[thursday recs] 그림자.

i can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. i can disguise my childhood, and as i disguise it i can make allusions, and as i reveal details about the allusions, i can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, i can deceive you all. but you won’t be deceived. (han, 148)

i always hated writing introductions — introductions and conclusions. in college, i’d always start with the stuff in the middle, oftentimes without even establishing a thesis first because the middle had to be worked through for me to discover what my thesis even was. once all that was written and done and good, i’d write the conclusion. then i’d write the introduction. none of this has changed.

coming back to korean literature-in-translation after some time away is one kind of homecoming, and i love how we’re getting more and more of it here in the west. i love that i’ve been reading more and more of it because, a few years ago, this was a wish of mine: to read more korean literature, to be able to know more of it, to be able to share more of it.

and i am so happy to be able to share more of it.

hwang jungeun, one hundred shadows (tilted axis, 2016)

one of the things that i love about korean literature is that it often seems to exist in a korea different from the glittery, technologically-advanced, prosperous, high-achieving state that korea seems to present itself as. hallyu shows off a romantic view of korea, with its cutesy, perky pop stars and shiny dramas, a lot of which has been the product of the government pouring resources into hallyu and generating an idol-making machine within its entertainment industry, while literature has gotten considerably less attention until recently.

i don’t want to go so far as to claim that, as a result of that, korean literature took on different tones (though i have heard that theory before), especially as there is also the question of what and how literature is translated. is it that the gatekeepers to translation just have a love for korean literature that tells narratives of those who exist on the fringes of society? who bear witness to the startling wealth gaps that exist in sometimes jarring juxtaposition in korea? 

regardless of whether it’s a translation thing or a trend in korean literature, i’m glad that this literature exists. i’m glad that there are writers out there who aren’t enthralled with this one depiction of korea, who write novels that go beneath the glossy veneer and explore the effects of prosperity, who write about people who exist outside the aspirational “norm.”

hwang jungeun’s one hundred shadows is one such novel.

the novel is set primarily in an electronics market in korea, and it’s a rundown market, one that developers want to tear down and build into something new. unsurprisingly, they use all kinds of means to try to bully the storeowners to leave, whether by convincing them to take a sum of money and relocate their shop in some unclear new location or by blocking off the main entrance of the market so customers believe they’re closed. it’s not that hwang focuses on this aspect of the story; one hundred shadows is largely a story about two characters who work at different shops in the market; and it’s a story, also, about the people in this market, these people who don’t have much, who exist on the outside edges of an upward society, who are trying to resist the shadows that rise and threaten to consume them.

i think that’s the strength of the novel, though, that hwang tells the story of these economic differences in korea without directly telling them. she doesn’t get into social issues or into the nitty-gritty of the conflicts that might exist between these shop owners and the developers — the details are there if you read for them in the way that these stresses and worries are present in and shape people’s lives without necessarily taking center stage.

… for me this whole area is inextricably tangled up with those memories and the way they make me feel, and when i hear people call this place a slum, well, it just doesn’t seem right to me. calling a person poor is one thing, that’s an objective fact in a way, but ‘slum’ … mujae trailed off.

i wonder if they call this kind of place a slum because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down. (hwang, 102)

sometimes, i read sentences and laugh a little to myself because i wonder how they must read in korean, how much of a tangle they must have been to translate. other times, i read sentences that make me wonder what the original korean is, what kinds of decisions the translator must have made and why, what kinds of liberties the translator may have taken. other times, i read sentences that make me sad because i’m sure a lot was lost in translation, that the korean must be achingly beautiful in the ways that korean can be, in the ways that english cannot.

i love the korean language. it’s lyrical and poetic, and you can run the language around in these exquisite loops that seem like they can go on forever without losing themselves. i love the lack of clear third-person pronouns, and i love the ambiguity you can create because pronouns aren’t necessary — in korean, the subject pronoun is often implied, a quirk about the language that is used to create ambiguity in quiet, powerful ways.

i love the words themselves, too, and, sometimes, when i think of korean and i think of english, i find myself thinking how limited a language english is. there are words in korean that cannot be found in english, that require a paragraph just to try to define; there are ways to feel in korean that do not exist in english; and there are ways of encompassing a national identity that cannot be so clearly distilled to be consumed and understood.

