minsoo kang!

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2016 august 25 at AAWW:  minsoo kang (left) is a professor of history and the translator of the story of hong gildong, an iconic korean classic, which also recently became the first korean classic published by penguin classics.  ('BOUT TIME, PENGUIN.)

last night, the asian american writers' workshop hosted an event dedicated to hong gildong.  first, authors marie myung-ok lee and min-jin lee gave brief talks about the significance of hong gildong to them.  dr. kang then gave a brief but informative and hilarious presentation on hong gildong and had a conversation with ken chen, the director of AAWW.

this was so interesting, and i wish i could have gotten more down.  dr. kang is working on a book on hong gildong, though, so there's that to look forward to!

also!  he's working on a translation of a book about queen inhyun and jang heebin (the title of which eluded me), which i am so excited about!

(i only took notes during dr. kang's presentation/conversation.  everything below is him.)


from his presentation:

  • the best history books are the ones that defamiliarize the familiar.
  • it's obvious that we lionize the defenders of the law, but why is it we also lionize the outlaws?
    • you can find the bandit — robin hood —everywhere in the world.  [...]  they're not local variations of robin hood; this is a universal figure.
  • every korean knows — or thinks they know — hong gildong.  it's so steeped into their culture.
    • there are 34 versions of hong gildong.
    • it has to do with how popular stories were spread in the joseon dynasty.  when stories got really popular, publishers would start publishing shorter and shorter versions to save paper.
  • i actually thought [translating] this would be an easy task.  even for most koreans, the premodern korean language is so difficult, and you also have to deal with how many chinese characters [there are].
  • i found, to my horror, that there were these 34 different manuscirpts, so i had to go through them to decide which to translate and consult with scholars in korea as well.
    • [note:  there wasn't only the issue of having to decide with version was most accurate; there was also the issue of the cultural significance of what hong gildong represents to koreans.  and then there was also what is being taught about hong gildong in schools in korea — he found out that it's all wrong.]
    • the thing [all the scholars] complained about — why doesn't the latest research get out?
    • this is such an important story.  even for the majority of koreans who have never read it, it has such great resonance.
    • this has to do with the problem of how korean literature is taught in schools.  as you know, in korean schools, it's all about memorizing.  so the way in which literature is taught, students aren't given entire works to read — they're given a couple paragraphs, and then, they're given 5-6 facts to memorize that will show up on the college entrance exam.
      • [note:  as it turns out, all 5-6 facts about hong gildong are wrong.]
      • [note:  in korea, you take one exam — the soo-neung — and that decides where you go.  there's one test day every year in november, and it goes without saying that it is a big deal.]

from his conversation with ken chen:

  • hong gildong represented so many things.  for instance, in south korea alone, you have hong gildong as the enduring symbol of the fights against authority.  and then you have hong gildong as this masculine symbol that men cannot really become.  [...] there's so much lament about "i can't be like hong gildong!"
  • one of the cliches about korean people is that we are a people filled with han.  [...]  i recently discovered that the notion of koreans being full of han was something that was come up by japanese people during the colonial era*.  the concept of han did exist in the joseon dynasty, but you can't find a single writer who thought of it as a depiction of korean nature.  [...]  we adopted it unthinkingly when it's very recent and it's not even our tradition.
    • [* because the japanese thought of koreans as savages, this idea of han as being central to koreans was pushed on them to explain koreans' sorrows.  the more korean thing is that, while, yes, we do have han, which is very simplistically translated as a deep sorrow/melancholy, we also have heung, which is joy, and the two balance each other out.]
  • when you read hong gildong as the classical text coming out of the joseon dynasty, there is no question that it's a product of a very patriarchal society.
    • in 20th century versions, the gender stuff gets really interesting because, in every new version, there is a love interest.
    • the suffering of women is used to measure the strength of men.  [i.e. men should be able to protect their women.  if the woman is harmed, the man should avenge her.  it has nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with the man.]
    • you see that in modern hong gildong stories.  there's a woman who's harmed, and so hong gildong needs to jump in to save her.
    • i think it has to do with how, during the colonial era, korean men were feminized under japanese colonialization.

solnit, stories, & autumn.

what’s your story?  it’s all in the telling.  stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  to love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.  (the faraway nearby, 3)
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the heat wave has broken and given way to significantly cooler, dryer temperatures in new york city, and it’s got me thinking autumn.

autumn’s a great season; it means cool weather, jackets (which mean pockets), beanies, the world done up in oranges and reds, comfort food.  it means the brooklyn book festival (september 18!) and the new yorker festival (october 7-9!), and it means big fall releases (a post on that coming soon).  it also means new starts, new endeavors, new attempts to find courage — which has me turning to rebecca solnit again.

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the bigness of the world is redemption.  despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground.  to dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.  being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond.  this is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.  (30-1)

there’s an empathy and grace to solnit’s writing that i love.  she clearly thinks deeply and seriously about the world, and she conveys this thoughtfulness and consideration in writing that i find absolutely lovely.  solnit doesn’t write like one who wastes words or uses them carelessly; she is, rather, careful about how she presents her ideas, observations, and thoughts, not in the control-freak, obsessive sort of way but in the way of someone who understands and respects the value of the printed word, of expression.

like plath’s unabridged journals, solnit’s the faraway nearby is a book i like to keep in arm’s reach at all times.  solnit makes me want to see the world in different ways, to be more expansive in my thinking, to seek connections and stories in places i might not have otherwise sought, and she feeds my desire to see the world, to get out of my bubble and comfort zone and explore different perspectives.  she makes me think about story and story-telling, why story is so essential, and that, in turn, makes me reexamine why i tell stories and why i tell the stories i do.

it’s not everyday that you find an author who challenges you to be better, to do better, to write and think and tell stories better.  if and when you do, it makes sense to keep him/her close.


to hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it.  it’s not passive but active, this listening.  it’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you.  to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it.  to enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.  (193)
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like many others who turned into writers, i disappeared into books when i was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.  what surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that i came out that other side and met people there.  writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity.  i sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working.  before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.  (60-1)

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writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.  or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them.  matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that i ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom i’m closest.  every once in a while i try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.  said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.  (64)

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sometime in the late nineteenth century, a poor rural english girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy, “you will be loved by people you’ve never met.”  this is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing.  you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.  like digging a hole to china and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way.  it was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.  (65)
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nell, my favorite band in the world, released their 7th album, c, last week, and i think it’s a perfect segue from summer into autumn.  it’s an album i absolutely needed at this moment in my life, and it’s brighter in tone than nell’s sound usually is, but it’s just as comforting and reassuring as their music always is.

more on nell next time, though.  i can’t not write about nell and their new album.


after years in new york city, georgia o’keeffe moved to rural new mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.”  it was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.  emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self.  you can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.  (108)

a day in a life.

always valued for its stimulating effect, coffee contains more caffeine than any other drink.  there are about 110 to 150 milligrams of caffeine in a cup of coffee made by the drip method and about 65 to 125 in a percolated cup, nearly twice the amount found in tea.  espresso, though stronger in taste because it is more concentrated, actually has less caffeine than regular coffee.  decaffeinated, which has been around for one hundred years, accounts for about twenty percent of coffee sales in the united states.

balzac was in the habit of drinking up to thirty cups a day while writing for twelve-hour stretches, producing his vast body of fiction as he tried to scramble out of debt.  dead at fifty, the cause wasn't coffee, though medical authorities today more or less agree that four cups a day is about as many as most people can consume before experiencing the side effects of excessive caffeine.  

-  james salter, life is meals (14)


hello!  i figured i'd throw out something lighter while i'm thinking about my next post because i don't know how long the next one will take.  one of my goals this summer was to finish writing/editing my book, which isn't something i've admittedly made much progress on yet, stresses from looking for a job and personal baggage and all which is to say that i also need to start diverting focus from my writing brain back to that as well.

so here are some images as i went about my day.  none of it is anything special, but i had fun with it anyway, even as i dehydrated from all the sweating because, omg, the weather sucks in nyc right now.

disclaimer:  all products were purchased by me and are things i use every day.

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it seems that i go through a phase of something every summer.

the summer of 2013, i couldn't get enough of korean popsicles/ice cream and watermelon.  the summer of 2014 was all about lemonade.  the summer of 2015 was such a shitfest, i spent most of it crying and baking quite a few pies.

this summer is all about peaches.  (and avocados.)  (but mostly peaches.)


fruit produce in general always makes me think of california.  i think fruit just tastes better in california and is cheaper, too and i'm pretty sure that's a psychological thing, except i swear it's true.  maybe it's because i equate california with non-stop sunshine, which somehow equates to produce all-year-round, which isn't totally farfetched, given that there are no such things as definable seasons in [southern] california, so you can find all the fruit at all times.

maybe that's nonsense logic, but this california-raised girl thinks it makes sense.


here's james salter on peaches:

the peach has been celebrated for more than four thousand years for its erotic qualities:  its shape, the delicate down of its surface, as well as its flesh-like tones.  it came originally from china, where it was considered both a symbol of immortality and of female genitalia.  a bride was called a peach, and even today the expression "she's a peach" isn't entirely out of fashion.  (life is meals, 275)

i would never have put peaches and erotic together.

