shrug and say that they couldn’t decide if the attack was racially motivated.

I remember being afraid to walk down the street alone. I thought about the victims constantly and how these women had come to the U.S. hoping for a better life, only to have their lives cut short by racial and sexual violence. But this concept wasn’t confined only to those poor victims. Almost every Asian woman I know has had to deal with some aspect of our hypersexualization and fetishization in popular culture—from drunk men yelling “Me love you long time!” across a crowded bar, to the white guy who dates only Asian women and obsesses over our “doll-like” appearances and “porcelain skin.” Much of this, I think, comes from stereotypes of us as submissive, as weak and unable to defend ourselves, and worst of all as willing to put up with anything a man does to hurt or degrade us. A key motivation for me to write this book was to tell a story that challenges these insidious stereotypes and (literally) attacks the white male gaze, empowering women to be whatever we want to be—intelligent, funny, strong, outrageous, ridiculous, or all of the above.

Can you talk a bit more about the main character, Ji-won, and how she leads readers through this novel?

There are so many great Asian American stories out there, but I’ve never read one that truly captured my own experience as a Korean American woman, or the experiences of any of my Korean family and friends living here in the United States. So when I was embarking on this project, I wanted to approach it with specificity. I wanted to write about what we see and experience every day. Ji-won leads us through the normalized and the overlooked existence of the young Korean American woman: the struggle of identity over not being totally Korean and, to many others, not really American, and thus fitting into neither culture perfectly; as a college student, interacting with a predominantly white student body that sees you as the “other” or, like we already talked about, only good for sexual gratification; and all the while lurking in the background is the intergenerational trauma passed from parents to children, often manifesting in addiction and abuse and exacerbated by a cultural hostility to even discussing mental health or counseling.

Ji-won is not part of the so-called Model Minority; she isn’t breezing through school and acing every class on her way to become a doctor or a lawyer. Nor does she have rich parents living in Asia who set her up with a Mercedes and a luxury apartment and a bank account so she can spend her weekends partying and shopping. Ji-won is just trying to survive. With her family falling apart and all of her friends gone, she is painfully aware of the cards that life has dealt her and of being alone out in the world. The seeds of her rage were therefore already planted, and when certain white men come into her life and try to control her, she turns to her deceitful side…to get what she wants.

Readers are going to finish this book hungry for more, so I’m wondering—what are you working on next?

I’m excited to say that I’m working on another story in this genre! The current working title is MOLKA, and it’s another feminist horror novel. In many ways, I see it as a sister to Eyes. Molka is a term in Korean for hidden spy cameras that are often used to illegally capture voyeuristic images and videos of women. It’s an ongoing problem in Korea, where molka crimes have become a major focal point of the feminist and #MeToo movements over the last several years.

The book is a third-person, dual-POV from the perspectives of both perpetrator and victim. I’m hoping to bring even more intensity and to really push the envelope, while still focusing on the women’s issues that matter most to me and telling a story of empowerment.

What books and authors are you most excited about right now?

I could talk about this all day. To start, I love Shirley Jackon’s books. I recently read The Haunting of Hill House, and it blew my mind. Two other horror authors I’ve been reading recently and really enjoying are Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Tananarive Due. And, of course, I think Christopher Golden is an incredible author; his most recent novel, The House of Last Resort, which just came out in January, is masterfully written, atmospheric, and terrifying.

I don’t know how obvious it is from the premise of Eyes, but I’m a sucker for the bizarre, the weird, and the utterly strange. I adore Sayaka Murata’s books—especially Earthlings, which is outrageously twisted. Last year, I also read and enjoyed Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, a wonderfully creepy and quirky short story collection translated into English from Korean.

Outside of horror, some of my favorite authors include Min Jin Lee, Ling Ma, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Fonda Lee, and Ann Patchett.

Finally, one of my favorite books of all time is Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger. It’s so incredibly written and stunningly gorgeous in its raw honesty and exploration of the immigrant experience and the loss that comes with moving to another country. Since discovering this novella, I’ve made it a personal goal to read it again every year, and the book never fails to surprise me and teach me something new.

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