in general, i love how much language can reflect culture, and i’m fascinated by and interested in the act of translating, how it’s an act of loss, not simply of words but of culture and history and societal context. this is one of the reasons i love reading korean literature-in-translation, too, because the very fact of it being translation — crucially, of it being translation from korean, a language and culture i know to a certain degree of intimacy — alters the reading experience. in many ways, i feel like i am a much more active reader when it comes to translated korean literature, and that is something i appreciate.

i don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. this might sound a little harsh, but i think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without using any industrial products. (hwang, 18-9)

han yujoo, the impossible fairy tale (graywolf press, 2017)

choi mia had two fathers. she received twice as many presents as the other children received on birthdays and christmas. she had no siblings. the other children were jealous of her face, clothes, and school supplies. she has never been jealous of other children. choi mia was not given enough time to learn about jealousy. (han, 92)

there is a beauty to the way han yujoo writes violence in the impossible fairy tale — or maybe “beauty” is the wrong word because it’s not that she makes it beautiful or tries to render it so. she’s brutal about it, writes about it in ways that make you flinch, but she does it indirectly without giving way to sensationalism or even without putting it into clearly defined words.

i can’t even figure out a way to summarize this book, maybe that it’s a story about two children, one who has everything and one who does not. it’s a story about violence against children, about the violence children are capable of, about the way violence begets violence in the way that violence is trauma that is felt on every level. it’s a story about how we all must find outlets for our fear, our anger, our desperation — or that, even if we don’t, if we try to suppress everything, things will somehow escape, sometimes to catastrophic results.

somehow, that’s not even the most interesting part of the book, though, because han does a pretty damn stellar pivot with part two, bringing us into an i-narrative voice. it’s unclear who this “i” is, though; is she one of the students in part one? is she one of the two children? what are these dreams she keeps writing about? who is she? why are we suddenly looking at things from her perspective? why am i automatically assigning the female gender to her?

at first, i thought the dream sequences in part two were going on for too long, wondered if han weren’t falling prey to art for art’s sake, ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, which is a particular peeve of mine. i don’t want to discuss any details because i don’t want to give any of it away, but part two unfolds in surprising, thoughtful ways that make the meandering worthwhile.

reading, after all, is an act of trust; to a certain degree, we need to be able to trust the author. we need to be able to trust that she’s taking us on a worthwhile journey (“worthwhile” being entirely subjective), that she is thoughtfully using language, that she knows what she is doing, the story she is telling. we need to be able to trust that she purposefully created this experience for us, that none of these choices is casual or lacking in deliberation. we need to be able to trust that she will raise questions that she will answer satisfactorily, that she isn’t abusing her position as author and creator to send us in circles without reason.

han asks us for this trust, and she asks a lot of questions about what it means to create. she asks what these lives are that we, as writers, as artists, create and give body to, these characters we build and into whom we infuse life and personality quirks and histories. she asks about the limitations of creating, of fiction, of story; she asks about the responsibility of these acts of creating.

she doesn’t necessarily give us any hard answers to any of these questions, though, but that doesn’t mean she leaves us dissatisfied. the questions she’s asking aren’t meant to have hard answers, anyway. they’re meant to get us questioning, to make us active readers, cognizant of the ways in which we might be complicit in the actions of these characters, because the point, as always, is to consider.

in this way, the sole objective of the stories i want to tell is to throw you into an unclear state, to make you believe while you’re not able to believe. (han, 150)

i feel like noting that han does some really interesting things with language in the impossible fairy tale, and i’m so curious (01) to read this in korean and (02) how the translator, janet hong, made some of the decisions she did. i don’t mean the latter in an accusatory way or to imply that she did a bad job; i’m genuinely curious because i love language and have dabbled in translation and regard it with a fair amount of wonderment.

bandi, the accusation (grove press, 2017)

i confess that i have yet to finish reading the accusation. that is not going to stop me from writing about it now, especially as it is a book i am certain to revisit in the future.

bandi is the pseudonym for a north korean writer currently still living in north korea, and the accusation is a collection culled from a manuscript that he has been writing for years. the manuscript was smuggled out of north korea, an action that put not only bandi’s life but also the lives of everyone involved in danger. it was bandi’s hope that his stories be published in south korea, but he never dreamed that they’d be translated and be read outside of korea.

