Worth Reading

One Woman’s Story of Hope, Passion and Fearlessness

Interview with Svetlana Kim, Author of White Pearl: A Memoir of a Political Refugee

I had the pleasure to meet Svetlana “Lana” Kim in Orlando at the Extreme Business Makeovers Conference in April. We immediately hit it off and I knew we would be friends. It gives me great pleasure to interview her about her book, a story of hope, passion and one woman’s determination to “make it.”

Why did you write White Pearl and I: A Memoir of a Political Refugee?

The answer to that question belies another question, and another, until you find you are wandering down the very path that I took when I wrote White Pearl and I. I wrote this book because, to put it simply, I simply had to. Life is full of many turns, and we have many choices given to us. In my case, the odds were against me. But as my loving babushka, my beloved Grandmother, White Pearl, used to say, “doing nothing is a risk.” A dramatic statement, that, and a tidbit of her wisdom on which I’ve come to rely. Her spirit guided me through all my journeys, near and far, and continues to do so, even now.

At the beginning of the book, you speak of coming to America with $1 in your pocket, what was going trough your mind when you arrived? 

Just imagine for a minute!  Eight o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, December 18, 1991, John F. Kennedy International  Airport— Welcome to America!  I walked off the plane and into mass confusion. It was the holiday season, and the airport was bustling with activity—Christmas trees, crying babies, travelers with brightly wrapped gifts rushing to catch their flights. Lines for food. Reunions. Leave-takings. People running into each other’s arms. (This was before 9/11, when those without tickets could still go to the gate with their loved ones.) I stood in the midst of the nonstop motion, people bumping me as they rushed past. It seemed that everyone but me knew where to go. I finally spied an empty chair and claimed it. I sat down, hugging my backpack to my chest. I had no idea what to do next. The sounds of a language I didn’t understand gave me a headache. People talked so fast that I couldn’t even catch a sound I recognized. My head was spinning.  I felt dizzy. How was I going to contact Ludmila? I couldn’t read any of the signs. Everything was in English. But what did I expect? I didn’t know whom to ask for help or even how to ask. And, besides, no one would understand me anyway. The magnitude of what I’d done, leaving home without a plan, without a clue, suddenly hit me.

What was the first thing you did? 

I sat there, almost in a state of shock, for eight hours. I would search for a phone and call my friend. A stranger was trying to help me.  He went to make a phone call using a public telephone. I offered him my only dollar. He not only returned my only dollar but gave me a few coins besides.Then he disappeared. He came back a few minutes later, a perplexed expression on his face. He kept saying, “Canada.” I realized that I have no plans.  My only friend Ludmila in NYC moved to Canada.   

What one thing would you like readers to know about your book?

It is a story of hope, impossible dreams, perseverance, and seren-destiny.  Bya-ok (Korean for White Pearl) is my beloved Grandmother.  She is 94 years old and lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I dedicated this book to White Pearl. My grandmother is a generous, funny, warm, fearless, and resilient soul. And yes, thankfully, she is still alive. She survived Joseph Stalin’s forced deportation in 1937 from Far East Russia to Central Asia. She was just a young girl of 22 then, and I can’t imagine the horrors she saw. So many people died during that journey.

From left, top row: Aunt Zoya; Arkadiy; my mother. From left, bottom row: White Pearl; me (on her lap); my grandfather (1973).

From left, top row: Aunt Zoya; Arkadiy; my mother. From left, bottom row: White Pearl; me (on her lap); my grandfather (1973).

Let’s talk about writing process for a moment, what are some of the challenges and obstacles you experienced during the writing?

 

As anyone who was ever attempted to write with continuity will know (and those of you who haven’t,) at times it is difficult to remain inspired, focused. To keep one’s attention on the task ahead, no matter how daunting.

One of the ways that I found my inspiration to keep writing, and keep drawing upon all the experiences I had growing up with my Grandmother, was through my senses. Sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, and even what I call “connectedness.” Sometimes, I would cook Korean food to remind me of the delicious aromas of my childhood. This sent me all over various places, looking for unique ingredients found only in Asian supermarkets. Of course, I loved my Grandmother’s cooking, and it wasn’t only a reminder.. it was delicious food!

But sometimes, I would need even more reality to feel truly connected, after having been separated by so much time and distance. I would stargaze. I often wrote at night, when things were peaceful, calm, quiet. I would open up my shades, open up the window just above the desk where I wrote, and I would gaze up at the stars.

From a very early age, my Grandfather and Babushka taught me how to recognize the stars, their patterns, and constellations. I would gaze up at the beautiful black sky, dotted with a million points of bright lights, and I would dream of her. I would dream of us, talking, laughing, learning, and just being together. Gazing up at those stars, those same stars that we would gaze at together, it brought me closer and closer to the time that she was right beside me, pointing up and teaching.

As you might be able to tell from reading the book, I draw upon not only my memory, but my Grandmother’s memory as well, of her parents, her people, and  her own story.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer that you wish you knew during that process?

It took me five years to finish my book.  I had two full years to do nothing but write, write, and write. Keep a notebook. Do your best to write at least 500 words a day.  Be consistent.  Be dedicated to the process.  Be passionate.  Enjoy the process of writing.  Read your favorite authors. Study their writing style, pay attention how they develop their characters, and plot. Take writing workshops.  Sam Horn taught me that your first sentence must be magical and critical because it sets the tone, grabs the attention, and forces us to read on. She asked me,”What is your hook?” How can you “hook” your reader quickly? Have you heard Hemingway’s way of telling his story. “Baby shoes. For Sale. Never worn.”  Keep it simple, grab your readers from the very first sentence, develop character, and have a compelling ending. 

Most importantly, enjoy the process, and keep writing no matter what. If you would write one page a day, you can finish a manuscript in one year. Commit to yourself and the process.

My manuscript was admitted to the writing workshop at the Maui Writers Conference  in August of 2007.  Only ten manuscripts were accepted. I was so lucky! I was very nervous and excited at the same time. My teacher was Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. He wrote Mark Twain: A Life. With James Bradley he co-wrote the #1 New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Fathers. I am forever grateful to Ron Powers for being my great teacher, mentor, and friend. John Tulius, founder of the MWC, wrote me a nice e-mail,”You have such a vivid imagination of a scene. I love the bread line and mafia guy in the fancy car scalping airline tickets. But each scene needs to be more fully exploited. You know Russia intimately, and we want to know everything you know. We’re not stupid. We know you are going to get here. Or you wouldn’t be writing a book, right? So make me feel deeply in love with her than I already have. And take your time. The first 20 pages should be 50, 75, 100. Remember one thing as you write, fear nothing. So tell us everything and don’t edit . This is not the time to edit. Now is the time to pour out your heart.” 

What is next for Svetlana Kim?

Right now I’m a overnight volunteer at the Women’s Homeless Shelter in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.  Also, I volunteer in the Office of the Presidential Correspondence at the White House.  I read letters addressed to the President Obama. I speak internationally about my book and working on my next book. It may take me another five years. 

What’s next? Who knows? 

How can our readers find out about you and get a copy of White Pearl and I: A Memoir of a Political Refugee?

My book is available online at amazon.com.  I can be reached at svetlana@svetlanakim.com.  Please visit my website http://www.svetlanakim.com for more information.

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