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this is also the summer of asian sponge cake rolls.  i think i've baked a sponge cake roll almost every week since june, which means that (01) whipping egg whites is a piece of cake and (02) i think i've got my recipe down.  that, in turn, means that now i start playing with flavors, and, obviously, i'd start with matcha.

i used my last tablespoon of matcha powder on this sponge cake (i used the rest on matcha madeleines and nothing but matcha madeleines), and i have to say i really liked this matcha powder.  it's from ippodo, and it's not too bitter, not too grassy, not too intense, and it also gives baked things a lovely, deep green color.  (see here and here for more green!)

i think i'll try lavender next.


here's james salter on eggs:

nearly perfect in both nutrition and form, the egg is the food against which all others can be measured for efficiency.  loaded with protein, one egg contains about seventy-five calories, as well as all the amino acids, vitamins A, B, D, and E, and most of the minerals, including iron, essential for human life.  the shell, because of its shape, has immense strength for its size, able to protect its contents yet breakable by the chick inside.

the color of the shell and of the yolk have no bearing on the taste, nor is a white or brown shell or a dark or pale yolk any indication of an egg being more "natural."  what can make a difference to its taste is what the hen eats.  the best-tasting eggs result from a diet of grain with the addition of such odds and ends as insects and worms that the hen finds in her wanderings.

the other factor is freshness.  the test is basically the same today as it was two hundred years ago, recorded by amelia simmon in the first american cookbook.  "put them into (salted) water.  if they lye on their bilge, they are good and fresh, if they bob up on end they are stale, and if they rise (and float horizontally) they are addled, proved, and of no use."  (life is meals, 106-7)

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and that is all!  until next time!

sarah waters!

‘women do things today their mothers would have laughed to think of seeing their daughters doing, twenty years ago; soon they will even have the vote!  if people like me don’t work, it’s because they look at the world, at all the injustice and the muck, and all they see is a nation falling in upon itself, and taking them with it.  but the muck has new things growing out of it — wonderful things! — new habits of working, new kinds of people, new ways of being alive and in love …’  (tipping the velvet, florence, 210-1)
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i have a bit of an obsessive personality.

for example:  when i get hooked on a song, i listen to it on repeat hundreds of times.  i’ve seen the same thirteen episodes of the same season of top chef more times than i can count.  every few weeks, i go back to the same restaurant and order the same two dishes.  i bake a roll of asian sponge cake every week.  if i love an author and s/he is in town on tour, i go to every single event/reading.

like i said.  obsessive.

it also means that, when i get hooked on an author, i work my way through his/her backlist until i’ve consumed the greater majority or entirety of it.

which is exactly what happened with sarah waters.


things to note:

i photographed these books in the order i read them, which is not order of publication, because i intended to write about them in the order i read them.  as you will see, that did not happen.

i purchased and read tipping the velvet and fingersmith on ibooks.  i borrowed the paying guests from the brooklyn public library (then had to return it, so the photo is of a cover on my ipad).  riverhead very nicely gave me the little stranger, affinity, and the night watch; thank you, riverhead, for supporting my sarah waters’ obsession!  all thoughts, opinions, and content are my own.

also:  i hate reading on my ipad.  for one, my head starts spinning after staring at a screen so intensely for so long.  for another, it’s a pain in the ass to photograph because it fucks with the light.  for a third, there are no accurate page numbers; page numbers for tipping the velvet and fingersmith are, thus, approximate; please check them against the paper versions.

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‘when i see her,’ i said, ‘it’s like — i don’t know what it’s like.  it’s like i never saw anything at all before.  it’s like i am filling up, like a wine-glass when it’s filled with wine.  i watch the acts before her and they are like nothing — they’re like dust.  then she walks on the stage and — she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet … she makes me want to smile and weep, at once.  she makes me sore, here.’  i placed a hand upon my chest, upon the breast-bone.  ‘i never saw a girl like her before.  i never knew that there were girls like her …’  my voice became a trembling whisper then, and i found that i could say no more.  (tipping the velvet, 25-6)

i’ve been crushing on someone for months now, and it’s no one i actually know (you could call it a celebrity crush of sorts), but it’s kind of been this intense thing simmering constantly in my head.  before anyone’s like, oh my god, you’re fucking insane, yes, i know full well how to distinguish between celebrity crushes and real life, and i’m not psycho enough to give this more meaning than it needs.  i am also, however, not one to dismiss celebrity crushes entirely; i think they’re (usually) harmless ways through which we sometimes learn about ourselves; the barrier and the lack of possibility (and probability) provide us the leeway to explore parts of ourselves we might be afraid of or hesitant to approach in real life.

you could roll your eyes at that and find it absurd, but i do think there’s something about pop culture and the ways we invest in it that say something about ourselves, about society overall.  i mean, i have SO MUCH i could say about k-pop and korean culture overall … but that’s something for another day (or later in this post).

my whole point in bringing this up, though — i read tipping the velvet, my first novel by sarah waters (as well as her debut), as this crush of mine hit fever pitch, and i’ve no doubt that added new dimensions to my reading experience.  would i have loved tipping the velvet less had i not had this thing going on in my head?  would it have had a lesser impact?  no, not likely; it is a powerful, remarkable novel — but did tipping the velvet come into my reading life at the right time?  yes, most certainly.

i do believe that, sometimes, books come to us in certain moments, that the same books mean different things to us at different points in our lives.  my best example of this is kazuo ishiguro’s never let me go, a book i usually read at least twice a year and is a different book to me every time i encounter it.  sometimes, it’s a story of loneliness; other times, it’s one of friendship; and, at other times, it’s about love, not just romantic love but love in all forms, that between a guardian and a student (the closest the characters get to parent and child), between female friends, between lovers, between carers and donors, even between donors and those demanding their organs.  sometimes, it’s a story i read for the language, for inspiration, for encouragement when i’m feeling low on the writing front, but, whatever it is, it — this novel, this book, any novel, any book — is not a stagnant thing but a thing that changes, that takes on different faces, that absorbs the emotions i bring to it and remembers them and returns them to me with each new encounter.

that was kind of a tangent, but the point is — actually, i’m not quite sure what it was.  let’s try this again.


i think the experience of falling in love is a universal one, that it doesn’t matter your gender, your culture, your sexual orientation — there’s something exhilarating and also something terrifying about it, this sense of possession, of not being able to remove someone from your consciousness and wanting to know more, to be with that person, to make him/her happy.

i’m not saying there’s only one way of falling in love, simply that there is something universally recognizable about it, something that has nothing to do with these societal constraints we try to create with our various social constructs.

this is something i loved so much about waters’ novels, that she so exquisitely captures the intensity of falling in love, the dizziness and headiness and craziness of that tumble into affection and want and desire.  waters brings you into her characters’ heads in such visceral, raw ways that you’re right there with these characters, these people, these women as they fall in love and discover the wonder of it.

… as anyone will tell you who has been secretly in love, it is in bed that you do your dreaming — in bed, in the darkness, where you cannot see your own cheeks pink, that you ease back the mantle of restraint that keeps your passion dimmed throughout the day, and let it glow a little.  (tipping the velvet, 43)

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i went back to my narrow bed, with its sheets like pieces of pastry.  i heard her turning, and sighing, all through the night; and i turned, and sighed, myself.  i felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart — so hard, it hurt me.  a hundred times i almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times i thought, go to her!  why are you waiting?  go back to her side!  but every time, i thought of what would happen if i did.  i knew that i couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her.  i couldn’t have felt her breath come upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her.  and i couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her.  (fingersmith, 128)

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and that was all it took.  they smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them.  there was a quickening, a livening — frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process.  it was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan.  it was as subtle yet as tangible as that.  (the paying guests, 86)

waters writes love stories that aren’t plagued by saccharine sweetness, that don’t descend into superficiality or mere feel-goodness — she couldn’t, not with these stories she’s writing about women in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries.  these women are often caught in cages, trapped in societal expectations and/or the practical limits of their lives, facing real-life challenges and boundaries with which they have to make their lives work.  waters doesn’t simply disappear these struggles; she writes within them, presents them honestly, frustrations, pain, and all; but neither does she lose herself or her novels to these struggles — she’s written six very smart, astute novels that show us the world for what it was and for what it still is, and she’s done it all through story, no moralizing or overt politicizing.

that’s why i think her novels resonated so strongly with me — like i said, i do think that sometimes books come to us in certain moments, and tipping the velvet walked into my life when i needed it.  maybe it’s worth nothing that i’m at a vulnerable point in my life, struggling with a lot of uncertainties and fears, with a total loss and rejection of faith, with a particular breed of loneliness, and there was something about nan and her voice that i immediately connected with.  she’s a girl who just goes running into things, following her heart and, yes, maybe being reckless and flinging herself headlong into situations without really thinking about next steps or consequences (usually to her heart), but there’s something to be said about that fearlessness, about her refusal to shrink away and live in the shadows.

i loved nan so much.  i felt for her so much, and i wanted to protect her, to keep her from harm — i think readers understand what i mean when i say that.  i loved being in her head as she fell in love, suffered heartbreak, cobbled herself back together, fell back into love (sort of?), got out of a shitty situation, and fell in love again, just as i loved her ability to be vulnerable and give herself over to her heart and make the changes she needed to survive, to better herself, to love again.

of waters’ six novels, i’d say tipping the velvet is still my favorite, the one that sits closest to my heart, and the one i’ll undoubtedly come back to time and time again.


