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Inspiration, Memory, and Migration from My Ántonia to Minari

Sometime last year, I came across an article in which the director Lee Isaac Chung described the formative influence of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia on his 2020 film Minari. I knew then that I needed to find the right person—or people—to explore these narratives of immigrant families in the harsh and beautiful environs of the rural United States, which form a tether from the modernist moment to the present. The result is this moving and insightful epistolary conversation between Rachel Warner, a current Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Heidi Kim, a professor in the same department.

Alix Beeston, editor, Visualities 

Heidi: Rachel, watching Minari (Fig. 1) was a deeply personal experience for me. This tale of a Korean immigrant family moving about the US and struggling to thrive, and all the ways that the children are both innocently oblivious and yet scarred by their experiences, was so hard for me to watch that I had to stop it several times. It’s easier for me to think about it as a reflection on My Ántonia, a novel we both love (Fig. 2).

Young boy holding a stick standing in a field
Fig. 1. Theatrical poster for Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020). Image courtesy of A24.
View of the spine and cover of the dust jacket to the first edition of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia
Fig. 2. View of the spine and cover of the dust jacket to the first edition of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Director and screenwriter Lee Isaac Chung has spoken about how much Willa Cather’s work spoke to him. He pays tribute to it right at the opening of the film, as we see a large truck ostentatiously labeled Cather Truck Rental (Fig. 3). Chung positions the family of Minari as both inhabiting Cather’s spirit and following it, since, as we later find out, Jacob (Steven Yeun) is driving the truck and Monica (Yeri Han) is driving the car behind it with the children.

Rear view of a truck with a Cather Truck Rental logo
Fig. 3. The film shows Monica and the children from various angles, following this large Cather Truck Rental vehicle. Jacob, however, isn’t revealed until they arrive at the land and the mobile home. Screenshot courtesy of the authors.

There’s nothing more quintessentially American than the road trip, but Minari’s opening deliberately subverts the trope, with a young Asian woman and her children seemingly alone and a little uncertain. It’s Jacob who carries the misplaced optimism and brashness that also characterizes a lot of Cather’s immigrants on the frontier. Do you see parallels between the Yis and Ántonia’s family, the Shimerdas, and how Cather positions them as foreigners and settlers?

Rachel: Thank you for these thoughtful reflections, Heidi! It was good to hear your more visceral response to the film to begin with, since it speaks to how affecting a medium film is. I do see some similarities between the Yis and Shimerdas. Both immigrant families experience intergenerational tension, with fears that the younger children are becoming Americanized and alienated from their native cultures. This issue crops up in a couple of scenes in Minari, such as when Soon-ja/Halmoni (Youn Yuh-jung) and Monica express fear that the young boy David (Alan S. Kim) will not appreciate sharing a room with his grandmother. Monica reassures her: “He’s not like that. He’s a Korean kid.” We see the other side of this dynamic when David tells his grandmother she’s not a “real” grandmother in the clip below.

Minari, Grandmother Scene

Part of the emotional power of Minari comes from these tender moments of humor, love, and intimate conflict among the family members. We see a similar pattern of representation of immigrant family life in My Ántonia as well. Both narratives are at their heart about immigration, displacement, and homesteading on the American frontier. Though settling significantly different regions of the United States—Arkansas in Minari, Nebraska in My Ántonia—both families materially lay down roots into the American soil through farming, and both experience varying degrees of success and heartache. I’m reminded of an early scene where Jacob makes it clear that they came to Arkansas for the land, “the best dirt in America,” not for the house, itself unstable and unfastened to the earth.

Perhaps most obviously, the title of the film can be felt in Cather’s novel, as the Shimerdas and particularly Ántonia—the novel’s true yeoman farmer—plant “Bohemian” fruits and vegetables into the Nebraska soil, growing and sustaining their racial and ethnic heritage from afar.[1] Chung’s film adopts a similar strategy of representation, and it seems significant that Soon-ja’s crop of minari is the only Korean vegetable to survive the tragic fire at the end (see Fig. 4).

Boy and grandmother standing near a stream in the forest
Fig. 4. Soon-ja/Halmoni (Youn Yuh-jung) is delighted to find a place where minari will grow well. Her description of it growing like a weed foreshadows the family’s persistence but perhaps also coopts the yellow peril language historically used to describe Asian migration. Screenshot courtesy of the authors.