the accusation was published in south korea in 2014. it is published by grove press in the US and serpent’s tail in the UK on tuesday, 2017 march 7. bandi, in korean, means firefly.

as may be inevitable, we give certain books more weight than others, and the accusation certainly is one of such book. as crucial as journalistic and investigative stories about north korea are, as important as memoirs by refugees are, there is a void when it comes to fiction, and i am glad to have this collection.

because here is where i get down to story: i often get annoyed by people who constantly try to downplay the humanities, sneering at books and literature and fiction like they’re mere child’s play. part of this is that i grew up in an environment that considers fiction useless; the korean phrase used to dismiss fiction is “쓸떼 없다,” which translates literally to “there is no use for that.” even now, i continue to be told that the books i read are pointless, that they’re making me see the world in negative ways, that i need to read more essays, more philosophy, more non-fiction, less stories.

and yet.

stories are the means through which we see the world. they are how we see ourselves in the world, and, similarly, they are how we see others in the world. stories are how essays, philosophy, and non-fiction are structured; stories lie beneath food, art, music. stories are part of our everyday lives as well — when we go home and talk to our family, our friends, we tell them stories from our days at work, at school, at wherever. when we meet new people, we tell them stories about ourselves — where we’re from, what we do, who we are. when we give a presentation, make an argument, think about our futures, we are telling stories, and, when we write, when we create, we are doing just that — we are telling stories, stories about ourselves, our obsessions, the circumstances of our lives.

you might ask, “if stories are in every part of life, then why do we need fiction?” the thing is that, sometimes, fiction allows us to go places that non-fiction doesn’t. sometimes, fiction opens up barriers that might exist in non-fiction that make some stories impossible to tell. sometimes, fiction makes it easier for us to explore darknesses and fears and truths that we might not otherwise confront.

similarly, sometimes, fiction opens up windows to communicate with others, to provide people opportunities to open their hearts in ways that non-fiction cannot. sometimes, fiction makes it easier to consider a new way of seeing people, to empathize in deeper, more personal ways, to realize that we are all people — we are all human, and we all exist on this planet, and we can work to make things better for each other.

by tapping into our empathetic selves, fiction challenges us to feel and, in doing so, hopefully challenges us to be better people and to do good. it hopefully challenges us to see the people hidden behind an oppressive regime and see them as people.

in the afterword to the accusation, kim seong-dong, a writer for the monthly chosun, tells us this: that bandi started by joining the chosun literature and art general league in north korea, that he was published in various periodicals but came to a realization that led to the stories in this book.

and yet, something began to weigh on him: the great famine of the early to mid-1990s, exacerbated by floods but stemming from the disastrous economic policies of previous decades, which the government insisted on referring to by the officially mandated code words “the arduous march.” witnessing scenes of misery and deprivation, in which many of his friends and colleagues perished, provoked him to reflect deeply on the society in which he lived, and his role there as a writer. a writer’s strength, he found, is best deployed within writing. and so he began to record the lives of those whom hunger and social contradictions had brought to an untimely death, or who had been forced to leave their homes and roam the countryside in search of food. now, when bandi picked up his pencil, he did so in order to denounce the system. (232-3)


rather than himself trying to escape from north korea, the writer bandi has sent his work out as an envoy, risking his life in the process. surely this is because he believes that external efforts can transform the slave society he lives in more quickly than internal ones. on handing his manuscript over, bandi said that even if his work was published only in south korea, that would be enough for him. this work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on north korea’s oppressive regime. (241)

i sincerely hope that the accusation is received accordingly. i will definitely be revisiting it in the future.

whether something is harmful or not is a matter of personal standards. (hwang, 57)

to be honest, while one of the reasons i started this weekly post series was very much to fight back against a toxic administration, another reason was purely selfish: to give myself a sense of purpose and something to fight for outside the brokenness in my brain and my body.

