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‘The Band’ tells story of disgraced K-pop star

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:46am

In Christine Ma-Kellams debut novel “The Band,” a canceled K-pop idol flees South Korea for Southern California, where a chance encounter in an H-Mart grocery store leads to him laying low in the home of a slightly older psychology professor.

He’s handsome and charismatic; she’s unhappy in her marriage. But this isn’t going where that might make you think.

“The idea mostly came out of my experiences as a reader,” Ma-Kellams says of this meet-cute that zigs where others zag. “My singular pet peeve is when I read something and I see a common trope.

“I didn’t want it to veer into the romance genre of, like, oh, this woman meets her K-pop idol and there’s some kind of traditional romance between the two of them,” she says. “I thought that was super boring and cliché, so I was like, I don’t want to go near that.”

Sure, there are popular stories that employ that trope – such as the new movie “The Idea of You,” in which Anne Hathaway and a boy band singer meet and fall for each other at Coachella. But that kind of story held no appeal, Ma-Kellams says.

“I wanted to write something much more ambiguous I haven’t seen before,” she says. “Where the relationship is not even classifiable. Because I think those are the most interesting kinds of narratives, where you don’t quite know like, Is this romantic? Is this maternal? Is this like a weird combination of the two?

“I think that makes for the most narrative tension for me as a reader, where, like, I don’t know. The situation shifts so I don’t know where it’s going, if it’s going to be intimate and physical or stay in the purely psychological or interpersonal connection.”

In “The Band,” the K-pop star, Sang Duri, has unintentionally angered the fandom of The Band – that’s his group’s name (though it’s not to be confused with the real-life “Music from Big Pink” group of that name) – with a lyric from a solo single. He decides to disappear in Southern California to take the heat off his four Band mates, and comes upon the professor as she’s perusing the frozen tteokbokki rice cakes in an H Mart near her South Bay home.

The professor, whose given name is only mentioned once in the book, invites him home to the suspicions of her husband and confusion of her two young sons, Duri ends up staying as the rest of The Band also come to the United States to appear on a daytime talk show, a late-night sketch comedy program, and eventually a music awards show at the explosive climax of the story.

Fans and footnotes

Ma-Kellams is, in fact, a psychology professor at San Jose State University, alternating semesters between remote classes from her Torrance home and in-person courses in San Jose.

She was not, however, a K-pop fan until 2020 when, as the pandemic kept everyone home, she discovered the K-pop phenomenon that had been growing for most of the 2010s, and BTS, its most popular group, in particular.

“I was very late to the game,” she says. “But then once I discovered them I realized that this was an entirely different phenomenon than the NSYNC or Backstreet Boys fandoms I had known about many years ago.”

The BTS Army, as its fandom is known, particularly fascinated her with its intense support of the members of that group.

“I thought it’d be really interesting to write a story about this,” Ma-Kellams says. “Not only this phenomenon centering K-pop and the kind of relationships with the fandom. I thought it would be interesting to have it in the U.S. to have the sort of cross-cultural element.”

The idea fit neatly with her career as a cultural psychologist, she says.

“In my day job, cross-cultural differences are my jam,” Ma-Kellams says. “That’s what I’m most interested in. So I thought of situating it in the U.S. by having a Korean person from Korea interact with an Asian American person who’s very Westernized but also has this mental health background.

“I thought it would be really interesting to allow the story to go deeper than just, ‘Oh, here’s a K-pop band that came to America,’ but also to explore what this looks like in terms of real issues with depression and how we deal with mental health and mental health disorders. That’s where the germ of the idea came from.”

Given her deep knowledge of those topics – “The Band” is her debut novel, but she’s also the author of a cultural psychology textbook – there’s an unexpected surprise for readers on many pages: Footnotes, many of them referencing psychological research and studies that the narrator describes, though a good number also share her snarky asides on the story.

“My editor was so supportive of the voice and the approach,” Ma-Kellams says. “She actually asked for more footnotes.

“Some people love them, some people hate them. But I sort of expected that. Not every stylistic choice is gonna blow everybody away.”

Idol talk

When Ma-Kellams took her deep dive into K-pop in 2020 she spent days on YouTube catching up on the rise of the genre over the previous decade. The global superstars BTS became the closest model for The Band she created in the book, but the lives and careers of other groups also feed into her fictionalized K-pop world.

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“Reading about the ‘black ocean’ that happened to Girls Generation,” she says, referencing the K-pop phenomenon in which fans intentionally withheld cheers, applause and cellphone lights as a silent, dark expression of displeasure with a group during a performance. “A lot of that was fodder for the kind of stuff that was happening in the book, too.”

But BTS, which wasn’t launched by one of the biggest K-pop companies, made the biggest impression on her.

“If you look at the larger context of the culture where they came from, of being a very collectivistic culture where K-pop itself is a highly structured industry where everybody knows what the rules are and you sort of do what you’re expected to do, I really feel like BTS was super-idiosyncratic in the way they deviated from those expectations and molds,” she says.