I think in both texts, then, we see the thematic importance of food, farming, and a very material kind of reproduction to the sustenance of diasporic cultures and the formation of diverse racial and ethnic identities. At the end of Cather’s novel, Ántonia’s children are excitedly explaining to Jim, the central narrator figure, their success at making spiced pears, pickled watermelon rinds, and other ingredients for Czech dishes. These crops function as a metaphor for the immigrant experience: though they symbolize a distinct ethnic and racial tradition, they are somehow transformed through contact with the American landscape into a kind of hyphenate identity.

Heidi: Speaking of the soil, what do you think about the modernist and postmodern transformation of the land by Cather and Chung, respectively, from, say, a naturalist vision of the cruel inevitability of nature? There are still touches of that in both texts, of course, not to mention tinges of realism as the difficulties of farm life are important to both artists. But as befits a focus on modernity, it’s the frailty and fragmentation of civilization that betrays Ántonia, when she is attacked by one man and left abandoned and pregnant by another in town. In Minari, the lure of civilization continually tempts Monica, but it’s not just a conventional gendered split. Town life also means medical care and a Korean community, two things that would seem to be very important to keeping both parents’ sense of their family intact (see Fig. 5).

Family standing together at the edge of the forest
Fig. 5. The family united, not a very common sight in the film. Still courtesy of A24.

I do see Minari very much as a frontier tale, reflecting the Southeast’s status as a new frontier of Asian American life, so painfully highlighted in last year’s Atlanta shootings. But the land, in both, is a site of potential and even acceptance. Jacob is right that the dirt is rich and fertile; the Korean vegetables do grow well even if he’s overwhelmed by the economic might and supply chain of California agriculture! The land doesn’t care who farms it, so for two works that focus on immigration and ethnic difference, it is an optimistic visual metaphor for the nation, which is then undercut by the reality of interactions in town—in the familiar mold of American writing about the frontier, as the myth and symbol school of criticism famously postulated was an essential part of the culture. As later critiques have done, Chung is deliberately rewriting this cultural trope, showing how the Yis are never wholly isolated but always connected to a Korean diaspora as well as navigating a white civilization.

Rachel: As I know you’re aware, my dissertation chapter on Cather’s novel stakes a strong claim for reading My Ántonia as a queering or deliberate subversion of the traditional gender and racial politics of the American Western. Rather than uplifting a Social Darwinist, deeply masculinist notion of American civilization, Cather presents masculine immigrant women as the frontier heroes: settling the land and making it fertile.

I’m curious if we can bring this focus on the queer frontier to Minari and think through the significance of Asian settlement in the American South, making clear the racial distinctions between the two sets of immigrant families. While Cather’s novel clearly indexes the mass immigration of primarily European immigrants through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century, Chung’s film depicts a very different story of migration and settlement. As white-ethnic or “racially in-between people,” the Shimerdas would not have been subject to the same degrees of racist exclusion and legal non-being as Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans.[2] Following the work of David Roediger on New Immigrants, we might conclude that Ántonia’s family would experience a generational whitening over the years, becoming perceived as more civilized and less sexually suspect. The same cannot be said for Asian immigrant families such as the Yis.

I wonder if there is a way to connect these texts through a history of immigration itself? More specifically, I’m curious about how Minari offers a different perspective on the interrelated processes of racialization and immigration. How might the film work against cultural stereotypes in Asian American representation such as the “perpetual foreigner” or the “outsider within”?

Heidi: I’m always wary of over-broadening the term “queer,” but Minari certainly focuses almost entirely on figures of difference and disruption. As Leslie Bow dubbed them, Asian Americans have often been interstitial racial figures in the South, difficult to place and read, and the Yis’s singularity in this film mirrors many of the stories of Asians in the South during the post-World War II period, when Asian immigration was starting to rise but communities in the South were few and far between. We also haven’t touched on the Yis’s loner friend Paul (Will Patton), a Korean War veteran, whose difference is marked not only by his apparent PTSD but his willingness to embrace this Korean family wholeheartedly.

You mentioned to me (verbally) how the gushing acceptance of Monica by the white women in the local church (“So cute! SO CUTE!”) only reinforces Monica’s outsiderness (Fig. 6). As in Cather, it is the endurance of immigrant women and the resilience of the immigrant family that is going to save them, not assimilation or even just acceptance, which seems only available from someone—Paul—who is himself a scarred, impoverished outsider.

