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For 9-year-old Korean immigrant Ahn Joo Cho, the diminutive hero of Patti Kim’s slight but powerful first novel, A Cab Called Reliable, this moment will forever stand as the most traumatic of her life: She will never see her mother or brother again. For the majority of Kim’s edgy, authentic tale about new lives in new lands, Ahn Joo’s family will be her father, a stubborn man entrenched in the value system of his native country, a questionable guardian who drinks too much, eats too much, and forces his preteen daughter to grow up in a still-foreign America faster than she’d like.

“Emotionally, the novel is very much autobiographical, but the events are not,” claims the 27-year-old Kim—even though she too was born in Pusan in 1970 and moved to the U.S. four years later. “My mother never left home. Her bags were always packed, but she never left. I exaggerated that fear of her leaving for the book.”

As if this quick dismissal of memoiristic intentions doesn’t hang as well as she’d hoped—you see, Ahn Joo also turns out to be a brilliant writer at a young age—Kim, after a lengthy pause, admits, “I worked with a mixture of memory and imagination.”

And there it sits, like a dare. Go ahead: Ask about the true stories, ask about the fantasy. Was your father really such a naive businessman? Did he really hide porno mags under the driver’s seat of his car? Was your mother ever such a cold, cruel-hearted bitch? Did you really discover the joys of foreplay at such a young age? I want to pop free all those inquiries swirling in my head. But let the following be a warning to any writer who will one day seek an interview with Patti Kim (and trust me, there will be a good number of you): Don’t dig as fast as you can. At least at this point in her budding fame, Kim is a conversationalist, and not yet, in her mind, a story subject. And what you won’t find with the well-crafted query will be exposed when you simply talk about the weather or the District or, for that matter, what Kim likes to do on the weekend. In her mind, Kim is not yet a star; she’s simply a star-gazer.

By employing a unique blend of fact, fiction, humor, and pathos, Kim, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1994, has won the crown of literary phenom-of-the-moment. Over the last month, she has been socked by a tsunami of praise that has left her dazzled. When I mention last week’s absolutely gushing review in USA Today—the newspaper called Kim an “obvious literary prodigy”—she breaks into wild laughter. “They called me an ‘obvious prodigy’!” the author squeals, trying like hell to control the conflicting swells of amazement, fear, and pride. As she sucks in breath to calm herself, Kim alternates modest words with unjailable bursts of joy: “It’s encouraging, that’s about it…OK, it’s a huge rave!…But it’s nice. It’s nice.”

A good example of Kim’s failure to grasp her current status as fiction’s latest savior is her claim that she doesn’t “have a job”—she says this without a trace of irony or amusement, almost as if it’s a negative she’s reluctant to confront. This so-called lack of employment allows her to write every day, sometimes all day; only over the weekend does she opt for a creative breather. Lately, she’s been housesitting for friends, journeying here and there about the Metro area but still managing to put in serious time on her follow-up effort, Buffy Bu, about a woman who decides to exit her comfortable Korean-American surroundings in favor of a redneck community. (Kim promises that the second novel will be much meatier than her 156-page coming-out.)

Pointed questions to Kim usually garner pub-sheet responses, but when a throwaway query gets nonchalantly tossed into the air, the author lets loose a great deal of herself. When asked what she does with her free time—you see, the interviewer is desperately trying to buy his own time and find another pen—the author blurts the answer as if it should be obvious to everyone: “Well, I have church on Sunday.” Of course, church. (I grab a chewed-up pencil from the floor and come close to apologizing for not attending Mass since Christmas ’83.)

A Cab Called Reliable is particularly void of strict religious contemplation—it’s much more concerned with surviving grade school, embittered fathers, sexual curiousity, and the perils of 1970s Northern Virginia—but for Kim, faith has been a lifelong driving force. On the book’s dedication page, she writes that she “would be a miserable and lonely soul” without the church in her life. She used to belong to the Global Missions Church for Korean-American Southern Baptist Fundamentalists (“How’s that for a combination?” she jokes), and for a while would go door to door looking to sign up converts.

Two years ago, when Kim started “seeing the spiritual and God as something huger than when I was growing up,” she departed the rigors of Global Missions and joined Burtonsville, Md.’s Cedar Ridge Community Church, a nondenominational house of prayer attended by Asians, African-Americans, and a myriad of different faces. This new understanding of her faith has allowed her to “break out” of the door-to-door mentality and see worship in a more, well, down-to-earth way. Religion is now a private matter for Kim, not a subject she openly dissects with strangers, mere acquaintances, or nosy reporters.

Just above the thanks to Global Missions and Cedar Ridge floats the novel’s brief, italicized dedication: To my mother and father. Despite the negative light in which she casts parenting—and, very possibly, her parents—in A Cab Called Reliable, Kim says her folks “have been very supportive [of the book]….They just want to see me pursue my American dream.”

Come on: There hasn’t been any jumping

to conclusions about who and what the novel

is about?

“We haven’t discussed the content of the book,” says Kim, the only writer in the family (though her father “writes lovely letters, but never anything lengthy”). “They kind of know not to do that. I don’t know how much of it is denial or what, but as long as they’re not disowning me or kicking me out of the house, it’s fine.” (Just to set the record straight, Mother Kim never took a little brother away in a dirty taxi, either. In fact, Kim doesn’t even have a little brother to kick around; she has an older sister, Nancy, whom Kim calls “very supportive.”)

But no matter who you are—mother or father, friend or fan—it’s hard to deny Kim’s crowd-pleasing gift. She is adept at pacing her prose at cruising speeds (“I’m really not conscious of pacing….It’s very important to me, yes, but it really depends on who the characters are,” she claims). But her greatest strength is for summoning up the minute, wonderful, mundane details of life at a typical U.S. elementary school:

On the seesaw, Torpedo Tits Tammy was laughing while holding poor Ruthie up in the air. It wouldn’t be long until Tammy got off and Ruthie came crashing down. The Chinese girls played Chinese jump rope, chanting the days of the weeks in Chinese. I tried to join them once, but they told me they were already an even four, and it was impossible to play with a fifth. The black girls double-dutched to ma name ma name ma name ma name is Jolisa Jolisa ma boy ma boy ma boy ma boy is Lalarnie Lalarnie. After they sang their names and their boyfriends’ names, they broke into a chant about eating sardines with pork and beans. Eddie and Mitchell swung on the monkey bars all recess, trying to get blisters the size of silver dollars on their hands so they could show off and make money from the stupidheads who would pay a dime to touch the bubbles and a quarter from the dum-dums who wanted to pop them.

All the playground scene-setting is pure Memorex; Kim delayed visiting her old elementary school until after the novel was completed. All the tricky, easy-to-forget details—”girls chasing boys…boys flicking boogers…and the sense of sex being in the air”—were culled strictly from a pollution-free memory lane.

“It’s the gaps you work with,” Kim explains rather cryptically. “My life informs my fiction.”CP

Kim will be signing, discussing, and reading from A Cab Called Reliable at the Borders at Bailey’s Crossroads Tuesday, Aug. 12 at 7:30 p.m.