Editor’s note: If I Had Your Face, released April 21, is Frances Cha’s debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossible standards of beauty, after-hours room salons catering to wealthy men, ruthless social hierarchies and K-pop mania.
Below, Cha shares the story of recording her audiobook in the middle of a pandemic—followed by audio excerpts from the book, each about two minutes long.
When it came to casting the audiobook for my debut novel If I Had Your Face, it was important to me to try to find Korean-American actors for the four narrative roles.
The book is set in contemporary Korea and explores the way that young women who are not born into wealth and status find inventive ways to survive in the extreme, futuristic city that is Seoul.
Not only was the pronunciation of names and places important to get right, but I knew that Korean-American actors would have eaten the comfort food mentioned in the book, had relationships with elders they didn’t agree with, and had their own personal brush with concepts such as “han”—intergenerational resentment and anger and sorrow that is balled up into one word that is impossible to translate.
As the producer and I tossed around names and ideas of Korean-American actresses, a secret wish bubbled up within me that I wondered if I could be brave enough to articulate. I wanted to record one of the narrators—Wonna, who has particular significance for me as she is a mother of an unborn child that she dreams a better childhood for than she had growing up. I had written the majority of this book during my pregnancies with my daughters, and I wanted to record the book for them.
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My father died when I was 23. This was before smartphones, so I do not have any recordings or videos of him to remember his voice by. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do this to leave behind a legacy for my daughters, who will not remember my voice that has been reading to them every night.
My own mother had read armfuls of books to me as a child—books that she did not understand or pronounce correctly—but they had set me on the path to being a writer. I thought about how dearly I would have loved to have a recording of her reading to me as a child.
Tremulously, I practiced reading chapters aloud and sent in an audition file to the executive producer. To my astonishment, she said yes.
The week leading up to the date for my studio session was a strange week simmering with uneasiness about the virus’ arrival in New York. The day I was recording was the day that they announced the impending shutdown of New York City. My producer had frantically emailed me, saying that the studio we had originally been scheduled for had closed. But she found one that the owner could unlock the door for me, and I would record in an empty studio.
It was the strangest experience, to drive into Manhattan and see no cars on the road, and very few cars even parked on the street. Sure enough, I walked into an empty studio and the producer and the engineer both Skyped into my ear via headset. I recorded my part, receiving instruction remotely—a surreal experience, to say the least.
Later, when publication dates were being pushed back and printing presses were filing for bankruptcy and publishing warehouses had closed, we still made the decision to go ahead with our April launch. I was told that I had recorded my chapters just barely in time to meet the launch date.
It is weeks later, and the book came out into a different world.
And as my already fatalistic ways of thinking has only intensified with each passing week, I am even more glad that the audiobook will always be there for them, to listen to when they get older.
Sue Jean Kim reads “Ara”:
Jeena Yi reads “Kyuri”:
Frances Cha reads “Wonna”:
Ruthie Ann Miles reads “Miho”:
Learn more about If I Had Your Face here.
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