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Katherine Min’s posthumous second novel ‘Fetishist’

On the shelf

Fetishist

By Katherine Min
GP Putnam’s Sons: 304 pages, $28

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This is the story of a fabulous book that almost never was. A fresh and vicious novel with the pace and urgency of a thriller,”Fetishist” revolves around desire and revenge, focusing on the kidnapping of a classical musician with a history of predatory behavior by his ex-lover’s punk-rock daughter, who kills herself after he spurns her. It is Katherine Min’s second novel and comes almost four years after her death.

Min was a connector, writer, and professor who built communities through residencies, conferences, and classrooms. This explains why her posthumous publication will be marked by an extensive book tour (including a Stop in Los Angeles on January 23rd) led by a legion of friends and former students and led by her daughter, Kayla Min Andrewswhich restored the file that became «Fetishist».

Although I was neither Mina’s peer nor her student, I was a devoted reader of her work. In August 2006, I met Min at the MacDowell Colony shortly before the publication of her debut novel, “Secondhand World,” at Knopf, where I was an editorial assistant at the time. Her enthusiastic and unguarded demeanor was refreshing and I loved her intense yet tender novel. Her reading on The KGB bar in Manhattan, that fall seemed like an auspicious start. Unfortunately, this was her last book tour.

«Secondhand World» was a coming-of-age novel set in upstate New York in the 1970s, with autobiographical elements of the immigrant experience. But it was also a moving, remarkably literary work that burned with complicated longing. Knopf senior editor Victoria Wilson bought the novel for «the virtue and power of its writing».

In the early years, books that captured the Korean-American experience weren’t that widespread, let alone wildly celebrated (this was before «Pachinko» by Min Jin Lee and «Crying at H Mart» by Michelle Zauner). One «Secondhand World» fan, Putnam publisher Sally Kim, kept it in a small section of her bookcase devoted to (some rare) Korean American novels. She would end up cutting «The Fetishist», but at the time Min’s debut didn’t find a wide audience.

"Fetishist" Cover

Speaking on the phone 18 years later, Wilson remembers Min’s intensity, drive and seemingly limitless promise. Knopf had a crowded slate that fall — the season of «The Emperor’s Children,» «Half of a Yellow Sun» and other breakthroughs — but Wilson and others worked hard to get Min noticed. Publicist Tessa Shanks recalls how they «devised a plan» with Min to stretch the tour’s budget towards as many cities as possible. «I believe Vicky was a bit taken aback by our enthusiasm for a relatively small book,» says Shanks.

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«Second hand world» paved the way for Min to become a temporary professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It received praise and a PEN/Bingham Award nomination. Min continued to write at artist residencies and worked on what became «Fetishist». But when she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in early 2014, she closed the door on fiction.

Instead, Min moved to non-fiction. «It was like a switch had been flipped,» recalls her friend, writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee. Min «felt an urgent need to write essays, especially about her new perspective on life with cancer.» While Lee is pleased with the publication of «The Fetishist,» she also hopes that these essays will be published as a collection. “Even with all her treatments and their side effects… she kept writing. That was her way of being.»

Min brought the same dedication to this work as she did to her fiction. «She was unwilling to compromise the urgency at their core for faint praise or recognition,» recalls another friend, the writer and translator Geoffrey Brock. When a «well-known magazine» suggested «some wrong cuts,» she withdrew the piece and sent it to Brock at Arkansas International, where he operated it intact. («An orange I can handle,» runs the darkly funny opening. «This sumo orange, with its ragged skin and bulbous snozz.»)

«If the way she came out,» says Brock, «it was that she did it with such confidence … intact, despite the fact that the label must have been difficult to maintain.»

The year Min died, her family was born community in her name at MacDowell, where she was artist-in-residence eight times, which would provide opportunities for Asian American writers. That did a lot to preserve her memory, but what about her unpublished work?

Kayla Min Andrews, the woman in the green short sleeve shirt.

Kayla Min Andrews helped publish «Fetishist,» her late mother Katherine Min’s second novel, and is working on finishing it.

(Bryan Tarnowski/Bryan Tarnowski)

Initially, the family hoped that Min’s essays could be published as a collection. To do this, Kayla Min Andrews reached out to her mother’s friend, writer Cathy Park Hong. Hong connected Andrews with PJ Mark, Hong’s literary agent.

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Reached by email, Mark recalls thinking the collection could work — if presented and framed properly by her contemporaries. But he asked Andrews for more material. She mentioned that Min shared individual chapters from her novel-in-progress prior to her diagnosis. «I had a sense of character,» Andrews recalls of her mother’s handwriting. “I had some sense of the plot, but I never read the entire draft properly.

After talking with Mark, Andrews returned to her mother’s laptop, which she was now using as her own. There were the files – complete versions of the novel, including notes on elements to be added or revised. It was dated late February 2014, just before Min’s diagnosis. For an apparently unfinished manuscript, it was remarkably polished.

«Fetishist» was Mark’s introduction to her fiction. «I found it hilarious, poignant and so contemporary, which surprised me because it was written several years ago.» The novel predates #MeToo and directly addresses the generational shift away from patriarchal resignation. In the novel, Min pursues the idea of ​​reconciling violence with violence, but also explores the gray area of ​​reconciliation and rehabilitation. To Mark, it «felt like a timeless comic fable about revenge as well as a modern cultural critique.» And even though I had no relation to Katherine, I felt an urgent responsibility to the book and to honor her legacy, which was an unexpected feeling that I couldn’t explain.”

Kayla Min Andrews, left, with her mother, Katherine Min.

Kayla Min Andrews, left, with her mother, Katherine Min.

(Courtesy of Kayla Min Andrews)

Mark had the ideal editor in mind: Sally J. Kim. He offered her an exclusive submission.

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Reading the manuscript alongside the rest of Min’s work felt to Kim like having a conversation with Min in her head during one intense week. Kim mused, “What would she think of our world today, which has changed so much since her passing in 2019 — the pandemic, George Floyd, AAPI hate? I wanted to talk to her about so many things. I still do.»

During the editing process, Andrews, a writer herself, eagerly intervened on her mother’s behalf, working hand-in-hand with Kim to expand scenes and iron out flaws. «There were moments and lines,» Kim says, «that scared me in how perceptive Katherine was about Asian-American identity, objectification, desire, and how all of these things often get tangled up.»

For all of Andrews’ hard work, «The Fetishist» ultimately owes its release not only to those who have a personal interest in her life, but to people who have found immense value in her work.

“I never had the good fortune to meet Katherine,” says Kim, “but I have such a strong sense of her wisdom, her warmth, her wit, her ferocity. It made me want to do my best for this book. I’ve been publishing books for almost 30 years, and in many ways, Katherine’s struggles as an emerging Asian-American writer parallel my own, and I mourn that at times, for both of us. But I also feel like I’ve been working my whole career to get this book out the way it deserves. This book is a celebration.”

LeBlanc is a critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her Substack is laurenleblanc.substack.com.

#Katherine #Mins #posthumous #Fetishist

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