i looked back to kitty butler.  she had her topper raised and was making her final, sweeping salute.  notice me, i thought.  notice me!  i spelled the words in my head in scarlet letters, as the husband of the mentalist had advised, and sent them burning into her forehead like a brand.  notice me!  (tipping the velvet, 25)
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i mentioned on instagram that i was working on this post, that it would be about sarah waters and love, sexuality, desire, womanhood, and someone asked that i also talk about sexuality and womanhood in korean culture, which is something i’m always happy to do.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias.  i think about xenophobia; i think about homophobia and transphobia; i think about patriarchy and misogyny and sexism.  i think about prejudice against and the intense stigmatizing of and general lack of acknowledgement of mental illness.   i think about psychotic academic pressure, and i think about trends and conformity and plastic surgery, and i think about suicide.

given that i can’t stop writing about korea, we’ll eventually get to all of the above, but let’s start with the patriarchy today because it pertains to these novels.


why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?  (affinity, 229)

i grew up with the korean patriarchy, the prioritizing of males, the silences pressed onto women.  my extended family, specifically on my mother’s side, is as patriarchal as they come.  i still remember holiday dinners when we’d gather at our house, and the women would cook and then sit silently at the table as the men* talked.  after the uncomfortable meal was over, the women would clear the table, peel fruit, serve coffee and dessert, and do all the dishes, clean-up, etcetera — basically, to put it shortly, this is a family that fell very neatly into traditionally-prescribed gender roles.

and that’s where i sometimes think it’s bizarre to be a second-generation korean-american as a woman.  we’re still expected to excel and do well in school and pursue highly professional careers, but we’re also expected to marry well, have children, and ultimately fall back into these traditionally-prescribed gender roles.  it’s even more so the case when you throw in religion (usually christianity) and geography (let’s say california); as a woman, you’re expected to give up your career to stay home and raise your brood.

this is not something i have a problem with if this is what a woman wants for herself.  there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a housewife and stay home with your kids and be a full-time mom — that’s a great thing to want, and it should be a choice women are able to make.

my problem with it is when that becomes the only option.  this loops back to what i was talking about in reference to heteronormativity previously, in this idea that there is one way to be and that is it, that, if you don’t want a husband, if you don’t want children, if you don’t want that life, then you are an Other — you exist outside the norm, and you are to be shunned and shamed.  which seems so  psychotic in the twenty-first century.

and that’s something that struck me over and over again with each of sarah waters’ novels, that her novels are set in the late-nineteenth, mid-twentieth centuries, but these worlds are still worlds that exist today.  we still live in a world in which same-sex rights, women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights are under threat.  we still live in a world where queer people need to look and listen for tone and insinuation to ascertain whether or not someone is friendly or a threat.  we still live in a world where it’s a danger for a gay couple to walk down the street in new york city, for gay people to congregate in their own clubs, for queer teenagers to come out to their families without risking everything.

and all of this is connected — the patriarchy feeds homophobia by enforcing heteronormativity, by saying that men must be this way to be men, that women must be this way because they are women, that relationships and families must be constructed by gender.  and, even though we might recognize the harm in this, it is stupidly still the way things must be.


i gazed at her, and shook my head.  oh, i said, i had heard words like that, so many times!  when stephen went to school when i was ten:  they said that that would be ‘a difficult time’, because of course i was so clever, and would not understand why i must keep my governess.  when he went to cambridge it was the same; and then, when he came home and was called to the bar.  when prix turned out so handsome they said that would be difficult, we must expect it to be difficult, because of course i was so plain.  and then, when stephen was married, when pa died, when georgy was born — it and been one thing leading to another, and they had said only, always, that it was natural, it was to be expected that i should feel the sting of things like that; that older, unmarried sisters always did.  ‘but helen, helen,’ i said, ‘if they expect it to be hard, why don’t they change things, to allow it to be easier?  i feel, if i might only have a little liberty —‘ (affinity, 203)

i feel like it should be noted that korea is not quite the prudish culture some people make it out to be.  it is a world of love motels and “booking,” a practice where men at clubs will point at women and waiters will drag said women over to have drinks with the men, consent and willingness be damned, and it is a culture where sex sells, though it is also a culture that’s rather hypocritical about it.  just take a look at k-pop, at how the industry demands innocence from its female stars, viciously shaming them when they deviate from their image, all the while hyper-sexualizing them, their youth, their purity.  essentially, they’re masturbatory symbols, which is nothing new or surprising in any media world, but it’s this combination of innocence/youth and sexuality that is just so profoundly disturbing, especially when you take into mind how young these girls actually are — or aren’t.  young women in their mid-twenties should not be so simultaneously infantilized and sexualized; at one point, the demand for cutesy aegyo needs to stop.

and then there’s shipping.

k-pop is definitely something i will write about in the future, but, while we’re talking about sexuality in korea, we should also discuss how homoerotic shipping is.  take tvxq, once the biggest boy band in korea.  fans loved to ship the members with each other, and i want to say that the biggest ship was probably that between jaejoong and yunho (commonly known as “yunjae”).  fans would obsessively watch performances, interviews, videos, etcetera for interactions between the two, for any clothes they might share or jewelry they might wear or any goddamn thing that “proved” that yunjae was “real.”  they’d also write explicit fanfiction and create online communities dedicated to this shipping, and none of this happened in a casual way but with the intensity that all of us koreans bring to, well, everything.

because this is how fandom works in korea.  fans don’t want to think of their favorite idols as having relationships with other girls (and i specifically say girls) because that would destroy the fantasy of these idols existing solely for the pleasure and accessibility of fans.  instead, fans put these idols together in these homoerotic ships with each other and cling to these ships like religion, with all the conviction that religion demands.  it’s fucking creepy.

and it’s also sobering because, if any of these idols did come out as being gay, their careers would likely be over.


a spot of hope, though:

the shooting in orlando was the same weekend as seoul pride.  it is (or was) common for participants of pride in seoul to wear stickers that tell the media not to publish photographs of them because that would be outing them, and to be out, to come out entails far too much risk, especially in a conformist, conservative christian society like korea’s.

that sunday night, i went online to a k-pop community and saw that someone had posted about seoul pride.  i immediately felt my heart sink given what i know about korean society and its homophobia, and there had obviously already been enough horrific violence committed against the queer community for me to want to hear about any more.

instead, there was a video attached of a group of mothers (of LGBTQA children) who had a booth at pride and were giving out hugs and telling these kids that they were loved.  it was a small group of them, but they were out there, hugging kids, crying with them, telling them hwaiting!, a direct contrast to other parents, other people who stood in protest, holding signs that said they would refuse or deny a child-in-law of the same sex.  (not that same-sex couples can get married in korea, anyway.)

they were a small group of mothers in the larger scope of things, but, still, it’s huge, especially in a culture like korea’s.  it’s hope.


sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about phobias.  other times, though, when i think about korea, i think about love.  i think about heart and the bahp-sang and how that is something created by women and offered by women.  i think about how an invitation to someone’s table is like an invitation to be a part of this family, however this family has been created, and i think about how the heart of that are women and their loyalty and dedication and sacrifice.

sometimes, when i think about korea, i think about the best in people, the best of people.

i think about my paternal grandmother and her incredible strength.  i think about how she spent her life as the wife of a first son, how she married off her husband’s brothers, how she raised six children — five girls, one boy — of her own.  i think about how she made sure all her daughters were educated because she hadn’t been.  i think about how she sent her children away one-by-one to seoul so they could study and be more than farmers’ children, how her pride was that all her girls and her boy went to the best schools, the best universities in the nation, that they would live better lives than she did.  i think about how she spent fifteen years of her life caring for my grandfather after his accident, one that left him paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on her until he died.

i think about her love, and, sometimes, everything pales in comparison to that.

i think about my maternal grandmother, too, a woman with an incredible voice who should have gone on to study music and train her gift, who had that life taken from her because of war.  i think about how she married a man who left her and her four children behind to start building them a life in america, and i think about how she brought her children to the states, lived her life as the wife of a conservative pastor, moving from city to city, congregation to congregation, forever in service to others.  i think about how she never learned english, never learned to drive, never lived an independent life of her own, and i think about how she died, lung cancer, detected too late, the symptoms lost in church drama and religious bullshit.

i think about my mother bearing the burdens of her family, even though they always took her for granted.  i think about her watching over her two younger siblings as her parents served their congregations, living under the shadow of her older brother, the prized son with a brilliant mind who would always be preferred over her.  i think about my mother caring for her mother as she died, and i think about my mother caring for my paternal grandmother, her mother-in-law, as she was dying from alzheimer’s, how she would wash her, feed her, talk to her, when she could have said, no, let’s put her in a home, this is too much for me.

and this to me is what it is to be korean and why all of this hurts so fucking much.  this is a culture, a heritage i fiercely love and am so incredibly proud of, shit and all, and it is a culture of strong, remarkable, resilient women who have carried their men and borne all their shit.  the rule to live by is never piss off a korean woman because she protects her own — she will go to her grave protecting her own — but, sometimes, it’s true that that protection, that love, is misguided and driven by these phobias so entrenched into korean culture, that the fall-out, the damage is catastrophic.

and we are the ones broken by it.

