Tight 5 with Sumi Hahn

2 minutes read
Posted 5 April, 2024
Sumi at Dragon Rock on Jeju island

by Rosie Fea

Born in Korea, raised in the United States, and now residing in Aotearoa New Zealand, Sumi Hahn is a writer with many interesting life-chapters to draw from. After receiving her Bachelor’s in English literature from Harvard University and her Master’s from UC Berkeley, Sumi worked as an esteemed columnist for the Times Picayune in New Orleans and penned music and food-centric pieces for various publications in Seattle. Most recently, she published her first novel, The Mermaid from Jeju. A research-intensive multi-year effort that tells the story of a young Korean girl just beginning her work as a haenyeo - Jeju’s deep-sea diving women who foraged for food during a bloody period of political unrest. The novel is a historically influenced tale that not only took shape in writing, but undoubtedly shaped and changed Sumi Hahn’s entire life and identity forever.

When did it all ‘click’ for you? (do you remember the first piece you were commissioned to write?)
I was 12 when I won $20 in a writing competition with a haiku. When I learned that someone would pay for my words, I was hooked.

In what ways did your perception of your Korean heritage and Korean culture develop and deepen as you penned your novel?
As I wrote my novel, I was painfully self-conscious of how much I wasn’t Korean and how much I didn’t know about Korea. That’s one of the reasons why it took seven years to write. I had to learn about being Korean in Korea before I felt like I had enough cultural authority to write about anything Korean.

Do you have any specific rituals or habits you engage in before you start writing? What helps you get in the flow?
Writing has to be a habit, like brushing your hair. That said, I haven’t brushed my hair in awhile.

Do you ever miss being a restaurant critic?! What was the writing process like for that? (Any lasting funny stories from meals out you can share?)
When I started writing at the Times-Picayune, I published under S.M. Hahn to obscure my identity, but word quickly got out that I was a petite Asian woman. I resorted to disguises—wigs and glasses—to throw them off my trail. Sometimes I pretended I couldn’t speak English, and my guests would “translate” the menu into whatever non-English language they learned in school. The funniest experience was when I pretended to be a heavily pregnant vegetarian Valley Girl from California. I ordered sweetbreads, saying they sounded like a nice pastry. My friend almost spit out her wine when I said that.

What's your dream project?
My dream project is to plant a permaculture food forest, like the Guyton’s have created in Riverton. Such an inspiration! (Permaculture is the solution to all the world’s problems, truly.)


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