In “Green Frog,” Gina Chung Makes a Stunningly-Good Case for Writing Wholly Recognizable and Unrecognizable Characters


The Chicago Review of Books is proud to partner with The Chills at Will Podcast to share new audio interviews with today’s brightest literary stars, including Jonathan Escoffery, Morgan Talty, Deesha Philyaw, Luis Alberto Urrea, and more. Hosted by Peter Riehl, The Chills at Will Podcast is a celebration of the visceral beauty of literature and the passages that thrills us as readers.

Gina Chung’s short story collection shines in its boldness and uniqueness-allegories about grief and memory, coupled with Korean folktales and their literal and figurative implications, give extra levels of meaning and poignancy to these (mostly) modern settings. Reading her work gives the reader the idea that alchemy is practiced in her short stories-individually they stand out, but they also, when collected, have a profundity worth more than the parts. 

Green Frog is made up of 15 stories that take on varied and relevant issues like loss in its infinite forms, parents and children and their mutual expectations, and technology’s effects on grieving and remembrance.  

I spoke with Gina about the ways in which Korean folktales have informed her writing, daily inspiration in weird and wild places, finessing subtle change and transformation in her work, managing to link disparate stories and characters via several throughlines, and the ways in which stories about animals are so evocative and instructive.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pete Riehl:

I’m interested in change or transformation as key concepts in the collection, showing up in multiple and varied stories. As you’ve noted, changes may not always be drastic, but the theme is salient when taken in sum. How do you go about charting change in this collection? 

Gina Chung:

From a craft perspective, a lot of the time when we study stories, we are often told that there has to be some kind of change that happens, right?

I don’t think that’s always true, since not every story or book needs to have a character that changes drastically, but plot is [such that] you can often map it in any shape you want, but usually when you end a story, we want to, as readers, see the character in a different place than where they started. So for me, I’m always thinking about,, Okay, what would that change look like internally and externally? And how does that change make sense for where they want to go next?

For me the most profound changes are not often these big things where you’re saying, Yes, now I’m going to break up with my bad partner and become this whole new person who wakes up every morning at six; you know, most of the time change doesn’t happen that way.

Change happens in small, incremental ways, where you might just wake up and think, Oh, I’m not going to call that person today, and then you might not, and then your whole life might change as a result of it, in small ways. I’m always interested in those moments in my fiction and writing about characters facing those kinds of junctures.

Pete Riehl:

You quote [Emily Jungming] Yoon in from say Grace in the epigraph, let us have magic: “Let us have/ our own mothers and scarves, our spirits.”

I wonder why you decided to start with that epigraph. 

Gina Chung:

I’m such a huge fan of Emily Jungming Yoon’s poetry, and I really love an epigraph in a story. I feel like in a book it’s sort of this interesting invitation, kind of like an amuse bouche before you start a meal.

I loved that poem the first time I came across it, and I thought to myself, Oh, what a perfect distillation of a lot of the themes and things that I’m thinking about and trying to do with this collection.

In that poem in particular, my interpretation of it is that it is contending with the legacies of colonialism, Christianity in Korea specifically. [The poem] also ties in this idea of the long histories of practices such as shamanism, which is a thing that Korean people have been practicing for centuries as well.

My family is very Christian, so I didn’t grow up knowing anything about those practices, just because it was considered very frowned upon in my family.

Now that I’m an adult, I can have a different relationship with some of those cultural practices, and I was really fascinated by that idea of what it would mean to have our “prayers” as our own.

I think “spells” is the word that she uses in the poem, because I think ultimately the collection is just about whatever it is you end up doing or believing, just creating it for yourself rather than simply following something that someone else told you should do.

Pete Riehl:

Green Frog is a collection of 15 [varied] stories, and I’d love to know about some of the seeds for it, related to the idea that now, some time later, you [look] back and experienc[e] different emotions from when you were writing the individual stories.

I’m reminded of the great short story collections, and I put yours on the list, of how [these authors] get to write about so many different themes, topics, and issues and have different characters. While I do love thematically-linked short stories and ones that have the same characters throughout, there’s not a lot of that in yours-some tangential connections, I think-but the collection is so captivating.

I love the fact that you’re able to write about so much, such a broad range, while stretching your creativity. [With this wide range], what made you think that it could be a collection?

Gina Chung:

Well, thank you for that. I can talk a bit about the title story, which is “Green Frog,” probably one of the older stories in this collection. The title of that story comes from a Korean folk tale, which is like the “Legend of the Green Frog,” or Chongkaeguri, which is the phrase in Korean. 

It’s this essentially horrifying cautionary tale, an old Korean folktale told to kids to be like, “Listen to your parents,” where it’s all about this little green frog who always does the opposite of what his mom tells him to do, thereby driving her to an early grave.

It’s a very traumatic story that I grew up with, and it’s common in Korean culture for wayward or disobedient children to be called Chong Kaeguri themselves.

It’s something my mom would say jokingly to me if I didn’t listen to her, left my socks on the floor or whatever. I feel like that sort of theme of not living up to familial or societal or community expectations is something that I’ve certainly dealt with in my own life as the daughter of immigrants, as someone who grew up in a very particular sort of network of communities.