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how easy it was, she thought unhappily, for men and women.  they could stand in a street and argue, flirt — they could kiss, make love, do anything at all — and the world indulged them.  whereas she and julia — (the night watch, 126)

nan, sue, maud, frances, margaret, selina, kay, helen, julia — they’re just women … but what does that mean?

women sometimes seem like strange creatures to me, and i say this as a woman, recognizing that i am a weird, contradictory, intense being, filled with thirst and desire and passion.  i don’t feel things simply, or maybe sometimes i do, it’s just that i feel them deeply, all the way into my bones, down into my marrow.  maybe it’s the obsessive part of me, the part that doesn’t let go once i’ve latched on, the part of me that’s filled with wonder and curiosity and want, and maybe it’s just me — but, then again, if there’s something i’ve learned, it’s that we’re not all that unique, that there are people, women, out there in the world who are like us, however you define “us.”

maybe, though, there is something about women that makes us a mystery, that makes us so apparently unknowable — i mean, there must be a reason we’re constantly dismissed and reduced down to feelings and emotions, like it’s so unimaginable that we are thinking, intelligent beings — but, whatever it is, i think we recognize each other, just like i recognize the women in these novels.

they’re women who want to get out of their present circumstances, who want more liberty and freedom and rights, and they’re women who carry secrets and fears, remove themselves to the outskirts of society to live their “alternative” lives.  some of them are women who thrived during the war then found themselves empty in a post-war world that reverted back to its gendered constraints, and some of them simply want the space to breathe, to be free of their gilded cages and societal expectations.

and all they want is so simple, though the world, the people around them don’t recognize it as such.

‘what a fight you’ve always made of everything, frances.  and all i ever wanted for you were such ordinary things:  a husband, a home, a family of your own.  such ordinary, ordinary things.’  (the paying guests, mrs. wray, 540)

which is crazy to think about because the things they want are such ordinary things:  the freedom to love who they love, to have families with the people they love, to live these banal, ordinary lives like every other banal, ordinary person out there.  apparently, that is too much to ask for.

‘i wish — i wish the world was different.  why can’t it be different?  i hate having to sneak and —‘ she waited, while a woman and a man went silently by, arm in arm.  she lowered her voice still further.  ‘i hate having to sneak and slink so grubbily about.  if we could only be married, something like that.’

kay blinked and looked away.  it was one of the tragedies of her life, that she couldn’t be like a man to helen — make her a wife, give her children … (the night watch, 338)


i start out conceptualizing these posts, and, sometimes, they turn out as i expected, and, other times, they’re a surprise, the tangents i go on.  there’s a lot more i could say about sarah waters, and i’d originally planned on laying this post out in a more straightforward manner, writing about each book individually and doing a general recap at the end — best-laid plans, though, eh?

i’ve never thought of myself as much of a straightforward book reviewer, though; i’m not particularly good at it; nor is it something i enjoy because i’m much more interested in the way things intersect, in how books reflect the world and add to the conversation, whatever that conversation is.  i’m interested in how the things i’m passionate about intersect because, like i said, nothing exists in a vacuum.  my trinity seems to be books, food, and korean culture, and i’m still trying to figure out what that looks like and how to integrate them more seamlessly.  needless to say, this whole blog is an ongoing experiment.

going back to sarah waters, though:  much of the pleasure of reading sarah waters was entirely visceral.  i loved being in her characters’ heads, and i loved her characters, these vibrant women who wanted to love and live, struggling within the limits placed on them by a society that didn’t really think of them at all until they had to and then dismissed them as unnatural.  i absolutely loved how she captured the act of falling in love, that rush and exhilaration, how we want such simple, ordinary things, but how, sometimes, that feels like chasing a dream.

and, like i said, there’s so much more i could say about sarah waters, but i suppose these are the things that really stood out to me and resonated with me this time around, given this moment in my life when i’ve been dealing with a lot of uncertainty.  i recently walked away from faith and have been struggling with it more than i thought — when you’ve grown up with religion your whole life, when you walk away, it’s like the foundation of your life falling out from under your feet.  and, then, when it comes paired with new realizations about yourself, with desire and want, not just for a human being but for the simple, ordinary things in life, it feels like standing amongst the wreckage that was everything you used to know and having no idea how to rebuild because you’re grasping at air and dust.

which is why i keep coming back to religion and heteronormativity and womanhood because waters’ novels did add to some of the intense sadnesses that have been weighing on me, the reality that these same-sex issues, women’s rights’ issues are not things of the past but issues that are still under threat today.  we still have politicians trying to take away women’s reproductive rights, women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, and we still have church leaders, people, whatever threatening the civil rights and the lives of same-sex people, same-sex couples.  we can’t take any of the rights we currently have for granted and pretend like we live in a equal world, no more than we can pretend we live in a “post-racial” world.

and this loops around to the point i was trying to make in my earlier post — that we do not exist in a bubble.  we exist in this world, and that, essentially, is what i loved so much about sarah waters and her novels — that she sees this world and recognizes the wrongness, the fucked-up-ness, but, yet, even in all that, she shows us that there is still hope, there is still love.


she will laugh.  the sound is as strange, at briar, as i imagine it must be in a prison or a church.  sometimes, she will sing.  once we talk of dancing.  she rises and lifts her skirt, to show me a step.  then she pulls me to my feet, and turns and turns me; and i feel, where she presses against me, the quickening beat of her heart — i feel it pass from her to me and become mine.  (fingersmith, 231)
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i do actually make and eat the food i post.  or maybe scarf it is the more accurate term, given that i hop around, eating as quickly as i can (or dumping food onto another plate and then eating it later, for the sake of full disclosure), so i can get my photographs before the light changes.

and not to toot my own horn too much, but i do make a damn good carbonara.

thanks for reading!  as always, all content has been conceptualized, created, and edited by me.

krys lee + krys lee & barbara demick!

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2016 august 04 at greenlight!

what a delight!  krys lee (who is promoting her new novel, how i became a north korean [viking, 2016]) speaks thoughtfully and carefully, and you can feel the love she has for fiction, for stories, for north korean refugees.  it was an absolute pleasure to hear her read and in conversation.

lee described independent bookstores as "these curated spaces for discovering work -- i suppose, for discovering worlds."  she was in conversation with jessie chaffee.


re:  the seed of this novel

  • i'm a big believer of stories or plays choosing you.  you don't really end up choosing your material.  i didn't actually start out writing this novel -- i was very hesitant taking stories from north koreans, and i would try to urge friends of mine to write fiction, but they kept saying, "no, i want to go to seminary school."
  • i was working on a novel about LA and the LA riots there.  i thought this was my present novel, but, as it turned out, it wasn't.
  • i was responding in some ways to helplessness and anger and wanting to tell a human story.  i live in seoul, but many of the novels that were coming out there about north korea would be like, the parents would die or someone would die, and five minutes later, the girl would be like, "i want to be a movie star," like she didn't have the capacity to mourn for them.

re:  the three voices

  • i first tried to write the novel from the non-north korean voice.  it intrigued me because a lot of the research already confirmed, in some ways, what i'd already know -- i'm certainly not an expert, but i had a lot of friends in the border area.  what i'd learned is the chinese-korean kids were very useful for the north korean kids who crossed the border because they were protection in some way.
  • in some ways, danny was also a witness, and he was sort of me -- a smarter me.
  • i found i had to abandon the single perspective because i found that i couldn't tell the story i wanted with it.

re:  the research process

  • because i had worked briefly in the border area and on a kind of intense level, that helped me understand the situation.  that world was present for me, and south korea -- i live there, and i have many very close north korean [friends].
  • as i did the reading -- some of my friends have written the books -- a lot of that confirmed what i already knew about the area.  i'm discovering that -- i'm working on my third novel right now, and it takes place in a totally made-up world, and i'm discovering that's far more difficult because it doesn't exist.

re:  solitude and love

  • i recall gabriel marquez saying something like, he kept trying to write about different subjects, but he kept finding himself coming back to solitude.  and i think that's true about fiction.  i think i'm writing about something else, about someone else, and i'll find my common themes.
  • the companion to solitude is always love.  i define love as great fear.  when you love someone, you have the fear of losing someone.  and that's the way i imagine this novel -- that the fear of love is a condition of solitude.  my characters in different ways seek love or run from it.  unfortunately, love, solitude, and violence seem to be my trilogy.

re:  the multitudes of people we carry

  • it's almost a trope -- we are multiple selves, right? -- but i think especially in the context of national borders, identity is often something that one doesn't become aware of until you leave the country and people remind you of who you are or what you are.  that defines a sort of political identity and the rights that are provided you and the rights that are denied you because of it.
  • all these things play out in the border area because of an identity.
  • if you grow up in a place with multiple selves like america, you embrace the self and you're uneasy with the self because what is the self?
  • even my own writing career changes depending on what people decide my identity is.

re:  process

  • when you're translating, language becomes strange to you again.  the article is highlighted in a way.
  • some people are really great at discipline.  i am the most undisciplined of people who will do anything to create routine.  i'm not a great believer in discipline, but i'm a great believer in pleasure.  [i.e. the idea of working hard to continue to chase that thing that gives pleasure]
  • my routine is almost not a routine but is a kind of relentless endeavor to find whatever works that week, that day.

