An Indies Introduce Q&A with Elaine U. Cho

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Elaine U. Cho is the author of Ocean’s Godori, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce adult selection, and May 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Cho is a writer who lives in Seattle. There, you might have seen her slinging coffee, shelving books at Elliott Bay Book Company, or performing at various music venues.

She has an MFA in Flute Performance from CalArts and is a kyudo practitioner. She also loves writing about film and would love to chat with you about aspect ratios, the basketball bouncing out of the shadows in A Brighter Summer Day, the stairs motif in Parasite, and which Fast and Furious movie is your favorite of the series.

Devon Overley of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, served on the panel that selected Ocean’s Godori for Indies Introduce.

“Elaine Cho articulates the delicate details of intergalactic celebrity politics and nuances of queerness and racism in this incredible space opera," said Overley. “We follow Ocean and her found family in the form of a spaceship crew, setting off from a distant-future Korea. The twists and turns in Ocean’s Godori will leave you breathless!”

Here, Cho and Overley discuss Ocean’s Godori.

Devon Overley: Ocean’s story of leaving home and parental/societal expectations is something that a lot of people can easily relate to. Was there a moment in your life where you felt like you weren’t fulfilling expectations set for you by others, and how do you overcome those feelings?

Elaine U. Cho: I think the stereotype for many Korean Americans is that their parents want them to become doctors or lawyers, but my sister and I both went the art route. When I decided to transfer out of university to go to music school, my mom said “well, I always thought it was a waste that you didn’t pursue music,” which is probably the most laidback response you could expect! I was really lucky in that aspect, among others. The funny thing was, it was people apart from my mom — other relatives or friends of the family — who told me I was a disappointment. I think the source of many of those feelings and the reasons why they expressed them were due to traditional or perhaps limited ideas of how someone achieves security or success. But there are a lot of ways to define success, a lot of different ways you can make something of yourself, which I think is a beautiful thing. That internal satisfaction is what matters more to me — am I who I want to be as a person? At the end of the day, it’s about whether you yourself have achieved what you want (or are working toward it), rather than what someone else expects from you.

Similarly, the characters of Ocean’s Godori are figuring out who they are as individuals, apart from expectations, even as they’re searching for fulfillment in the communities they’re building with other people. They have to pinpoint where those expectations are coming from (are they external? internal?), how valid they are, and how they want to forge their own futures.

DO: This debut is an intense and exciting space opera. What kind of research did you find yourself doing as you were writing about the Alliance and this universe?

EUC: True to the themes of the book, I did as much research for the past elements as for the future. For Haven, who’s a Mortemian and practices funeral rituals, I read tons of books on funeral practices and death cultures from around the world. For Ocean, of course, I did lots of research about haenyeo which included books, videos, and even audio tracks of haenyeo songs.

For the future elements, I had so much fun researching a whole breadth of topics: from broader aspects like what terraforming would look like to smaller details such as how microgravity would spur epigenetic changes in algae. I considered having the ships travel using solar sails, and I studied Korean fashion to implement it into spacesuit design. When forming the Alliance, I researched the Korean army and what mandatory conscription looks like and the general feelings around it. But building the world of Ocean’s Godori was mostly intuitively feeling out what was right for the future in terms of technology and language. Language is a large part of the book for many reasons, and I picked out slang that I thought might circle back, as a lot of it tends to do. I also called up my mom a lot to fine-tune some recipes and played Hwatu with her whenever she visited.

DO: The crew aboard the Ohneul is like Ocean’s found family outside of her home. Do you feel that Captain Song’s later acts mirror events that took place within Ocean’s personal family life?

EUC: Oh, that’s a great question (I mean, amongst all the other great questions)! Ocean feels rejected by her own family, and her path through the Alliance is partly about her seeking approval but also very much her search for a place to belong. And on top of that, she wanted to feel closer to her older brother, who was a beloved Alliance pilot before he passed away. I think that’s what makes the later betrayals hit a little harder — first, she’s let down by her captain on the Hadouken, who doesn’t have her back and throws her under the bus. And then with Captain Song, there’s a definite mirroring to how she can’t seem to understand Ocean, and how her perception of Ocean keeps the two at odds with each other. It’s very much like Ocean and her mom, who often find communicating so painful because they misunderstand each other.

DO: What inspired you to create the Mortemian culture that Haven descends from? 

EUC: As I considered what the future might look like, one part was how society would view and approach death when technology in health advancement has progressed and life expectancy has extended, leading to people being even more distanced from death. Would death and funeral rituals also become more stigmatized? The Mortemians were meant to spring from that as a group of people who would understand the importance of preserving funeral ceremonies. They’d take on the duty of performing and honoring these traditions, perhaps stepping into that role across cultures as the general population drew away from it.

The seed of the idea for Haven and his community in particular came from an article a friend sent me many years ago about vultures dying out in Mumbai and how that was affecting Zoroastrian burial customs. The article talks about the preservation of this tradition in the face of that. Haven and Ocean are foils for each other in many ways, including their roles in these cultures that have been passed down for many generations. They’re part of traditions that may be considered endangered now for various reasons, but are still thriving in the setting of Ocean’s Godori.

I made Haven half-Japanese as a nod to Departures, which is a Japanese movie about a man who returns to his childhood town and answers an ad in the paper to take a job as a nokanshi, a Japanese ritual mortician. He faces stigma for taking on the role, and culturally, he’s considered “unclean” for working with the dead. But much of the movie is about how much grace and comfort he’s able to give to those who are mourning through his rituals. The film centers around death, but it’s very much an affirmation of life.

DO: What made you want to set the Alliance and main cast out of Korea? Do you see this as a distant future or more of a different universe altogether?

EUC: Ocean’s Godori is a very hopeful sci-fi, and a hopeful look at a possible future. There's the idea of the Alliance in the first place, which arises from a future with a unified Korea. This was a what-if future: what if despite the very real sociological, political, and cultural differences, space travel could be one of the impetuses to bring the two Koreas together?

From the very beginning though, Ocean’s Godori was meant to be a space opera through a non-western lens. I wanted to explore what the future, what space exploration could look like with Koreans at the helm. What would common vernacular be, what kind of foods would be shared, and what would the barracks culture be like? There are people from all over because that’s my vision of the future, but also because the Alliance is so prestigious that everyone from the solar system wants to join the top program. But because it’s a Korean program, you have an “in” in terms of the slang and the social hierarchy if you’re Korean. The experience of reading the book is kind of like that too. I tried to include enough context for any of the Korean I used, but also left a little room for some words that you’ll just have to learn or pick up as you go along, as you often do in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. It’s meant to also reflect the experience of Ocean, who is not necessarily as familiar with the Korean language and frequently has these moments of: “huh…I don’t know what that means, but I’ll file that away for later.”

Ocean's Godori by Elaine U. Cho (Hillman Grad Books, 9781638930594, Hardcover Science Fiction, $28) On Sale: 4/23/2024

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