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Angie Kim on her novel 'Happiness Falls'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Adam Parson is missing at the opening of Angie Kim's new novel, "Happiness Falls." He's married to Hannah, a linguist born in Korea. Their children are Mia and John, 20-year-old twins, and Eugene, 14 years old, who has autism and Angelman syndrome. Adam is a loving full-time father to Eugene, busy with his treatment and care. One day he doesn't return from a morning hike with his son. Eugene runs home but cannot tell his family what happened, even if he knows. Angie Kim joins us now from Great Falls, Va. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANGIE KIM: Thank you so much for having me. This is such an honor and such a pleasure.

SIMON: Well, the honor is ours. Let me get you to introduce us to this family who is mixed in all ways.

KIM: (Laughter) Yes. This family is a biracial family. They're Korean American. And they live outside D.C., as I do. Mia and John, the 20-year-olds, are twins. They're fraternal twins, and they're very different from each other. One is an optimist - John. Mia is the pessimist. And the story follows them along in their attempt to figure out what happened to the father. And in order to do that, they really have to try to connect with one another and really learn to communicate with each other.

SIMON: Tell us about Eugene. Always seems to have a smile on his face but locked off in many ways. Tell us about his splaughing (ph), as they call it in the family.

KIM: Yes, that's made-up word that Mia uses. He can't speak. He's never been able to speak. And he makes these noises that are kind of a squealing. And he has Angelman syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder and an even rarer form of that called mosaic Angelman syndrome. So he has this persistent smile, and he laughs a lot. And so you think that he is very, very happy. And this is kind of a hallmark of people with Angelman syndrome. And you sort of wonder, is he really happy, or does he sometimes laugh and smile to cover up the pain inside, embarrassment, you know, the shame of being treated as if you don't have any words to express merely because you cannot speak them out loud?

SIMON: The story is told through Mia's eyes. She loves her younger brother. But help us understand some of the conflicted feelings about the amount of family time and energy he takes up.

KIM: You know, as all kids do, I think there is a lot of sibling rivalry. And in this particular family, because Eugene is nonspeaking, he has lots of medical issues, as well. And so he has digestive problems. He has motor issues. He requires tons of therapy. He requires, you know, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social therapy, everything that you can think of. Because of that, he requires, really, full-time care. And I think Mia and John - as much as they try to understand, they have moments when they think these shameful thoughts about their brother and how much time and bandwidth he takes up in the family.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you to read a section. It's the twins' birthday. This seems to be a crucial family event. Father makes them birthday cakes. Eugene is a special helper. And then the family hears a crash.

KIM: Yeah.

(Reading) It was our cakes. Both of them completely smashed up. Eugene was destroying them, one hand inside each cake - squeezing, mauling, smushing, clawing and flinging all over. If he desperately wanted the cake and lost control shoveling it into his mouth, I might have understood. But it wasn't like that. It was like he hated everything the cake stood for and wanted them gone from this world, like every morsel was an enemy that needed to be vanquished. Or no, like we were the enemy, John and I, and he wanted to punish us, to destroy everything good in our lives. Standing across the kitchen looking at Eugene, my first thought was, do you hate me as much as I hate you? I bet you don't because I hate you so much. I wish you were gone, wish you'd never come into our lives. Our lives would be so perfect without you.

SIMON: Oh, boy. That's hard to hear.

KIM: Yeah, right? I know.

SIMON: This comparison I'm going to ask you about is highly imperfect, but do you think growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in the U.S. who learned to understand English but at first were halting when you spoke gives you an extra insight into Eugene?

KIM: Absolutely. I think that's actually one of the reasons why I wrote this book and why I feature nonspeakers in a lot of my fiction. I grew up in Korea. And at age 11, in middle school - which is such a hard time anyway - we moved to the U.S., to the Baltimore area. And for the first time, I felt stupid. Even after I started understanding English, I still couldn't speak very well. I spoke with an accent, bizarre syntax, weird grammar. And I understood enough English to realize that people were talking about me in front of me. They were making fun of me. And so I came to realize for the first time, we have this deeply ingrained assumption that equates oral fluency with intelligence. And it's something that never left me, and it's something that even talking about it today, 40 years later, I still feel this, like, flush of shame.

And so when I learned that there are nonspeaking children that I knew who are autistic - and we had all, including their parents and their doctors, had assumed that they couldn't understand or think because they couldn't speak. And so they had cognitive deficit labels. And then all of a sudden, they started learning in a very painstaking way to use these large letter boards to spell out words letter by letter and, by doing that, learning to communicate. I teach a group of these nonspeakers now. I teach creative writing to them. And it is unbelievable to me the beautifully formed words and phrases and sentences that are just coming out of them because they've had them trapped in their minds this entire time. And it's just something that when I learned about, I did go back to my immigrant experience, and I thought, I have to write about this because I don't understand why this is happening in our society and why we have this assumption that we do that equates oral fluency with intelligence. We know that that's not true. When I don't understand something, I write. And that was what I did with this novel - is I just spent four years trying to figure this out.

SIMON: Angie Kim - her new novel, "Happiness Falls." Thank you so much for being with us.

KIM: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.