Q&A

  • the novel was so hard for me because there was the burden of telling the truth but also the burden of it being fiction.
  • i'm very uncomfortable being the representative of anything.  that's why i write fiction.
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2016 august 08 at AAWW!  in conversation with barbara demick (who wrote the amazing, incredible nothing to envy -- read it!) and sukjong hong.


re:  storytelling and using multiple voices

  • barbara demick:  in my case, since i was working with non-fiction, i wanted to have multiple voices because there's always a lot of suspicion with north korean defectors because you're not sure if what they're telling you is true.  so, by picking six people from one town, i was more or less able to cross-check what they were saying.  in addition, of the six people in my book, there were two couples -- a boyfriend and girlfriend and a mother and daughter -- and i interviewed them separately, and i had this heavy burden to make sure it was true.  i'm a journalist.  these six people -- i mean, i believe them beyond a shadow of a doubt because their stories meshed so neatly.
  • BD:  in terms of how i picked the six -- they were people i liked and who liked me because it required an enormous amount of time to interview them.  and i was doing this [as a journalist so] i couldn't pay them anything*.  i could give them gifts.
    • * it's common for subjects to be paid in korea/japan.
  • BD:  they were also good storytellers.  this dr. kim** -- she told me the story about her crossing the river and seeing the rice on the patio floor and realizing that was for the dog -- she told her stories in ways that were very compelling.  i found, in general, the ones who were well-educated couldn't tell stories; i don't know why that is.
    • ** demick read an excerpt from nothing to envy about a woman named dr. kim and her crossing of the tumen into china.
  • BD:  i picked people who are not activists.  most of them were like dr. kim -- they came across kind of accidentally.  they didn't mean to escape.  most of them were pretty loyal to the regime.
  • krys lee:  the great thing about fiction is that you have a lot more license in some ways.  i love all forms of writing, but my impulse is always toward poetry or fiction -- my first loves.  what drives me aren't things i can find out through research but the mystery, the endless question of the woman who didn't cross -- that's kind of the impulse towards the fiction and the stories.
  • KL:  there was a story i wrote in drifting house that was about the famine, and, then, at a certain point -- i had never planned to write this book until a north korean friend of mine came to me with five years worth of diaries and said, "please put these in a story."  i didn't end up doing that [but i began to realize that this was something i could do***].
    • *** this is a terrible paraphrase, sorry.
  • KL:  the characters themselves -- one of my characters is a chinese-korean who grows up in america and comes back [to china].  he was important to me because i'd read about these homeless chinese-korean orphans who become like a buffer [for the north koreans; the chinese-korean kids have status and speak both languages and act as a shield].
  • KL:  i love strong struggling women who have no help but themselves.
  • KL:  i also wanted danny [the chinese-korean teenager] there as a witness who knew more than they [the refugees] did in some ways about the global perceptions of north korea and the church community that hurts and helps north koreans.

re:  the project of writing about north korea

  • BD:  this is really a problem when you're doing nonfiction because you're not supposed to make up or change things.  it was a struggle.  it was easier in my book because the subtitle is "ordinary lives" and the people were ordinary.
  • BD:  i interviewed a family of defectors who had stolen a boat and come to south korea, and i spent quite a lot of time with them.  but then they freaked out because they would have been too recognizable.  [it was well within my journalistic right to publish, but] i pulled the story because i realized their relatives at home would have been penalized.  if they [refugees] speak to foreign media, the relatives back home will be penalized.
  • KL:  that's true.  they'll often change things [not to be deceptive] but because they know it'll affect their relatives back home.
  • KL:  the ethical dilemma would be really the missionary culture for me, the aid workers.  there are some very good people who help north koreans who are religious -- most of the people who are helping north koreans on the NGO level or on the activism level are christian.  [...]  whether you're a political leader or a religious leader, you are going to be an individual first.****
    • **** essentially, lee was trying to make the point that they have individual concerns, and, sometimes, those individual concerns must be met first.  she even said, "for them, it's a business."  like, there is the interest between getting refugees out and then there's essentially holding onto them and receiving whatever subsidies they receive because these missionaries/workers also have families to feed.

re:  borders and identity and belonging

  • BD:  i think the thing i found most interesting was their reactions to china.  every north korean i met had this great, almost epiphany when they came to china.
  • BD:  that's the tragedy of north korea.  it's in the middle of these economic miracles, but north koreans are just stuck there in this black hole [on] the wrong side of the border.
  • KL:  borders have always been interesting to me.  it's this idea of home and belonging and citizenship -- where you belong, you lets you in, who keeps you out are the things i've always been interested in.  identity, political identities, personal identities -- when you live in a country and never leave that country, you might not interrogate yourself as much.  to leave suddenly defines the place you are and the place you left.
  • KL:  this idea of becoming north korean -- that, when these people leave they are -- all sorts of things that happen to them because of their nationality.  and, when they cross into south korea, they start to change their identities and their names [to more south korean names], but, once they open their mouths, they're suddenly [made] aware that they're north korean.
  • KL:  this identity that's imposed on us -- that i think, again, happens to may of us -- but it's something that we struggle with, that north koreans struggle with.

Q&As

re:  preventing spectacle

  • BD:  i think the point of reporting is to get people to empathize with people whose names they might not be able to pronounce.  you're supposed to see yourself in them.  and i've seen that in some of the better reporting about the refugees in syria as well.
  • KL:  when you think of north koreans not as capital-north koreans but as human beings, as individuals, when you become involved in the individual story, it no longer becomes a spectacle.  it's about a human life; it's about the dignity of honoring that human life.  i don't think it was a problem, but i think the problem with fiction is that you're honoring it so much that you're handling it with gloves.
  • BD:  i think it's especially important when it comes to north korea because they're painted as these robotic figures -- all these asian stereotypes are applied freely to north korea.  i think it's very important to humanize them, to show their personal side.

re:  maintaining relationships

  • BD:  i'm in touch with all the people in my book, and, when i go to seoul, i see a couple of them.
  • KL:  most of my friendships with north koreans -- some of them have been long over ten years, and some are more recent friends.  i would say that's the most rewarding part of any friendship; it's over time that [you see them change and grow].
  • KL:  there's a lot of communities [of/for north koreans] everywhere, but that doesn't mean they form bonds.

re:  what we can do on the ground level

  • KL:  when they first come to korea, they don't understand the language because there's so much english everywhere.  they don't understand the signage.
    • [there are many refugees who go abroad to learn and find themselves stuck because they've learned all the wrong things.  there are groups that provide tutoring and language help that we can get involved with.]
  • KL:  [as for monetary donations] NGOs i like and trust would be justice for north korea and citizens alliance.  if you're looking for a religious group that does good work, there's helping hands.  from my experience, these are the people i trust.

re:  writing as political

  • KL:  as a fiction writer, all language is political.  all stories are political.  it's nearly impossible to avoid revealing your worldview.  and our worldview is very much shaped by the societies we live in.  and i don't think that's a totally terrible thing.
  • KL:  sometimes, i think, in writing fiction, you discover what you believe in and what your characters believe in.  after i finish a book, i am no longer the same person.  that books has changed me and hopefully made me a better person in some ways and made me see the world in different ways.  it's a reward that really can't be measured in some ways.
  • KL:  we are all creatures negotiating our societies.

3 books.

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there are books, and then there are books, and that isn’t meant to imply that one is better than or superior to the other.  when i say books vs. books, i mean that there are books we read and move on from and there are books that impact us in one way or another.  there are books we finish and shelve, and there are books we keep coming back to, carry around with us, return to time and time again.  there are books that stick with us, that leave us with a sense of urgency, maybe a deeper awareness of something in the world.  there are books that make our hearts race, that we immediately run into the world waving in the air and telling everyone about.

maybe to add to that, i find it disingenuous to pretend that books — that art in general — doesn’t exist within the world, that they can be (and, sometimes, ought to be) more than entertainment or escapism.  books are oftentimes vehicles through which we, whether as writers or readers, try to make sense of the world, and the books that succeed in this are those that don’t moralize or directly take on a message.  they’re the books that don’t forget that they are books, this is fiction, and they are here to tell stories about people and that these stories, these people, in turn, tell a greater story about the state of the world.

so, here are three books i found hugely impactful, that i would recommend.  trigger warning for depression/suicide, homophobia/religion, and rape.

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miriam toews, all my puny sorrows (mcsweeney's, 2015)

you can’t flagrantly march around the fronts of churches waving your arms in the air and scaring people with threats and accusations just because your family was slaughtered in russia and you were forced to run and hide in a pile of manure when you were little.  what you do at the pulpit would be considered lunatic behavior on the street.  you can’t go around terrorizing people and making them feel small and shitty and then call them evil when they destroy themselves.  you will never walk down a street and feel a lightness come over you.  you will never fly.  (toews, 178)

all my puny sorrows only came into my possession because i subscribed to a month of my book hunter, an online book community where subscribers are mailed an unknown book a month.  this happened to be the title chosen the month i subscribed, and i started reading it completely blind because, apparently, synopses on book flaps or on the backs of books are not things i read and retain.  (i don’t know why that is; the same thing happened with janice y.k. lee’s the expatriates, though to significantly less successful results.  if i’d actually paid attention to the book flap, i likely wouldn’t have picked it up — so maybe my inability to read and retain works to books’ advantage.)

i was so drawn to yoli’s voice in all my puny sorrows, though, that i kept reading even after i figured out that this was a book about two sisters — the narrator, yoli, is an “ordinary” woman, her sister, elf, a brilliant pianist who is severely depressed and suicidal.  maybe it’s important to note that this is not a book i would normally read — depression and suicide are intensely personal topics to me, so much so that one of my rules is that i actively avoid books about depression and suicide, specifically those written by people who have lost people to depression/suicide.  this actually has little to do with triggers and mostly to do with stigma, shame, and power, and i’ve touched on it briefly on instagram.