Two white women speaking to Monica in a church
Fig. 6. Two local white women coo over Monica (Yeri Han/Han Ye-ri), calling her cute and offering to teach her English. Monica has been eager to find some social interaction but has chiefly been looking for a Korean American community; she smiles and giggles here, but the interaction ends with no further social contact or meaningful exchange. Screenshot courtesy of the authors.

The Yis’s experiences are indeed broadly resonant for me of the history of Asian American immigration. Korean migration rose drastically in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the post-1965 era (which is when my own parents came to the US). There are several references throughout the film to the Korean War, which to me adds a sense of urgency and flight that draws parallels with the 1970s wave of Southeast Asian refugees. The grandmother/halmoni Soon-ja’s arrival, which happens so quickly in the film, with so little apparent worry about legalities or visas, and by plane, represents a slightly less fraught and more modern wave of immigration. The fact that she brings melchi and gochugaru in her suitcase (incidentally two things my mom always gets in Korea) reflects the quotidian practices of diaspora and migration and suggests the economic foresight of Jacob’s determination to supply Korean communities in the South (see Fig. 7).

Family standing in front of a car in a field
Fig. 7. The Yi family naturalized in the American landscape. Still courtesy of A24.

The Yis’s multifaceted struggle reminds us of the difficulties faced by many Asian American families of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who, in addition to encountering immigration barriers to coalescing their family unit as well as legal barriers to land ownership and citizenship, often faced hostility from white economic competitors as another form of yellow peril. It also reminds me of the struggle of Japanese Americans during World War II, when they were expected to use their skills in the incarceration camps to make these notably dry or unfertile places of incarceration supply their own food.

The Yis have come from California, which reflects some of the famous Turnerian mournfulness about the closing of the frontier and eschews the West Coast-centric narrative of Asian America. As we see the family run around and hear them shout on their land—as in the scene in the clip below—the isolated way most of their story is told does normalize them into the landscape in some of the ways that you identify happening with the Shimerdas. That aspect counteracts the perpetual foreigner idea most powerfully.

Minari, Digging for Water Scene

Racial and ethnic difference is all too easy to portray in a visual medium; the hard part is striking a balance that isn’t essentializing or orientalizing. The actual processes of racialization and acculturation are what narrative film needs to dig into and show, from Soon-ja’s discovery of Mountain Dew soda, which she dubs “that mountain water” to the Yis’s resigned acceptance of local faith in dowsing by the end (see Fig. 8).

People using a stick to dowse for water in a field
Fig. 8. Monica and Jacob (Steven Yeun), seemingly reconciled, obediently follow the water dowser (Ben Hall) whose services Jacob refused when they arrived, along with their faithful friend Paul (Will Patton). This scene suggests the family’s embrace of local ways much more strongly than any of their other social interactions. Screenshot courtesy of the authors.

Rachel: I wanted to think more for a moment about how the grandmother’s migration (or rather its elision) is represented in the film. Might this be another moment of “normalization” or naturalization of immigration onto the American landscape? I think of the visual framing of Jacob as working similarly: he’s often rendered through wide-angle shots that show him enveloped or absorbed into the Southern landscape (see, for example, Fig. 9).

Jacob in a wide-angle shot outside of a shed in a field
Fig. 9. More than any other family member, Jacob is often depicted through a wide-angle lens which contextualizes him against the land on which he labors. Screenshot courtesy of the authors.

Because Chung’s film does privilege the land so heavily, it’s tempting to collapse his perspective into Cather’s more traditional narrative of white-ethnic homesteading on the nineteenth-century frontier. But I think this would be a misreading of Cather’s literary influence on Chung and would fail to consider the profoundly different kinds of historical processes of race and immigration operating during Cather’s lifetime. Most significantly, My Ántonia depicts a bygone world in which, in the words of Gunlög Fur, the Indian and the immigrant were “entangled figures,” as both Native American citizenship and immigration of primarily Southeastern Europeans were being strictly regulated.[3] Chung’s film, meanwhile, portrays a very different manner of racial difference and cultural clash on the American frontier.

