Koreans have been subjugated for centuries by invaders, so it’s not surprising that we’re jaded when it comes to being accepting of others outside our “pure-blooded race,” especially a teal, slimy-skinned creature named Mongster. Written by Koreatown cowboy Benjamin Chi, the personal tale turned children’s book follows Mongster, an introverted yet kind-hearted being who wants nothing more than the acceptance and approval of the other children around him. Though the format, words, and illustrations are simple enough for any kid to understand, the depth of the book’s meaning can vary depending upon the viewer’s experiences in life. Chi makes readers both young and old reevaluate social marginalization and internalize that perception of disconnection. And the ending is what you’d least expect.
With the help of illustrator extraordinaire Audrey Lee, Chi’s story explores the idea of personal identity on levels that readers of any age can relate to.
What influenced you to write a children’s book in the first place?
You know, I didn’t write it with the intention of writing a children’s book. I wrote a poem and had it on my private blog for 3-4 years, and didn’t think much of it. I was going through a pretty rough time in my life, and just broke up with my girlfriend. But when I found it again, I wanted to do something with it, and so I contacted Audrey to do a piece of artwork for it. And as simple as it was, I thought there were too many details and emotions depicted that I didn’t think it would suffice with just one illustration. As far as it becoming a children’s book, I had immense writer’s block. Usually I try to be as descriptive as possible in my writing, but I just couldn’t write. So I thought, “Okay, I have to write the way I feel, but I don’t know how to do it.” So, I ended up doing it in a format that was easier to do, which happened to sound very kid-ish.
So, you definitely identify yourself as the protagonist, Mongster?
Definitely. With Mongster, the reason why I see it as a representation of myself, but also so relatable to other people, is because everyone lives with a certain side of them that they don’t like to accept. The saddest thing about Mongster, to me, is that nobody really wins in the story. Mongster could’ve been this really good person and the kids could’ve loved him, and they will never know because they never gave him a chance. Mongster is this guy who just wants to be accepted, but can’t even accept himself because nobody wants to go near or be around him. You know, it’s hard to get yourself out of that box that you place for yourself, but it’s harder to get out of the box other people place you in.
What’s the meta message you’re trying to address to both younger and older generations who read Mongster?
Everyone has Mongster inside them, whether rich or poor, young or old, happy or sad. Everyone has a something about them that they don’t like to accept. I think it is more based on an underlying desire to be accepted for who I am, which a lot of times, whether you’re being frank or concerned with your feelings, it can easily sound like your being a Debby-downer or a complainer. There are so many aspects of honesty that a lot of people don’t appreciate.
Growing up in a pre-dominantly Korean household, I definitely identify with that, as far as trying voice out my opinions, and having it be misconstrued and being called a complainer by your own family members. [Laughs]
Exactly. What you just mentioned right there is the prime example of what I’m talking about. When your family members see you as a complainer, no matter what you do, everything becomes a complaint. Especially coming from Koreatown, where everyone knows each other in the Korean community, there’s a lot of groups and cliques. But this doesn’t go for just Korean society, but society in general. Over time if you make one mistake, you kind of get boxed into and tend to be known for that. Mongster has a lot to do with that ideal.
It’s pretty incredible that you are representing South Koreans in children’s book, a field of literature where most books are directed towards a white audience.
With everything I do, I always try to make a conscious effort of displaying something Korean. Some people sometimes get uncomfortable about it because I’m so blatant about it all the time. I think it’s a great time for Koreans but there’s gonna be struggles regardless of our efforts. I know that we’re fairly new to a lot of people, you know, like they know of us, but they don’t know anything about us. There’s always going to be Asian stereotyping, as far as, working at the dry cleaner or liquor store, being good at math [Laughs]. But for me, I’m very, very proud to be South Korean and it just goes back to being honest with my identity and how I am. We have our own identity, and have a deep, rich history of suffering, triumph, and success. If you think about how small our country is, and the amount of achievements we’ve accomplished, as far our technological advances and the entertainment industry, it speaks volumes for how hard we try to progress as a nation and as people.
What does being South Korean mean to you?
It means a lot of things: being compassionate, extremely passive aggressive, and fickle. It means being caring, deep, prideful, in a good way and a bad way.
If you read Mongster as a child, how do you think you would’ve responded to it?
If I was a kid, and I probably would’ve just been like, “Oh cool! Look at the Mongster! He’s so ugly.” [Laughs]. Of course I wouldn’t sit there and think, “Omg, have I ever done this in my life?” If my parents read it with me and asked, “Do you think you should make fun of people? Do you do these things?” I would probably lie and say no. But it could definitely be the next time I’m at school, I can tell other kids, “My mom told me not to be judgmental.” There are so many things in our childhood that seem insignificant, but we don’t even know how much it affects us at the end of the day.
“Mongster” is available for purchase at byebenjaminchi.bigcartel.com
Photos courtesy of John Qudoe