there was something about yoli’s voice that just kept me reading, even if i were reading with a whole lot of wariness, ready to set the book down and walk away at any moment.  there was something about her, about elf, about them together, that i felt so intensely connected to, something so genuine and real and alive.  toews doesn’t romanticize or glorify depression/suicide, and neither does she judge, condemn, or dismiss it but rather tackles it head-on in all its complexity and brokenness and pain.  she’s not here to make nice with this novel, whether about mental illness or about the health care system or about people’s right to make end-of-life decisions, and, most importantly, she’s not here to bullshit anyone about the realities of what it’s like to love someone who’s depressed and suicidal.

maybe it’s worth explaining (if it isn’t clear already) that i have struggled with severe depression.  it’s the obvious reason why i’m so invested in starting open, frank, safe dialogues about depression/suicide specifically and mental health generally, and it’s why i’m on my eighth year of working on a collection of interrelated short stories about suicide.  it’s why writing this is so fucking terrifying but why i’m doing it anyway.

it’s also why i loved all my puny sorrows so intensely.


i heard our mother speaking in her calm but lethal voice outside elf’s door.  she was telling the nurse that elf hadn’t seen a doctor in days.  the nurse told my mom the doctor was very busy.  my mom told the nurse what she had told me the night before, that elf was a human being.  the nurse wasn’t janice.  my mom was asking where janice was.  the nurse who was not janice was telling my mom that she agreed with her, elf was a human being, but that she was also a patient in the hospital and was expected to cooperate.  why? asked my mother.  what does cooperation have to do with her getting well?  is cooperation even a symptom of mental health or just something you need from the patients to be able to control every last damn person here with medication and browbeating?  she’ll eat when she feels like eating.  like you, like me, not when we’re told to eat.  and if she doesn’t want to talk, so what?  (toews, 208-9)

there is no answer to the question “why?”

maybe it’s more accurate to say that there is no answer that can satisfy the asker, and there is no answer that can encompass the depth of pain and fear and conviction that delivers someone to the point of suicide.

all there can be is an attempt at understanding, an attempt at sympathy where empathy cannot be accessed, an attempt at generosity of spirit.  all there can be are love and acceptance, even in grief and anger and confusion.  it’s a shitty answer, but that’s the best there is — that this person you loved suffered from such pain and anguish that the best thing s/he thought s/he could do is die.  to that person, there is simply no other way out, no hope in sight — and, when i read all my puny sorrows, i thought, “goddamn.  here is someone who gets that.”


we sat in a café called saving grace on dundas and ordered eggs.  she told me that she’s been worrying about me so much, it must be awful, everything i’ve been going through, and that in her opinion ‘to die by one’s own hand’ is always a sin.  always.  because of the suffering it causes the survivors.  i asked her what about all the people who suffer because of assholes who are alive?  is it a sin for the assholes to keep on living?

okay, she said, but we’re here on this earth, and even if we didn’t choose to be, we inherit all kinds of duties, to the people who raise us and to the people who love us.  i mean, everyone has personal agonies, sure, but to die by one’s own hand, ironically enough, even though it’s an act of self-annihilation, seems to me the ultimate act of vanity.  it’s just so incredibly selfish.

can you please stop saying to die by one’s own hand? i asked.  well, what should i say? she said.

suicide!  when someone’s murdered, do you explain it as, oh, he died by the hand of another?  this isn’t the freaking count of monte cristo.

i just thought it was more delicate, she said.

and also, i said, selfish?  how could it be selfish?  unless you’ve seen the agony first-hand you can’t really pass judgment.

okay, she said, but if your sister had been thinking of how it would affect you when she —

AFFECT ME? i said.  i’m sorry.  people were looking at me.  listen, i said, i don’t think you understand.  i don’t want to be presumptuous, but really how could you understand what another person’s suicide means?  (toews, 273)


this is ending up a lot more personal than i anticipated.

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chinelo okparanta, under the udala trees (hmh, 2015)

i was raised religious (conservative christian, specifically non-denominational/presbyterian), and, until last year when i had a major break with faith, religion was a huge part of my life.  for years, though, over a decade now, i struggled with how to reconcile what i believed (or what i was supposed to believe) with two specific issues:  abortion and same-sex marriage.  was it possible to believe in god and subscribe to these religious tenets while also upholding a belief in the firm separation of church and state?  was it discrimination, or was it religious conviction?  what did it mean to “hate the sin but love the sinner,” and was that even possible when “acceptance” meant demanding that queer people repress or deny an essential part of themselves and cloak it in shame?

(for the record, i do believe in the firm separation of church and state, in equal rights regardless of sexuality/sexual orientation, in women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies.  i do believe it’s discrimination and bigotry.  i also stand by planned parenthood.  and i have zero — and i mean zero — tolerance for shaming.)

my break with faith actually had nothing to do with sexuality (that would come later), but, when i read under the udala trees, i found quite a lot of it very familiar — the homophobia, the religious shaming, the idea of “we must pray the devil out of you.”  that last one in particular drives me crazy because it’s also a common church response to depression/suicidal thinking — pray harder; spend more time in the word; you feel like this because your faith is weak.  it’s total fucking bullshit.

okparanta knows her religion, and she knows how it operates, how that mentality works.  the novel follows ijeoma as she comes of age in civil-war nigeria, and, when she’s sent away from home to work as a servant for a schoolteacher and his wife, she falls for a girl.  they’re caught by the schoolteacher, and ijeoma is taken back home where her mother begins to work on her soul.  that means hours spent praying and reading the bible, which leads to a gem like this:

the father and the levite went on to bargain over a price for the damsel, and the damsel was forced to return with the levite.  on their way back to his home, they passed the town of gibeah, where most of the citizens were up to no good.  one of the noble townspeople, in order to protect the travelers, offered them shelter at his home.  but before the night was over, the other men of the city showed up at the kind man’s door and demanded to rape the levite.  the kind man pleaded with his fellow townspeople, even offering up his own daughter to be raped instead.

rather than offer up himself to the townsmen, the levite offered up the damsel to be raped.  the men of the town defiled her all throughout he night before finally letting her go.  when they were done, she collapsed in front of the door.  in the morning the levite came out, prodding her to get up so that they could be on their way.  she did not respond.  annoyed, he threw her over his donkey and took her with him that way.  back at home he cut her into pieces, limb by limb, which he then sent out to all the territories of israel.

[…]

“what is there not to understand?” [mama] said.  “do you not see why the men offered up the women instead of the man?”

i said, “no, i don’t see why.”

after a moment i realized that i did know why.  the reason was suddenly obvious to me.  i said, “actually, mama, yes, i do see why.  the men offered up the women because they were cowards and the worst kind of men possible.  what kind of men offer up their daughters and wives to be raped in place of themselves?”  (okparanta, 79-80)

the point here is not whether this is biblically accurate or not; that’s not relevant.  the point here is the way people use and manipulate religion to enforce shame — and misogyny.  (the two so often seem to come hand-in-hand.)

because then there’s this:

why was it that i could not love chibundu the way that i loved amina and ndidi?  why was it that i could not love a man?  these days, i’ve heard it said that the gender of your first love determines the gender of all your future loves.  perhaps this was true for me.  but back then, it was not a thing i ever heard.  all i knew is that moment was that there was a real possibility of god punishing me for the nature of my love.  my mind went back to the bible.  because if people like mama and the grammar school teacher were right, then the bible was all the proof i needed to know that god would surely punish me.  (okparanta, 228-9)

which is put in place by years of being told this:

“marriage has a shape.  its shape is that of a bicycle.  doesn’t matter the size or color of the bicycle.  all that matters is that the bicycle is complete, that the bicycle has two wheels.

“the man is one wheel,” [mama] continued, “the woman the other.  one wheel must come before the other, and the other wheel has no choice but to follow.  what is certain, though, is that neither wheel is able to function fully without the other.  and what use is it to exist in the world as a partially functioning human being?”

under her breath, she said, “a woman without a man is hardly a woman at all.”  (okparanta, 182)

do i need to explain why this is problematic?


a few weeks ago, i was in california with family.  we were driving down from oregon back to the bay area when the topic of same-sex marriage came up, and, at one point, someone said that i likely identify with the queer community because i grew up feeling so intensely Othered myself because of my weight.

body dysmorphia and body shaming (and korean-ness and rage) are things that i will explore in the future, and, in my head, i couldn’t disagree — that is one contributing factor, reductive and dismissive though the comment was.  i have always been sympathetic to the Other, which, sometimes, i think is unavoidable, being a woman of color, but the thing is that the Other, that Othering, is not just a theory or an academic point of interest.  it’s a very real-life thing that affects real-life people, oftentimes in very violent, very tragic ways.  people are persecuted for it; people lose their lives because of it; people take their lives because of it.

that’s why i resist such [hetero]normative views like those quoted above.  i can’t help but see the danger in such pervasive, rigid normativity, especially when it’s enforced by religion, especially because it leads to fear — name your phobia, your -ism — to hatred and intolerance, to repression and shame and self-loathing.  because, yes, i have been there, i am there, i carry those scars, that damage — i know what normativity does, so i don’t know where else to be, if not with the Other.


under the udala trees did leave me with a sense of hope — or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a hopeless hopefulness — because ijeoma does find her way out.  then, in the note at the end, okparanta writes that the president of nigeria passed a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships … in 2014.  and we’re only a month away from the horrific shooting at a gay club in orlando.

and yet we have books like this by a woman of color being published by one of the big 5.  we have trans actresses on big television shows with prominent presence in the media.  we have sulu in star trek in a same-sex relationship.  maybe they’re small things in the big picture, but they’re not nothing.

in this world we live in, they can’t be nothing.

