What’s with Kee Sun’s accent?

Kee Sun is one of my favorite characters, and I’m not alone. I get asked about the Korean cook a lot — especially about his accent. I recently was asked a question over on Goodreads:

Hi David – enjoyed Risuko and will be adding my review soon. Curious about the Korean cook and the odd way he speaks. Is that on purpose to indicate he might have some type of accent? Also, is there any particular reason for him not being Japanese? Perhaps I missed something 🙂 — Steve

Great question!

So I knew I wanted to have at least one non-Japanese character in the book — Japan wasn’t as cut off from the rest of the world during this period as it would become in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Japan and Korea had regularly tried to invade each other throughout much of their history, and so the idea that the late Lord Mochizuki brought back a Korean cook from a campaign there appealed to me.

Once I’d decided that Kee Sun was Korean, I had to figure out how a Korean would sound to Japanese people. I reached out to a friend of a friend, S. Jae-Jones, a wonderful author who happens to be Korean-American. She kindly talked to me about the dynamics of the Korean accent, and we discussed what it might sound like to the Japanese characters. Japanese speakers tend to speak in a fairly narrow band of tones. Sarah felt that Korean would sound much earthier and energetic to a Japanese ear. When we searched for an equivalent accent to the American ear, the two that we came up with were Italian and Scottish.

Now, I didn’t want Kee Sun sounding like Mario from the Nintendo games. But I thought that basing his accent on a kind of toned down “dog Scottish” (in the same sense that JK Rowling calls the Latin in her books “dog Latin”) would give me what I was looking for. (Which is to say, Sarah is in no way responsible for Kee Sun or how he sounds — but I thank her from the bottom of my heart for her insight.)

As I wrote and rewrote the book, I found a distinctive voice for the cook that wasn’t particularly Scottish — but that I felt worked for him and for the novel. If you listen to the audiobook, the narrator (my daughter Julia) uses a Scottish accent for Kee Sun.

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