And so that story came out of my wondering of What would it look like for someone who is a bit of a green frog themselves and that they can’t help but not do the right thing all the time? What would happen if they were to sort of “pay the ultimate price” and lose a parent? What does that look like to forge an identity for yourself and a life for yourself that is outside of the expectations that that parent may have had for you?

Pete Riehl:

The issues and storylines throughout the collection span a wide swath of time periodsI wonder about the inspiration for these varied stories, if that can even be pinned down.

Gina Chung:

I always say that the best thing for inspiration, for writing, is to get out and be in the world and just observe things. Some of the stories in the collection came from moments like that where I was just out in the world doing a thing, and then saw something a little bit interesting or weird that caught my eye and that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

In the collection, probably the shortest [story] is called “Mantis,” and it’s about a praying mantis and the ups and downs of her dating life.

It came from just a moment where I was with my family at a gas station in upstate New York, just like a very random place to run into a big and kind of intimidating insect like that.

We were taking photos together for some reason, and then this praying mantis just leapt out of nowhere into our photo, and I was like, Oh, what are you doing up here on the side of this highway in upstate New York?

It got me thinking about the nature of that type of animal, and so a lot of those stories come from me seeing a thing and wondering about it and thinking, Well, if we were to give this animal or this person or whatever it is, subjectivity, what would their day look like?

Pete Riehl:

Yeah, I’ll never look at a praying mantis the same way. They have to kill the sexual partner, right? 

Gina Chung:

So they’re famous for the fact that the female usually kills the male after mating, but 

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I did learn while researching that they don’t always do this; it’s not a given. I think that what is so [intriguing] in the story, is that the female praying mantis protagonist has to kind of decide, you know, does she want to do this with one of her latest conquests? I thought that it was fascinating that they don’t actually have to do it. It’s just something that happens for some reason, you know?

Pete Riehl:

Oh, well, it just happens!

Gina Chung:


Pete Riehl:

In the story “Rabbit Heart,” there’s this beautiful relationship between the narrator and her grandmother in Seoul, and ideas of what might have been as she helps her “rabbit granddaughter” feel beautiful. What’s the significance of the rabbit in that story? 

Gina Chung:

Rabbits are figures that appear a lot in Korean folklore. I mean, rabbits universally are such a fascinating creature in terms of their symbolism. Of course, they mean different things across different cultures, but in Korean folktales, they’re often seen as these sort of trickster figures, as there are a lot of stories where the rabbit is in a sticky situation that it manages to get out of through its wiles because it’s very quick.

It’s also said this is true across a lot of East Asian folkloric traditions that in the moon there are two rabbits that are pounding rice cakes, based on the shape of the shadows on the moon. I always liked that idea; it just feels more exciting and cuter than a man in the moon. What is the man in the moon doing?

But if it’s two rabbits, they’re making snacks or something.  So in that story, the grandmother tells the granddaughter in that story, “Oh, you have the heart of a rabbit. You’re so scared. You’re so timid.”

But also, the rabbit is a figure of resourcefulness and creativity and cleverness, as I alluded to, and so in that story, without spoiling it too much for folks who haven’t read it yet, I wanted to create an ending for the grandmother and the granddaughter that you normally wouldn’t be able to see in a more “realistic” sense.

It’s definitely one of the more fantastical stories in the collection. I liked this idea of a character that has grown up hearing these stories and might get a little opportunity to sort of write a different ending for herself and for her beloved grandmother.

Pete Riehl:

There is so much intersectionality between the themes explored in the collection.

I wonder what you see as any through-lines, maybe where people call them to your attention, as you didn’t necessarily see them, maybe done subconsciously, but I’m interested in what you see as through-lines: ideas, characters, points you’re trying to get across.

Gina Chung:

I didn’t realize it was an enduring preoccupation of mine in my writing until someone pointed it out to me, but I think an interest in the relationship that we have to animals and the natural world is something that always crops up across my writing. It’s something I explored, much more explicitly, in my novel that came out last year (Sea Change). But I think the reason I come back to [the natural world] is just thinking about how it’s so much more interesting to contemplate what the world looks like when you’re not just limiting it to what a human might think.

I, of course, cannot know what an actual praying mantis would think of their day to day situation, but we can imagine, right? There are so many ways in which the things that we take for granted as humans would not be the same for an animal from their point-of-view, or for a magical, supernatural creature that’s sort of a hybridized animal/human in the way of the fox demons in the collection, and in the short story “Human Hearts.”

I’m always interested in how a given situation-let’s say a complicated parent/child relationship or a difficult romantic relationship-can change if one or both parties in the equation are not who we expect them to be, whether it’s one of them might be a robot, one of them might be an animal, one of them might be an immortal being with different kinds of choices and different conceptions of time. In fiction, because we can make things up and sort of follow a character to a given trajectory-what we call plot-I feel like that’s my “playing field” for imagining and mapping out what those things could look like.

This interview is excerpted from Episode 227 of the Chills at Will Podcast. Listen to the complete conversation here.

Green Frog
By Gina Chung
Vintage Books
Published March 12, 2024


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