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krys lee, how i became a north korean (viking, 2016)

i confess to being peeved by general media reportage or the general [western] mass attitude regarding north korea.  i tend to find a lot of it sensationalistic, reductive, and dismissive — insensitive, even, forgetting that there are real human lives involved.  we like to impose our “enlightened,” western perspectives on north korea, and that’s something that peeves me about how the west views the east in general, this egocentric inability to see outside the western model and this tendency to act like all cultures exist according to the same worldview — and that, if they don’t, they should.  globalization does not, should not equal westernization.

what does that have to do with this novel?  nothing, really.

around four years ago, i started reading about north korea.  i read everything from memoirs by refugees, historical books, political studies, etcetera etcetera etcetera, and I’ve attended talks and readings by refugees, by people on the UN human rights council, journalists — i’m very invested in learning as much as i can about this country, this other half of my ethnic origin, and i’ve wondered about this curiosity about mine.  is it because i’m korean?  is it because i’m korean-american; is it because i’m distanced from korea that i find the narrative of a divided korea so compelling?

i don’t know what it is, but i still love the way suki kim put it in her book, without you, there is no us (crown, 2014): 

the korean war lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated.  it never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with koreas on both sides of the 38th parallel.  historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no korean considers it forgotten.  theirs is not a culture of forgetting.  the war is everywhere in today’s koreas.

there is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war.  decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from north korea via japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the korean central intelligence agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left south korea for good and died in st. antonio, texas.  the girls were never heard from again.  and there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by north korean soldiers at the start of the war, in june 1950.  he was never seen again.  he might or might not have been taken to pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.

stories such as these abound in south korea, and probably north korea, if its people were allowed to tell them.  separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident.  it is a perpetual act of violation.  you know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them.  it could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border.  it could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life.  it could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night.  from seoul, pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch.  decades of such longing sicken a nation.  the loss is remembered, and remember, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together.  for those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering.  (kim, 11-2)

maybe that explains it, maybe it doesn’t.  whatever it is, if anyone’s interested, my favorite non-fiction book about north korea is still barbara demick’s nothing to envy (spiegel & grau, 2010).


i first read krys lee in 2014, and i was blown away by her short story collection, drifting house (viking, 2012).  (i wrote about it here and here.)  there’s this delicious thread of unease that runs through her stories, and she’s one of few korean-american writers who is able to have one foot in korea and one foot in america, straddling that divide between korean culture and korean-american culture with ease, which isn’t an easy thing to do, mind you.  i’ve been looking forward to her novel ever since and am so, so excited that it’s out.

how i became a north korean follows three narrators — two north korean refugees (yongju and jangmi) and one korean-american kid (danny).  danny is sent to china to meet his mother, who is there to do missionary work, but he runs away to a border city where he meets yongju, and the three characters ultimately come together in a “home” operated by a missionary group.  the missionary promises to smuggle them out of china but holds onto them until danny takes matters into his own hands — and maybe it all sounds preposterous and unrealistic, but it doesn’t either, given what we know about what north korean refugees go through, how dependent they are on strangers, how they’re exploited, held in constant fear of repatriation, treated like they aren’t even human because they lack status.  

i think it’s worth noting that lee actually works with refugees, so this isn’t a novel that comes out of nowhere.  it doesn’t come out of mere fascination or interest or curiosity, and it’s not one of those heavily-researched novels that read like heavily-researched novels.  lee brings depth and respect and understanding to these characters and their stories, and i’m not saying that people have to have first-hand experience interacting with the people or cultures they write about — but then again, you know, maybe they should.  the angry asian-american in me is sick of white people writing about asia in half-assed manners and winning prizes for it.


i often think about borders.  it's hard not to.  there were the guatemalans and mexicans i read about in the paper who died of dehydration while trying to cross into america.  or later, the syrians fleeing war and flooding into turkey.  arizona had the nerve to ban books by latino writers when only a few hundred years ago arizona was actually mexico.  or the sheer existence of passports, twentieth-century creations that decide who gets to stay and leave.  (lee, 60)

i’ve said this before, but how i became a north korean is a brilliant indictment of everyone — and i mean everyone — in the exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment of north koreans.  it doesn’t matter whether it’s a missionary, a broker, china, a magazine, a journalist, a random citizen like you and me — we’re all guilty.  we’re all guilty of simply consuming sensationalist stories, of trying to profit off the lives of refugees, of trying to profit off their stories, of using them for spiritual self-elevation, of thinking we have any right to satirize so thoughtlessly a regime that abuses its own people.  we’re all complicit, and we’re all guilty.

lee delivers this indictment without moralizing, without standing on a soapbox and getting preachy.  all she does is tell a story — or stories, i suppose — stories full of heart and life, stories of desperation, rage, and helplessness, and she brings you into these people’s fears and vulnerabilities and hardnesses, into all the hurt and pain they’ve learned to live with, have had to insulate themselves against.  i think it’s absolutely brilliant, what she’s done, and she does it powerfully in blank, naked prose.  she doesn’t judge her characters, just as she doesn’t try to make them “perfect” — she simply brings them to life on the page and asks you, please, to pay attention.

and i’m not trying to get preachy about it, either.  i know it’s impossible for us to care about every single issue and human rights violation out there; i would never expect that of anyone when surviving on a day-to-day basis is struggle enough.  however, like i said about art existing in the world, the truth is that we also exist in the world.  our actions, our inactions, our complacencies, our conveniences, our limitations — they don’t occur in vacuums.  i don’t think we should walk around carrying the burden of all the world’s ailments on our shoulders; they’re certainly not all ours to bear; but i do think it’s worth acknowledging that sometimes shit happens, shit continues to happen because, whether intentionally or not, we let it.


this is how it happened.  we fled in the brokers' footsteps.  we scattered into small dark spaces in the backs of buildings, trains, and buses, through the great mouth of china.  our feet made fresh tracks as we weaved through mountains and made unreliable allies of the moon and the night and the stars.  every shadow a soldier, a border guard, an opportunist.  each body of water reminded us of the first river, the river of dreams and death, where we saw the faces of people we knew and would never know frozen beneath it.  the children who had run and been caught and sent back.  the pregnant women repatriated to our country and thrown in jail, forced to run a hundred laps until they aborted.  the women who gave birth in the same jail and saw soldiers bash their new infants against a wall to save bullets.  the countless others whose peaceful lives ended when an enemy informed on them -- ours was one small story in all the other stories.  we stumbled across the jungles and deserts of southern asia, seeking safety and freedom.  we would look and look.  a few of us would find it.  (lee, 224)
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a few weeks ago, jord watches contacted me about a collaboration.  they sent me this watch (from their fieldcrest line), and i’ve worn it around for almost two months now.  i’m someone who wears a watch everyday and feels naked without one, and i’ve been enjoying this wood watch — it’s a unique piece that’s very light and doesn’t start feeling wet or bulkyeven in heat and humidity.  find more images here, here, and here, and check them out [link here] if you’re interested!

(tl;dr disclaimer:  watch was provided; review is my own.)

other miscellaneous info:  the coffee is my attempt at a mint mojito iced coffee, a la philz; it’s cold brew using beans (philtered soul) from philz (purchased myself in santa monica), brewed in a hario mizudashi cold brew pot (also purchased myself two years ago, used maybe twice, and stored in a cupboard until last week when i was like, wait, i have a cold brew pot; MAYBE I SHOULD USE IT), with half-and-half and mint, muddled in my glass with the end of a rolling pin.  the blue straw was stolen from blue bottle (^^), and the roll cake was baked myself because, like i mentioned in my previous post, i’m obsessed with baking asian sponge cake rolls.  i’ll probably bake another one tomorrow.

i purchased the books and wrote the above wall of words and took the photos myself.

thanks for reading!

korean/korean-american literature i recommend!

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when i say “korean/korean-american literature,” i don’t mean literature written by koreans/korean-americans strictly about koreans/korean-americans or about the korean/korean-american experience.  one of the things about life (and art) is that we aren’t restricted to “what we know,” that we are more than our ethnic or lingual identities, and this has been the really cool part of reading more from korean/korean-americans (“kor-/kor-am” from hereon out), that we write across a wide variety of topics in a wide variety of styles and voices and perspectives.

that might sound like an obvious thing, but [mainstream] publishing is not one that has been friendly to diversity — and, taking it further, to diversity within diversity.  it’s still the case that certain narratives are desired, that certain expectations and burdens are placed upon the shoulders of writers of color, that we’re expected to play within these lines and deliver stories that fit within the narratives shoved onto us, oftentimes immigrant narratives, narratives of hardship and racism and prejudice.

* also, if you haven’t read this fabulous essay by jenny zhang, you should.

it’s fun to see what writers of color are doing, the stories they’re telling, their obsessions and interests, the weird things that make them tick.  it’s also a relief to find a general understanding of intersectionality amongst writers of color, that we are not one thing but many things, that we are not only people of color but that we are also, i.e., queer people of color, that we are the sum of our parts.  it’s also fun to see how we don’t restrict ourselves only to narratives that involve “our experience;” like, i love that alexander chee wrote a massive novel about a french opera singer in the nineteenth-century.  all these things might sound like nothing but aren’t.

it’s also fun to see what’s making it into english translation from korea.  i’m thrilled that the korean government is finally investing in its literature and actively trying to get more korean literature into translation and to make it more visible throughout the world.  i was also so, so happy that the vegetarian recently won the man booker international prize, not only because it was written by a korean woman but also because it’s this weird, dark, korean novel that i’m also impressed and thrilled has picked up a lot of attention, even before the man booker win, in the book community.

and, so, here’s some book talk.

