The Red Palace by June Hur is out on January 25, 2022 and can be ordered here.
By Sara Conway
If June Hur could be a fly on the wall during any of the events from her latest novel, The Red Palace, she would want to witness the moment when Crown Prince Jangheon was born. More specifically, Hur would want to see his father’s reaction, looking at the Crown Prince “like he’s the most precious thing in the world.”
Hur also admits that she would “probably feel like crying on the wall” if she had the chance to observe this, as the relationship between Crown Prince Jangheon, also known as Prince Sado, and his father quickly took a dark turn. Their sour relationship eventually led to the Crown Prince’s tragic death, in which the king commanded his son to be locked inside of a rice chest in the summer heat. Eight days later, Crown Prince Sado was dead.
While The Red Palace does not incorporate the Crown Prince as a main character, Hur does make sure that he is a part of this story. Set against the backdrop of 1700s Joseon Korea, Hur’s newest novel follows young palace nurse Hyeon and police inspector Eojin as they investigate the grisly murders of four nurses from Hyeon’s old nursing school. However, the evidence starts pointing to the palace—with the Crown Prince being the primary suspect. The Red Palace weaves political intrigue, false accusations, class divides, parental relationships, and a slow burn romance to create an intricate mystery grounded in exploring being “good enough.”
The expectations Hyeon faces from herself and from her elite father, who places impossible standards on his illegitimate daughter for a hint of his recognition, is familiar to Hur. Except the pressure Hur knows is related to writing and what it means to be an author.
Silence of Bones, her debut novel, was written from a place of “hopelessness.” As she received rejections for her first unpublished book, Hur turned inward. “[I was] just writing this for myself,” she explains. Yet, at the same, insecurity crept in over putting her story on paper because it “share[s] Korean history.” Hur remembers battling against the fear that “no one wants to read it.”
Her sophomore novel, on the other hand, was the first time she wrote under a deadline. And a first pregnancy and a newborn. And then, to top it off, a global pandemic. In short, The Forest of Stolen Girls was the “most stressful book I ever had to write.” However, the novel also is a “testament to how it takes a village, a whole community” to write and publish your work. Hur concluded, “They create a book that you love.”
However, It was through writing The Red Palace that Hur rediscovered the “fun” of what she does full-time. “I was really able to enjoy the writing experience again,” she said, adding that “something just clicked.”
Similar to how Hyeon became a palace nurse—a respected position—because of pressure originating from her father, Hur placed a standard of what it meant to be a “serious writer” on herself. The Red Palace was Hur’s breakthrough from her initial expectation to write “serious” things because those who wrote them were the only ones being published.
“I’m allowed to have fun,” Hur remembered. “I’m allowed to play around with tropes.” (Those who are fans of K-dramas will recognize ones like the main character and love interest accidentally falling asleep with their heads barely a hair apart.) Writing The Red Palace was both a reminder and a necessary “healing experience.”
Writing Korean historical mysteries for young readers has also been a healing experience of its own. Hur is always eager to learn more history, and she carries this enthusiasm into the stories she writes. For her, “the mystery is a vehicle to explore history”—more specifically Korean history.
And it goes one step further. “My mystery is always informed by the historical context.” Hur dives into the economic, political, and/or social context that would “push the killer to commit [the] crime” her story revolves around.
Moreover, Hur’s books are a way to discover more about her Korean identity. She resides in Canada, but Hur did live in Korea for a few years. As a result, she is able to communicate in the Korean language. However, the academic resources she needs for her books creates an accessibility issue—conversational Korean is different from academic Korean like everyday English differs from academic English—something Hur is slowly trying to resolve over time as a Korean diaspora writer.
“If you don’t have that Korean language skill, there is a fear of ‘am I not allowed to write then because I can’t access these Korean resources?’” which builds anxiety over being Korean “enough.” Hur continues, noting the constant worry of getting something “wrong [that] I don’t know I’m getting wrong.”
Not so much “wrong” in terms of research (Hur studied history at the University of Toronto), but a persisting uncertainty deriving from growing up outside of the Korean educational system. As Hur elaborates, this might “create patches in my knowledge.” What may be a given for a Korean person who was born and raised in the country is not always the case for Hur and others who are a part of the Korean diaspora.
It is something unique that is experienced by those who are a part of a diaspora; sometimes it feels you need permission to be a “true” member of a specific cultural community. Hur muses during our conversation that it is a “fear we impose on ourselves” because “we don’t want to disrespect a culture we love so much.”
Creating her stories always outweighs the anxiety. “Writing historical Korean [novels] is my way of really learning my own roots, and it’s helped me learn who I am as an individual.” The depth of research that comes with this kind of storytelling, Hur adds on, has “shown that there are huge aspects of my identity that are rooted in Korean history.”
The Red Palace, in essence, is a story about searching for closure in the face of traumatic histories and understanding who you are despite your fears. Hur’s mother touches on a similar idea when soothing her daughter’s worries related to being a Korean diaspora author: “When second gens—diaspora individuals—talk in our homeland language, we speak with an accent.” This accent, though, is not something to be ashamed of, something to be self-conscious about. Her mother continued, “It’s still beautiful. It comes with a new perspective.”
As Hur discovers through The Red Palace and her other novels, “it comes with history.”
June Hur was born in South Korea and raised in Canada, except for the time when she moved back to Korea and attended high school there. She studied History and Literature at the University of Toronto. She began writing her debut novel after obsessing over books about Joseon Korea. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop. She is the author of The Silence of Bones, The Forest of Stolen Girls, The Red Palace, and A Crane Among Wolves published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, and she currently lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.
Sara Conway is a New York-based writer of many things, including books, art, and music. She is currently a library page at her local library, where she discovers even more books to add to her ever-growing TBR pile. Sara also runs Lyrical Reads, a book blog dedicated to uplifting diverse voices, with a soft spot for Asian and Asian American stories. She can be found writing reviews for her book blog, taking photos for her bookstagram, or (re)tweeting about all the books on her Twitter.