What's in a name?

Graci Kim is a New Zealand diplomat, author and prolific high achiever who is a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network. Graci chats to the Foundation about questioning her own sense of identity and how this exploration has influenced her writing.
Graci Kim

Graci Kim is a Leadership Network member, as well as a three time start-up creator and a New Zealand diplomat

Graci Kim took on the anglicised penname ‘Graci Goldhart’ thinking that her books may have a wider appeal if she dropped her Asian surname.

“I didn’t want people to look at my books and think ‘Oh, that’s written by an Asian, that’s an Asian story, that’s not for me.”

But then Graci had a life-changing epiphany. It came at the end of her time serving at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing in 2017 and involved writing fiction for young adults, her father and her surname.

It impacted everything in her life but especially her self-image and eventually led to Graci giving a TEDx Talk about identity and reclaiming her surname, Kim.

A multilingual who speaks English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and basic French, Graci has worked as a diplomat in Asia and New Zealand. She has also founded three start-ups in the creative technology space.

Her first start-up in 2012 was a China-based social enterprise turning children’s drawings into real-life plushies and rugs. Her second was an interactive children’s book app with Asian characters based on her own family, and her third was the online show Graci in the Kitchen, which broadcast on the Food Channel and the Tastemade Network.

Shortlisted for the NZ Storylines Tessa Duder Award for Young Adult fiction, these days Graci explores themes of magic and family, featuring strong Korean-x girls (Korean girls who grow up outside of Korea).

Her focus, she says, has ironicall always been on ‘identity.’

“I’ve always tried to find a creative outlet, an expression of who I am; trying to share my stories with other people.”

Graci’s first posting with MFAT took her to Taiwan from 2012-2014 and the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing from 2014 to 2017.

“You’re really privileged because you get to meet people from all over the world who have a shared commonality. Going to Taiwan for language training [in Mandarin] was incredible.

Being Asian, learning another Asian language, I had a different experience from other colleagues who weren’t Asian.

“I got an inside look; people didn’t treat me as differently as my colleagues. Sometimes I got treated like a local who’d grown up overseas.

“But there was also a darker side to that – I was sometimes discriminated against or held to a different standard. ‘You’re just learning language faster because you’re Asian.’ That was a double edged sword.”

Her epiphany arrived during her honeymoon  in Korea in early 2018.

The newlyweds were visiting her ancestral home and Graci’s proud father was boasting about his daughter, but it became awkward when he was questioned about why Graci had anglicised her surname.

It made her contemplate identity, and her name.

It’s within our individual power to put on hats, to become who we want to become. But no matter how you view yourself, that is distinct to how others view you and that is absolutely out of our control.

Now she writes as Graci Kim. Young adult fiction is her passion. She says it’s a medium with high stakes, lots of drama and accessible stories.

“When I was a young adult, everything felt so intense. It’s the first time you’re experiencing everything: love, heartbreak, the idea of displacement, the desire for belonging.”

She was talent spotted by the Laura Dail Literary Agency US/NY after entering Magic in My Veins into Twitter’s #DVpit writer’s pitch competition for people from diverse or marginalised communities.

A work in progress, her novel is set in San Diego. “It’s about modern day Korean witches. A girl is raised in a matriarchal family of witch healers but she is adopted. She desires the magic but she is discriminated against. Then she has to rescue her sister …

"It’s a story about searching for belonging, love and family, but it just happens that the girl is Korean-American.”

Graci feels New Zealand is lagging in young adult fiction. 

“Compared to the US, the biggest market, we are still [in] the first generation of bringing diversity onto the page.”

“My protagonists are Korean-x because that’s just who they are. I never got to read stories about people like me when I was growing up.

 “In this time of divisive, polarised and politicised language, books are amazing. The power of imagination and lived experience can translate and connect.”

Graci returns to MFAT this year, while continuing to work on her upcoming novel Magic in my veins. You can find more information about her work on her website and watch her creative cooking show on her YouTube account.

This article was written by Lynda Chanwai-Earle