NEA Literature Fellowships

Catherine Chung

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from Forgotten Country

The year I became a math major, Hannah and I started growing apart. She never understood my chosen field, and she considered it a defection to my father’s fortress of reason and logic. “You can’t even divide up a bill,” she said. “You’re horrible with numbers.”

I tried to tell her about complex and imaginary numbers, primes and transcendentals, numbers with families and personalities, but she rolled her eyes.            

“I just don’t know how you can think any of that is important,” she said. She was studying to become a biologist, deep in the gunk of life and committed to saving the earth, and could see no beauty in what I did.

But math had come with me from Korea to America, and its familiarity had pulled me through those first bewildering years. I liked its solidity, the possibility of discovering a truth around which no further argument need swirl. And Hannah was right to feel left behind, maybe even betrayed. Because when I started talking shop with my father, something changed between us.

My father had always wanted a son. We women were unreliable creatures, prone to fits of emotion and flights from logic that generally ended with him at the receiving end of a pointed finger. “Yes!” he’d said, when I told him I’d decided to study math. He’d reached out his hand and said, “Shake!” While he pumped my hand up and down, he’d said, “Math lasts.”

One day in the summer after my sophomore year of college, my father and I tried to construct the 17-gon with a straightedge and compass. As we talked, something in him eased up and fell away. He laughed, made jokes about our family in mathematical terminology. When we talked math, the words flowed, pure and easy. Here were rules we could both abide by, here was a language that was eloquent, and spoke to us about the world.

 Later, we sat in our backyard going over what I thought at the time was a particularly complex proof. My mother’s roses were in bloom at the edge of our lawn and we could smell them faintly, their perfume drifting over on the occasional breeze. A beetle flew onto the picnic table and landed on our paper.

“Do you see this beetle?” my father said, pointing at its shiny back with his pencil. “Just think—it’s mathematical fact! Even the tiniest insect has as many points on its back as the entire universe.”

I was silent, curious.

“Life is like that,” my father mused. He tapped his pencil by the beetle several times. “Think about it! The tiniest insect contains infinity on its back: each life contains as much meaning as all of history.” Then he leaned forward and blew a quick sharp breath on the beetle, which unfolded tiny translucent wings, lifted into the wind, and flew away.

I called Hannah that night. She was spending the summer in Chicago. I said, “Who knew? Dad’s getting mushy.” I felt like a traitor as soon as I said it, but I had to put the sarcastic note in to get her to listen.

“Not interested,” she said.

(From Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung, copyright (c) 2014 by Catherine Chung. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.)

Catherine Chung is the author of the novel Forgotten Country, which received an Honorable Mention for the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award, and was named a Best Book of 2012 by The San Francisco Chronicle, Bookpage, and Booklist. She is one of Granta’s New Voices, and has published work in the New York Times, The Rumpus, and Epoch Magazine, among others. She is a fiction editor at Guernica Magazine and teaches creative writing at Adelphi University. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University, and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Camargo Foundation, and UCross. She lives in New York City, where she is working on her second novel.

Photo by Sejin Chung

Author's Statement

What a dream, and what a wonderful, sustaining gift to receive in a moment of need! This NEA grant will buy me time—the hours and days and months to write—always so difficult to secure, and always so precious and necessary. And just as important and meaningful is the shot of faith and courage that comes with such support—the recognition that the time is necessary, that our stories and the struggle to tell them have value. I am grateful beyond words for this fellowship, and delighted and humbled by the company I’m in.