Runaway success

Runaway success

<p>US author Nami Mun had only been on British soil for a matter of minutes before a passport official, on discovering her profession, told her cheerily: &quot;I hate reading. I don&#39;t read. I think reading is boring.&quot; Mun, after suggesting he might just need to find the &quot;right&quot; book, gave him one of her proof copies and extracted a promise that he would read it cover to cover.</p><p><em>Miles from Nowhere </em>(Virago, January) is Mun&#39;s d&eacute;but novel, eight years in the writing after she made a New Year&#39;s resolution on 1st January 2000 to &quot;consider myself a real writer&quot;. The novel spans five years in the life of narrator Joon, a Korean immigrant and 13 years old at the beginning of the story, who has run away from home. It&#39;s an absorbing read and the potentially bleak subject matter is leavened with tenderness and humour at unexpected moments. The structure of the novel is striking as Joon recounts her life on the streets in 1980s New York in a series of linked stories touching on drug addiction, crime and prostitution. Mun comments: &quot;She [Joon] is going through some rough times . . . living life on the margins. I wanted to give the reader a sense of how small moments can seem big, how certain moments really stay with you.&quot;</p><p>Born in Seoul in 1968, Mun moved to the Bronx, New York, with her family eight years later and left home for good when she was only 13 years old. She survived her turbulent teenage years living in a variety of places: &quot;abandoned buildings, park benches, the ferry, I&#39;d ride the subways . . . &quot;. She undertook jobs ranging from Avon Lady to selling jewellery out of a briefcase door-to-door. &quot;I was terrible at every job I ever had. I think I got fired every week,&quot; she remembers. But when asked to what extent the novel is autobiographical she paraphrases James Baldwin: &quot;You squeeze from your own experience every drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give,&quot; and concludes that: &quot;If I had to give a number I&#39;d say it&#39;s about 1% based on real-life events that either I&#39;ve experienced or I&#39;ve witnessed . . . but it is 99% fiction.&quot;<br /><strong><br />Burned after reading</strong><br />Fascinatingly, she kept a journal during the time she describes as her runaway years&mdash;&quot;nothing profound, just what had happened to me that day&quot; &mdash;but burned the journals years later. &quot;I was so afraid that when I started having a normal life someone would find out about my past,&quot; she says. When she came to write <em>Miles from Nowhere </em>she initially regretted the loss of such extraordinary first-hand material but acknowledges: &quot;Because I didn&#39;t have them it freed me up to recreate these stories as fiction. When you have the actual record you feel like you have to abide by the actual events.&quot;</p><p>Having left school with &quot;an eighth-grade education&quot; it was a chance encounter while working as a waitress that spurred a return to formal schooling and ultimately led Mun to become a writer. Two customers asked her a maths question, one betting she would know the answer as she was Asian, the other betting she wouldn&#39;t as she was a waitress. She describes her reaction as: &quot;Really kind of embarrassed, mad at them but really mad at myself that I hadn&#39;t pursued it [education] . . . I was just settling into this &quot;normal&quot; life and I thought: &lsquo;I can&#39;t really stop here.&#39;&quot; This renewed desire for an education culminated in her recent &#8232;appointment as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia &#8232;College, Chicago.</p><p>In addition to drawing on her own experience, Mun undertook extensive research, reading essays and articles about marginalised groups and watching documentaries including the harrowing Romanian film, &quot;Children Underground&quot;. She says: &quot;I wanted to make sure that I was catching the emotional tone correctly and that I was treating my characters somewhat respectfully . . . I wanted to show their world truthfully.&quot;</p><p>And she has. <em>Miles from Nowhere</em> might just be the book to change that passport official&#39;s mind. </p>