Patricia Park ’03 returns to read from new book

Photo by / Pavan Kalidindi

Last Thursday, Swarthmore alumna Patricia Park ’03 returned to campus for a reading of her debut novel, Re Jane, which was released this past May. Re Jane cleverly recasts the classic novel Jane Eyre in a contemporary setting, telling the story of Korean-American Jane and her path from Queens to Brooklyn and finally to Seoul.

The event began with a warm introduction from English professor Peter Schmidt, a former professor of Park’s during her time at Swarthmore. Schmidt opened with a connection between the Pope’s recent comments in New York urging people to acknowledge their societal and environmental responsibility and the tendency communities have to “deny connection to problems” that affect many. He stated that the goal of fiction is to connect and that this was precisely what Park accomplished with her novel. Schmidt shared that Park’s predilection for fiction writing was evident even when she was a student at Swarthmore.

“At Swarthmore, I wrote a lot of poetry, and I noticed that my poems just kept getting longer,” said Park. “They were three verses at first, then they became prose poems, and they just kept getting bloated, I put dialogue in my poems so they were becoming these mini-scenes, and I suddenly realized I should probably pay [this genre] respect, leave it be, and move on to fiction.”

In hindsight, the success of Park’s novel makes sense considering her natural identity as a creative writer, poet, and scholar dedicated to dynamic dialogue, characterization, and narrative, Schmidt said.

From the beginning, Park’s charisma was evident as she established an interactive exchange between the audience and herself.

“Are any of you guys from New York? Are any of you from Queens?” she opened,  genuinely interested in the responses. Immediately, the crowd was put at ease as people chuckled and smiled at Park’s witty sense of humor.

“In case any of you guys haven’t been alive for the last couple of decades, Queens has kind of suffered from a PR problem. When I was growing up, this idea of ‘Queens pride’ was an oxymoron. It felt more like Queens reluctance,” she told the audience.

Much of Park’s experience growing up was centered on Queens as the “underdog” outer borough in the face of glamorous Manhattan. This sentiment of being plain and lackluster was one of Park’s key points of connection to Jane Eyre. When she read the novel for the first time, Park was struck by the protagonist’s comfort with self-identifying as a poor and ordinary girl. Having faced the smooth perfection of Disney heroines her whole childhood, she felt relief in finding a figure that possessed aspects of both commonness and excellence.

“In the same way that being from Queens wasn’t cool, when I was growing up, being Asian-American wasn’t cool either,” she shared. “Everyone would ask the question ‘Where are you from?’ I’d answer, Flushing, Queens, New York, America and the follow-up would be, ‘No, where are you really from?”

Interactions such as these reinforced Park’s sense of not belonging and not feeling fully American. This continued into the realm of her Korean identity when she traveled to Korea only to have a similar experience. In Korea, Park’s distinct accent (a hybrid of English and Korean) and contrasting style was more American than she considered herself to be. This “reverse assimilation,” as Park referred to it, certainly did not alleviate the confusion of growing up in an immigrant family still connected to its ethnicity while being displaced in a foreign culture.

Park remembers feeling as if she were on another planet when she first arrived at Swarthmore. Contained in this new community, the difference she had experienced at home was glaringly obvious.

“I didn’t grow up speaking Academic-ese. When people talked about Modernism, I thought they were referring to something not old. In a seminar once, I was accused of having a very essentialist reading of something and I was too ignorant to know I had been insulted,” she recalled.

Many children of immigrant families can probably testify to this familiar experience of entering rigorous academic environments for the first time and encountering people who were raised with an expectation of occupying such spaces. Unlike the students at Swarthmore, Park communicated with her family using the language of “construction [and] building codes”. The goal when speaking was not to compose verbal excerpts worthy of publication in an academic journal. Instead, she pointed out, “efficiency and practicality were king.”

“There was cognitive dissonance to reconcile where I came from, what I was, and who I was becoming in this new environment I was in,” Park explained.

This notion of multiple cultures converging to create a singular complex identity is fundamental to the story of Re Jane. Throughout her reading, Park’s conception of “outsider status” emerged as a driving force of her novel, which grapples with a young woman who is not quite one or the other but comes to understand that she is both at the same time.

“With writing, you only know what you’re going to write by going down all of those wrong turns and roads, then you can cross them off your list and realize, ‘Oh, this is what I actually want to write about,’ Park said about her writing process.

During the talk, Park remarked that during the ten years she spent writing Re Jane, it became clear to her that writing was a “thankless and inefficient” process that required meticulous revisions and constant trial and error. She recounted how, after having written the beginning of her book in first person, she spent six months rewriting it in the third person, only to discover that she preferred the previous version after all. In order to dedicate herself to writing, Park had to preserve what she referred to as an “intellectual curiosity that is so much the antithesis to economic efficiency”.

Park imparted a final word of advice to the audience before a brief Q&A session. In the face of her own criticism for recontextualizing the classic story of Jane Eyre, Park encouraged everyone in the audience to adopt and abstract traditional concepts in the spirit of innovative creativity.

“I’m sure the purest of purists, the super airheads, will poo-poo all over the fact that I wrote a Korean-American version of Jane Eyre set in Queens,” said Park. “Maybe it’s blasphemy, maybe it’s sacrilegious … but isn’t that the whole point? [I]n this journey of discovering yourself and your craft, you take certain paths that have already been done, take them for yourself, and make them your own.”

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