Meet Hannah Bae,
Hannah was one of the winners of our giveaway with author, Lynn Steger Strong. We fell in love with her very fun instagram and asked if she would do the next Weekend Edition. But let's get to know her first!
4: Where are you from?
HB: I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I was raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, and central Florida. I also spent much of my 20s living in Seoul, South Korea. It was such a formative period of my life, I feel like Korea is also home in many ways, in addition to the other places I've lived.
4: How did you get into writing and illustrating?
I've always loved drawing, but the last art class I took was in 8th grade. Like our mother, my sisters and I are all artistic, but I happened to be the academic achiever in the family. I felt like I was pushed away from the arts, toward core academic subjects. It seemed like a safer bet to me and my family. It's scary to set off on a creative path when you have no money! But many, many years later, when I was in my 30s and in a much more financially stable phase of life, I started seeing a therapist, who asked me, "Instead of running away from your fear of instability, what would you like to run toward?" For me, the answer was a more artistic life that kept my Korean roots at the center. That's when I started doing more creative writing and drawing, especially creating illustrations of Korean food and ingredients, and it was liberating to have these ways of expressing myself. And people seemed really charmed by it! I feel so lucky to have my art received so warmly by not only friends but also strangers.
4: What is it like to be a writer and illustrator?
It is a dream come true! I honestly never thought this could be a possibility. I really thought that I needed to follow a more practical path, because I grew up without a financial safety net to fall back on. Looking back, my decision to choose journalism as a professional path wasn't even particularly wise, since the industry has faced so much volatility and upheaval in recent decades, but as a high school student, I really thought it'd be a great way for me to collect a steady paycheck while writing and talking to people for a living. I think it's also important that I spent over a decade building my journalism career, my reputation and, let's be honest, my savings, before taking risks and pursuing creative writing and illustration. I may not have grown up with a safety net, but having such a warm, supportive environment of friends and colleagues has been essential to me finding my way as a writer and as an illustrator.
4: As a nonfiction writer and journalist, how do you share the truth?
I have to credit my journalism professors in college for teaching me to question the notion of truth and to think critically about the concept of objectivity. As a journalist, I had to be dogged in finding documentation to prove my truths. Nonfiction, however, gives me a lot more freedom. I'm working on a memoir manuscript right now, and it's a story about how I grew up feeling very alienated from Korean culture as the child of immigrants in an abusive family. I'm writing about how in order to make myself whole, I had to get to know myself and my culture. As a journalist, I'm trained to seek out documentation as proof for my lived experience, but even as I've requested records across different states, municipalities and government agencies, it's been heartbreaking to find that a lot of those records from my childhood have been destroyed, expunged or heavily redacted. This tells me that the authorities don't believe that most lives -- ordinary lives -- are worthy of committing to the public record. But I know my truth. I've been very lucky to work with writing teachers like the memoirist Anna Qu (her book, "Made in China," is hugely inspiring to me), who encouraged me to write into the void of these lost records. I have my memories to work off of, my childhood diaries and the documents that do remain. If I were writing a book that was strictly journalism, I would be told, "Sorry, you don't have all the receipts to prove what happened to you? Then you don't have a story." But in creative nonfiction, I have the freedom to be up front about what's missing, what I remember and how it's still worthy of piecing together a story.
4: Can you share how you feed your creative side? And how would you inspire creativity in your students?
Rest is a huge part of how I feed my creativity! It's so different from the early part of my career, which was all about grinding. Looking back, workaholism didn't allow even a speck of creativity into my mind or heart. Once I started writing more creatively from 2016 onward, I tried to take the same aggressive approach that I'd learned from working full-time in newsrooms, but it just didn't work. If there's something the pandemic taught me, it was that in order to write, I need to feel safe and rested (and that meant I really couldn't write much at all from 2020-2021). I had to stop pushing myself and berating myself for not writing, and instead I needed to do the essential work of caring for myself during a horrible, tumultuous, grief-stricken time.
When I teach creative writing, my priority is being generous and encouraging to my students. I truly feel that creative nonfiction is one of those fields where the best thing an instructor can do is encourage their students to keep writing -- the real beauty and story emerge after many, many attempts and refinements. I am always looking for those moments where my students' words sparkle so that I can praise them for it. It seems obvious now, but I had to learn to extend that same grace, generosity and encouragement to myself as well as my students.