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mise en place is french for “everything in its place,” and i fully blame top chef for my current obsession with it.  (and for my current obsession with baking asian sponge cakes, no electric mixer involved.)

a big part of it is my love and appreciation for the aesthetics of order; there’s something so visually satisfying about having “everything in its place.”  another part is that it makes cooking a lot easier once everything has been chopped, measured, separated because all the mechanical labor is out of the way.  what any of this has to do with kor/kor-am literature is anyone’s guess.


i do sometimes question my strong interest in kor/kor-am literature (i think it’s worth examining our obsessions and gravitations from time-to-time).  i acknowledge that a significant part of it is informed by the fact that i am korean-american, that i am bilingual and bicultural, that i am consequently very interested in the gap and disconnect that often occurs between my korean and american sides.  naturally, i turn to literature to see how we, as this tangle of thinly-related groups, wrestle with and negotiate identity, and i’m interested in exploring that tension, seeing how others struggle with it, the various results of that struggle.

that, partly, is why i started making more deliberate attempts to read from kor/kor-am authors, though, to be honest, another incentive was guilt.  i’d always followed korean pop and cinema and television (and still do), but, a few years ago, i knew almost nothing about korean literature, which would give me twinges of shame because i have always loved books and yet had nothing to say when it came to korean literature because of my own ignorance.  once i started reading, though, from both korean and korean-american authors, i fell in love, enchanted by how richly and differently these authors saw the world and expressed themselves, and it’s what’s brought me here and keeps me diving deeper and wanting more and wanting to put these incredible books out there into the world as much as i can.

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i might live and breathe books, but i also think a lot about food.

it’s a mystery to my family where my love for food comes from, and they find it simultaneously amusing and distressing that i love it so and think about it constantly, what i want to eat for my next meal, what i want to cook, what i want to try baking.  (right now, i’m playing with the idea of breaking down a whole chicken, brining and searing the breasts, freezing the wings, frying the legs, and roasting the carcass to make broth.  i’ve roasted whole chickens before, but i haven’t broken one down yet, and i find the prospect so exciting, especially when the result is homemade broth.)

food is the thing i loved most about han kang’s the vegetarian — that all that unravelling begins to exhibit in yeong-hye’s sudden refusal to eat animals.  while meat isn’t a huge part of korean cuisine, korean food is not one i’ve necessarily thought of as vegetarian-friendly, despite people (usually not korean) trying to herald it as such; we use anchovy broth for our stews, beef broth for our soups, shrimp paste in our kimchi; and i don’t mean this to say that korean food can’t be made vegetarian, simply that, in its current form best known to me, it is not one that is inherently accessible to vegetarians, at least not in the ways people seem to assume.

which is a total tangent because the vegetarian is not a novel about vegetarianism — or even, food.  instead, han uses korean food culture to get to issues in korean culture overall, whether it be the patriarchy, conformity, the unit over the individual, and this is what i love so much about food culture in general, how much it absorbs so much of culture and reflects it back or subverts it and makes it into something else.

in this case, though, it’s the former, and han delivers a wallop of a criticism against patriarchal korean society.  (i should probably say i’m focusing mostly on the first part of the novel.)  not only is it narrated by yeong-hye’s husband (except for dream segments), thus placing her in position to someone else, but the fall-out from yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat is defined entirely in how it affects the men in her life, specifically her husband and her father.

her husband is angry because his wife is no longer performing her wifely duties by preparing him meals with meat and declining to have sex, and he’s shamed because her vegetarianism (really, veganism) sets her apart from everyone else.  when he takes her to dinner with his boss and coworkers and their wives, yeong-hye refuses to eat meat and sits there, silent and not eating, marking herself as willfully different and outside social norms as she refuses to bend even to social etiquette and social niceties.  that isolates her husband as well because his wife isn’t like other wives, which means that he’s also no longer welcome, because social norms and etiquette and niceties are the glue that holds korean society together.  it’s a conformist world, one driven by trends and sameness, the group over the individual, and yeong-hye’s refusal to participate in food culture places her outside that world.

her father is enraged, too, because he’s the patriarchal head of the family and should be obeyed.  if he tells his daughter to eat meat, she should eat meat, and he shouldn’t be shamed by the actions of a contrary daughter.  her failures to perform her wifely duties shame him as well; the best thing a daughter can be is a good wife; so yeong-hye is an embarrassment, ungrateful and rude — yeong-hye’s rejection of the oysters and food and black goat her family offers her is gravely rude and offensive; in korea, when someone senior to you offers you something, you take it, no questions asked.


it’s funny because what i love so much about korean food culture is everything that maybe runs against korean culture.  i love how the 밥상 can often represent a safe space for strangers and outsiders, for people to find refuge and forge and solidify new connections, to create family where blood does not flow.  i love the emotional significance of being invited to someone’s 밥상, of being given a place of your own, a rice bowl of your own, an invitation to share a meal (and very literally share a meal — korean food is communal, doesn’t come neatly plated) — and maybe this sounds romanticized and idealized, but, as someone who has taken part of this very culture, who has shared 밥상s with people and created them for people, it’s a very real, very precious thing to me.

that’s likely why the first part of the vegetarian had the strongest impact on me (and why it’s the only part i’m really discussing here).  like i said, han uses korean food culture to point at ugly aspects of korean culture overall, namely the intense patriarchy, the casual acceptance of violence, the extent to which any kind of individualism or any kind of deviation from the norm is shunned.  korea is still a xenophobic, homophobic country, obsessed with academic excellence, a single standard of beauty, and, sometimes, i wonder at the kind of fear that keeps koreans so compliant to this social conformity, that keeps them working themselves to death since childhood to get into SKY, get that job at samsung, get that face, that apartment, that family, that lifestyle.

and so, underneath it all, underneath the extreme reactions to yeong-hye’s vegetarianism lies that fear.  it’s a fear of the unknown, of the different, of someone’s rejection of the norm and the accepted and expected.  it still boggles my mind that people fear (and hate) difference so much, to the point that they will ruthlessly, deliberately murder people because of it, because they so fear any disruption of the so-called norm, of the status quo — i will simply never understand this insane fear.  like, what makes you, the [hetero]normative majority so great that you feel everyone must fit into your single goddamn mold?

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here are 13 recommendations for books by korean/korean-american authors in alphabetical order by last name (korean names are formatted the korean way, family name first):

  1. choe yun, there a petal silently falls (columbia university press, 2008) [link]
  2. susan choi,  my education (viking, 2014) [link]
  3. catherine chung,  forgotten country (riverhead, 2012) [link] [2]
  4. han kang, human acts (portobello, 2015) [link] [2]
  5. jung eun-jin, no one writes back (dalkey archive press, 2013) [link] [2]
  6. lady hyegyong, the memoirs of lady hyegyong (university of california press, 2013)
  7. chang-rae lee, a gesture life (riverhead, 2000) [link]
  8. krys lee, how i became a north korean (viking, 2016) [link]
  9. park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess (dalkey archive press, 2014) [link]
  10. patricia park, re jane (pamela dorman books, 2015) [link]
  11. shin kyung-sook, i’ll be right there (unnamed press, 2014) [link]
  12. unknown, the story of hong gildong (penguin classics, 2016) [link]
  13. jung yun, shelter (picador, 2015) [link]

why these thirteen?  what were the criteria?  how did i select them?  is it terrible if i admit that i chose them a little arbitrarily?  and that there’s also kind of a cheat in there because i haven’t actually finished reading the memoirs of lady hyegyong yet?

reading is an intellectual act, but it’s also a visceral and emotional act.  (it’s also, partly, a visual experience.)  we respond to different things, connect with different characters, identify with different conflicts and struggles, and these are simply books that have resonated with me for one reason or another.  some of them also have what i call staying power, books that have stayed with me since i read them, even if i might not have felt super strongly or positively about them after i’d initially read them.

the one rule i did follow is that i only allowed one title per author*, and i did try to provide titles by an equal number of korean authors and korean-american authors.  if i reviewed or wrote about a title, whether via instagram or on this site, i linked them as well because i’m not going to go into in-depth reviews here.

this is not a comprehensive list by any means, and it is entirely 100% subjective.  however, i can assure you that they are all well-written, smart, thoughtful books, and i think they each add to the general dialogue of literature, of korean/korean-american literature, of translated literature.  some of them (there a petal silently falls, human acts, a gesture life, i’ll be right there) consider human brutality within history; others (forgotten country, re jane, shelter) consider korean-americanism, what that means and how that fits into and impacts people’s lives in different ways; and even others (no one writes back, pavane for a dead princess) look at contemporary korean society and its ailments.  and then there’s how i became a north korean, which is currently by far my book of the year, a brilliant, heart-breaking story of north korean refugees, as well as a searing indictment of everyone (and i mean everyone) in the exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment of north korean refugees.

* if i hadn’t given myself that rule, i would have also included krys lee’s drifting house (viking, 2012), han kang’s the vegetarian (hogarth, 2016), susan choi’s the foreign student (harper perennial, 2004), and shin kyung-sook’s please look after mom (vintage, 2012).


so there we have it!  thanks for reading, and please do feel free to share any thoughts, especially if you do pick up or have read any of the books mentioned/listed!