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The loneliness of the central character in Esther Yi's 'Y/N' is universal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to spend the next several minutes talking about obsession, the guts of it, the contradictions of it, the suffering of it. And we're going to examine obsession through the eyes of a Korean American woman living in Berlin who works as a copywriter for a canned artichoke heart business. And in this otherwise mundane life, she finds spiritual, romantic and intellectual awakening in her devotion to a K-pop superstar named Moon. Now, she remains unnamed as the central character in the new novel by Esther Yi called "Y/N". But maybe her anonymity is for the better because there is something so universally recognizable in her religious fervor and loneliness, in her distortion of reality as she admires from afar. There is something about her that is in all of us. Esther Yi joins us now. Welcome.

ESTHER YI: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. So for those who may not get it at first, can you just explain the title of this book, "Y/N"?

YI: Sure. The title stands for your name. And it appears in a type of fan fiction that allows readers to insert their name into that slot and thereby play out the events of the story, which, of course, usually involves a romantic encounter or story of some kind with the celebrity or the fictional character in question.

CHANG: Well, you know, I get a sense that when we meet the main character, the narrator at the beginning of this book, her life is missing something. What was your sense of what is missing from this person's life?

YI: I always imagine Moon almost as a knife, kind of a violent figure. And I don't mean that in a willful way but that he seems to be exposing some kind of wound or void in these characters' lives. And it's both offering fulfillment but also exposing that void. And I think the exposure of that void can be full of potential for an individual who's experiencing that. But it can also be a moment of great, of course - it's leaving open a lot of possibility for disappointment, for lack of fulfillment...

CHANG: Yeah.

YI: ...For never reaching that goal. And so the nature of that void, I guess that's the kind of - one of the mysterious questions of the novel. What is the nature of this particular narrator's void? And it certainly has something to do with love, of course, some desire for intimacy, some need to be able to practice devotional (laughter) exercise.

CHANG: Yeah, let's talk about that because you describe the fandom, the idolatry around this K-pop band almost like a religion. Like, each member of the band is named after some celestial body. You know, you have Sun, Mercury, Venus and, of course, Moon, who becomes the main character's ultimate fixation. Tell me. How do fandom and religion overlap in your mind?

YI: Well, to speak, I guess, specifically to my narrator's case, it seems to me that she wants - and, again, related to this desire for love and to practice devotion - but it seems to me that she is capable of meditating upon a single object for a very long period of time. And, of course, there's a lot of irony in the fact that she is choosing to practice this meditation upon one of the most, you know, poppy, one of the most energetic and frenetic and colorful and vivid and rapid-paced forms of cultural consumption right now. But that's where she wants to do it. I'm not judgmental about, you know, K-pop or about celebrity culture. That's really not my intention for the book. I'm not a journalist. I'm not here to write some kind of takedown or critique. I'm just very curious about this form of worship. And I take it very seriously in some sense. But it seems to me that it's speaking to some kind of absence within our current landscape...

CHANG: Yeah.

YI: ...Of possibility.

CHANG: Yeah. You also, you know, in this story, write about how living inside your own head presents a contradiction that you call insurmountable. You write, she can never have it. That's why she loves it. She loves what she cannot have. But she will die if she cannot have this thing she loves not being able to have. Tell me. How much is this story a cautionary tale about not living in reality?

YI: Yeah, there's definitely a question of like the practical - what does she practically want? What does this narrator practically want to achieve with Moon? Does she even care about practicality? In some sense, I suppose she does because she goes all the way to Seoul to try to find him. And I won't reveal the end of the novel, but in some sense, she gets some form of what she thought she wanted. But that seems too easy. It doesn't seem like what she wants is some kind of practical togetherness. So perhaps she doesn't want reality.

And I don't see the novel as a cautionary tale against anything, to be honest. It's simply documenting this one individual's attempt to perhaps experience something beyond the boundaries of her given conditions, beyond the boundaries of her human consciousness, which, of course, for any person, is an extremely dangerous thing to embark upon. Either you are sent over to the other side and possibly you never come back to reality, you never survive it to tell the story, or you come back and you're probably a little bit destroyed, to put it mildly. Yeah, I think the narrator is certainly skirting some kind of boundary, testing some kind of boundary between reality and fantasy. Whether or not she should be blamed or critiqued or criticized for attempting this - that's certainly not my concern.

CHANG: Yeah.

YI: It's more about what happens when - why does one feel drawn to test that limit? That interests me. And what happens when one comes close to that limit? And what happens when you either come back or you cross over completely to the other side?

CHANG: Let me ask you about you. I mean, you are of Korean descent. You were born in the U.S., you now live in Germany. And I was wondering, as I was reading this book, was there a part of you reflected in this rabid fandom that this main character feels? Were you ever totally obsessed with something like she was?

YI: (Laughter) Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

YI: That's my life.

CHANG: What's your consistent obsession?

YI: What's the consistent one?

CHANG: Yeah.

YI: It would be literature.

(LAUGHTER)

YI: It's a very nerdy answer, so it's not as exciting as K-pop or some celebrity. I can't say Brad Pitt, unfortunately. No offense to him. It's just literature. It's the writers that I love. That is really my key obsession, art.

CHANG: And what did you tap into when it came to your personal obsession with literature, or whatever else, that shows up in this novel?

YI: Yeah. I mean, I can talk specifically about - this a little bit - I've always wondered whether I should even talk about this 'cause it's definitely a little bit embarrassing, but that's kind of the point...

(LAUGHTER)

YI: ...That it's going to be embarrassing, so I'll just say it anyways. I began writing from a young age for a variety of reasons. But one of them was because it was kind of my only way of interacting with the objects of my desire. But that was how creativity began for me. It was, like, in this despairing manner that creativity began. And I think for that reason I find fan fiction especially a really interesting and really rich mode of expression that, of course, a lot of people look down on 'cause it's - you know, it lacks a certain literary polish. But I respect that about fan fiction. Like, I respect that fan fiction is so much the product of a compulsion, of a yearning, that it almost forgoes all of these pretensions of polish, of quality, of sophistication. And in that sense, for me, there is something that's revealed at the heart of fan fiction that I think is essential to all great literature, which is this desire to put yourself in the same space as the transcendental, you know, to almost touch the hem of it without really quite grasping it.

CHANG: Esther Yi's new book is "Y/N". Thank you so much for being with us, Esther.

YI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAI SONG, "ROVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.