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Angie Kim discusses her book, Happiness Falls, a gripping missing-person story about family, the pursuit of happiness and how far we go to protect the ones we love.

8 minute read
What first inspired you to write Happiness Falls?

About twenty years ago, a doctor told me about a nonspeaking autistic teenage patient whom everyone assumed couldn’t understand anything, let alone read or write. One day, while his mother was telling the doctor how mystified everyone was that he was screaming and hitting his head against the wall, he grabbed his sister’s alphabet toy and typed, help me it hurts.

I couldn’t stop thinking or talking about this story. When I was eleven, I moved to the US from Korea. I didn’t speak any English and overnight I went from feeling like a smart, talkative, and happy (albeit very poor) girl in Korea to feeling stupid and ashamed. It was the first time I realised that there’s a deep-seated assumption many of us carry: we equate verbal fluency, especially oral fluency, with intelligence.

If my temporary experience being limited in one language was that painful, I couldn’t imagine how much trauma and pain this nonspeaking boy must have endured, having words and thoughts locked deep within, fearing he’d never have an outlet in any form or language for the rest of his life. After that experience, I started working with other nonspeaking children diagnosed with ‘nonverbal, severe autism’. These children started working with therapists who approached their nonspeaking as a motor issue, not a cognitive issue, and taught them how to communicate by spelling on a letterboard, pointing to one letter at a time. It amazed me to see these children writing such beautiful, intelligent thoughts once given the chance – once we stopped underestimating their abilities – and I knew that I wanted to write a story to process and interrogate this painful, perplexing bias against nonspeakers that so many of us carry, as well as to showcase the true extent of their abilities.

Happiness Falls is written from the perspective of the daughter in the family, Mia. Why did you decide to use her perspective to tell the story?

Mia’s voice has been with me for years. She was the narrator of a short story I published in 2013 about biracial Korean American twins searching for their nonspeaking baby brother’s voice, which they believe is buried in their grandmother’s graveyard outside Seoul. When I decided to continue this family’s story for my second novel, I was so excited to return to her voice, as I’d had so much fun with it. Her curiosity was infectious, and her quirkiness led me to make connections between wildly disparate things, which sometimes led to insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise (and also made me laugh!).

I did consider switching to others’ points of view; I wrote my debut, Miracle Creek, from seven point-of-view characters’ perspectives. But I realised that staying with one character – the claustrophobic isolation, anxiety, and bewilderment – provides a literary taste of what it might feel like to live through a missing-person case, the fear that you might never know what happened to this person you love. Also, as a snarky twenty-year-old college student who thinks she knows everything (but absolutely doesn’t), she was an ideal guide to take readers through surprises and help us cope with and grow from them. It wasn’t until the end of the story that I realised that more than anything else, Happiness Falls is a coming-of-age story for Mia and her family.

Mia’s brother Eugene – the only witness to their father’s disappearance – has Angelman syndrome. How much did you know about it before you started writing Happiness Falls?

I initially thought Eugene had autism, just as his family does at first. In the short story published about this family in 2013, Mia said her family called Eugene ‘the happiest baby in the world’; even when he was screeching (which we come to realise is from pain and sensory overload), he was smiling and looked happy.

Several years ago, when I was researching a particular type of letterboard-spelling therapy for nonspeaking autistic children, I saw a reference to it being used for children with Angelman syndrome. I’d never heard of Angelman syndrome before, and when I looked it up, I got chills, because what I read matched how I’d seen Eugene in my mind – the perpetual beatific smile, unusually drawn to water, motor impairments, nonspeaking, often diagnosed alongside autism. In addition, it perfectly matched the relativity-of-happiness element of the novel, as there were debates within the medical community about whether the smile meant Angelman kids were happy, such that they shouldn’t pursue genetic cures. I instantly knew Eugene had Angelman syndrome, and that this would play an important role in his family’s story.

You’ve talked about how you worked on this story for over ten years. What research did you do in the writing process?

A lot of my initial research about nonspeakers came from real life, as I had friends with nonspeaking children who pursued and benefited from spelling therapies. I became so fascinated with spelling therapies that I actually started volunteering with a local nonprofit organisation that works with nonspeakers, teaching a variety of creative writing classes. Through this experience, I learned a lot, not only about the logistics of spelling therapy (which I describe in my novel) but also about the emotional ups and downs of the process of learning to communicate through alternative communication methods.

I also had to delve into research about Angelman syndrome. My initial research came from reading the medical literature, parent blogs, and advocacy group websites, but by far the most important research came from meeting (in person or via Zoom) families and experts in the tightly-knit Angelman community. I was very lucky to get to interview and spend time with extremely generous people who shared their experiences and knowledge with me and opened their homes to me. Some even served as beta readers for early drafts.

What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?

If there’s one thing I hope people take away from Happiness Falls, it’s to question the assumption I think most people have that oral fluency is equivalent to intelligence. Inability to speak (or perceived deficits, like accents, incorrect grammar/syntax, stuttering, dyspraxia) may be due to things which have nothing to do with how intelligent you are. Just because you can’t speak doesn’t mean you can’t think or understand.

I also hope that reading this book leads readers to think about what happiness truly means for them and their families, how they define it and the lengths they’ll go to achieve it, and what assumptions we all make – about nonspeakers, people with disabilities, immigrants, people of colour, our family members, and ourselves.

Did any books serve as touchstones while you were working on Happiness Falls that you’d recommend?

While I was writing Happiness Falls, several books served as touchstones that I read over and over again for inspiration. Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump is an amazing memoir by a teenage nonspeaking speller about what it’s like to be autistic, and Ido Kedar’s Ido in Autismland is another memoir by a nonspeaking autistic about his journey in learning to communicate through spelling. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Weike Wang’s Chemistry, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! all featured young, strong, analytical female narrators whose voices haunted me. And finally, Tim O’Brien’s In The Lake of the Woods was an amazing model for the type of missing-person story I wanted to write: one in which the mystery was a Trojan horse of sorts, with the real stories about the characters’ relationships deep within.

Angie Kim
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A gripping, heart-wrenching, missing-person story, Happiness Falls is about family, the pursuit of happiness and how far we go to protect the ones we love.

About the Author

Angie Kim moved as a preteen from Seoul, South Korea, to the suburbs of Baltimore. After graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy, she studied philosophy at Stanford University and attended Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. Her debut novel, Miracle Creek, won the Edgar Award and the ITW Thriller Award, and was named one of the 100 best mysteries and thrillers of all time by Time, and one of the best books of the year by Time, the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and the Today show. Happiness Falls, her second novel, was an instant New York Times bestseller and a book club pick for Good Morning America, Barnes & Noble, Belletrist, and Book of the Month Club. She lives in northern Virginia with her family.

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Angie Kim