Heidi: As well as Jacob’s determination to be a yeoman farmer of the myth and symbol type, a more recent turn in Asian American studies also pushes us to remember the inextricable involvement of Asian migration in settler colonialism—note that I say the land is unfarmed, not that it’s always been empty or uninhabited, as is signaled by the presence of an empty mobile home on the land when the Yis arrive.[4] The incorporation of the Yis into the landscape is not, to me, heavily signaled by coopting images of indigeneity, as in Cather. Minari chiefly provides its own critique of an all-white frontier narrative by, as you note, asserting Asian migration as part of the frontier story, and though it does not tackle other racial angles or indigeneity outright, it does provide a great deal of intersectional nuance with its consideration of age, disability, and trauma.

As the film was hailed as such a fresh story, I wonder if a mass American audience is meant to continually find the sound of Korean language on a new frontier striking and estranging. For me, again, it was so painfully familiar that it perhaps did a 360 and came around to being unsettling, just because I have never seen a film quite like this. How did it strike your eyes and ears?

Rachel: I found Minari to be a quite unique viewing experience, as it juxtaposes sights very familiar to me—rural poverty, the deep south, Christian charity—with the unfamiliar sound of the Korean language. As I heard the Yi family speak to each other or their Korean coworkers at the chicken factory in Korean, I found the film to be not so much estranging as (forgive the pun) pioneering in its depiction of what quotidian life in the rural United States might look and sound like. The transnational dimensions of the film offer a productive counterpoint to the insularity and isolation often attributed to the American South.

By the same token, Chung’s representation of Asian American cultural identity also seems to contrast with more mainstream cinematic portrayals that tend toward urban and metropolitan settings. Overall, Minari challenges a mass American audience to reconsider strict divisions between the foreign and domestic, as well as rural and urban, and instead dwell in a space of movement and mutability.

Heidi: I love that you and I, both cultural critics quite ready to dissect this text, connected to this film emotionally in ways deeply rooted in the film’s visual and audial language. The concept of universalism is a very troubled one for stories from communities of color and yet we want audiences of all backgrounds to watch and understand these stories on some level, just as Lee Isaac Chung takes his inspiration from Willa Cather. My Ántonia offers the reader both crutch and counterpoint through its white male US-born narrator, but the plot elements, formal structure, and immigrant characters excavate spaces into which Chung and other artists and critics of today can intervene.

Man and son look out across the field
Fig. 10. Jacob and David (Alan S. Kim) look out across the Arkansas fields. Still courtesy of A24.

Rachel: I agree, and I think we’ve returned to where we started: seeing the Cather Truck Rental van transporting the Yis to their new home. This Cather reference in the framing image of Minari recalls the opening scene of My Ántonia, in which the young Jim Burden is spirited away on a transcontinental train ride across the western frontier. Jim’s transformative journey westward is important to establishing the novel within the historical parameters of the nineteenth-century settler story, but there is also an undeniable autobiographical aspect to this journey, as it mirrors Cather’s own adolescent migration away from the Old Virginia of her ancestors to the Nebraskan prairie.

In Minari, too, Chung draws on his memories of his own childhood in rural Arkansas for the story of the Yi family. Chung has explained in an interview with Screen Daily that inspiration for Minari was taken from both his personal history and memories as well as Cather’s literary text.[5] Chung’s strategic deployment of Cather’s text reveals how both writers found movement and migration to be profoundly significant to their sense of race and ethnicity, queer gender and sexuality, and national belonging. I think the autobiographical elements of both texts end up enabling the kind of conceptual openness that can connect with diverse audiences and readerships. Together, Cather and Chung’s narratives offer a fascinating meditation on artistic inspiration, memory and family, and the transformative effects of migration.

Notes

[1] Willa Cather, My Ántonia (New York: Vintage Books, 2018), 21.

[2] David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 12.

[3] Gunlög Fur, “Indians and Immigrants—Entangled Histories,” Journal of American Ethnic History 33, no. 3 (2014): 55–76, 55.

[4] For more on the question of Asian settler colonialism, see the “Field Trip” issue on this topic by Iyko Day, Juliana Hu Pegues, Melissa Phung, Dean Itsuji Saranillio, and Danika Medak-Saltzman, “Settler Colonial Studies, Asian Diasporic Questions,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 5, no. 1 (2019).

[5] As Chung says, “I was inspired by this quote by Willa Cather, who said that her life really began when she stopped admiring and started remembering. And I felt I had been doing more of the admiring than the remembering when it came to my own work.”