i live with what is called major depressive disorder, recurrent episode, and panic disorder, and i also struggle with suicidal thinking and hopelessness and general despair. i go to sleep at night hoping i won’t wake up in the morning, and i wake up in the morning disappointed to find myself still here. add onto that that i was also recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes*, so there’s that extra dose of self-loathing added onto everything else, especially when food was that one last comfort i had, that one last lifeline i was holding onto to get me through the days, to get me out of bed and try to care for myself. all of that, with one blood test, is gone — or, at least, altered beyond what i am currently able to handle.

most days, i find myself helpless, unable even to make that effort to care. when i check my blood sugar and my meter gives me back that triple-digit reading despite it only being a week of monitoring and trying to bring my glucose down, i don’t know what to do, so i shut down, stop eating, hope this kills me. maybe it goes without saying that i’m still processing the anger and resentment that comes with this diagnosis, letting the mental temper tantrums run loose when the numbness wears off, and trying to tell myself that it’s not that big a deal, it’s manageable, it’s not life or death — but, truth be told, i hate that, i always have — it’s just another way for people to enforce shame via diminishing, blaming, belittling.

because here’s the truth: something doesn’t have to endanger your life to threaten it, and just because something is manageable doesn’t mean that it isn’t devastating. context matters. the whole of a person matters. and had this happened at some other point, when i wasn’t already so broken, so empty-handed, so hopeless, i might have reacted differently. i might have squared my shoulders and said, okay, and simply dealt with it. but it didn’t — it happened now, and, when all the pieces of my life are lying in shambles at my feet, it’s impossible to take this in stride and get on with it, even as i know that, given time, i will learn to live with it.

so that’s a long-winded way of saying that i won't be continuing these thursday posts. i won’t stop blogging and will continue posting regularly, but, as of this moment, i am not able to continue this once a week schedule. for one, i barely have the ability to focus these days, much less finish books at the pace i did before and write posts with such tight turnaround time, and, for another, even as i know that this is disappointment in myself speaking, a huge part of me, frankly, doesn’t really see the point. thank you for following along thus far; it means more to me than i can express.

* for anyone concerned, i made my kimchi fried rice with brown rice. also, i am new to this and still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

korean/korean-american literature i recommend!


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.


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.


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?


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!

the accusation, part one.


let's start by stating the obvious:  dear lord, it's hard reading in another language, even if it’s a language you grew up with.  these posts about the accusation are inevitably going to be as much (or more) about reading in korean as the stories themselves because reading is proving to be an adventure in and of itself, so here’s a little background about my korean.

technically, korean is my first language.  my father came to the states to do his ph.d after he graduated from seoul national university, and he didn't actually plan to get married here, was going to go back to seoul once he'd finished his studies.  he met my mum, though, (she immigrated to the states when she was ten), and, by then, his parents and four of his five sisters were stateside as well, so my parents got married, committed to a life here instead.

my dad understandably wanted his children to know korean, to be connected to their ethnic heritage and roots even if they were raised in the states.  the intense part of it was that he was so dead-set on this that he wouldn't let my mum teach me english at all, only korean, which was fine when i was a tiny little kid in jersey because both my parents worked and i spent much of my days with my paternal grandparents, neither of whom spoke english.  when i was four, though, we moved out to california, away from our extended family, to the suburbs of los angeles where my parents, of course, enrolled me in an american preschool.

(a few years later, they enrolled my english-speaking brother in a korean preschool ... my parents, lol.)

once i started school and learned english, i might have lost my korean had my paternal grandparents not moved out west to live with us.  the result was that i grew up amazing koreans with my ability to speak and understand korean -- and i say "amazing" because koreans really expect nothing from korean-americans as far as korean goes (i also lack the accent that would otherwise automatically label me korean-american).  weirdly, though, it was that ability to amaze that always made me feel self-conscious because my korean has never met my personal standards for excellence -- i'm hyper-aware of the limitations of my korean, constantly frustrated by my limited vocabulary, and i've always wished i was more fluent, a better speaker, and infinitely better reader.

regardless!  i can understand, speak, read, write to what my career counselor in law school told me is "conversational ability."  i comprehend roughly 75% of korean dramas (set in contemporary times).  previous to the accusation, i've read one novel in korean, kim young-ha's memory book of a murderer, and i had less difficulty reading that than anticipated, vocabulary gaps and all because, for the most part, i could fill in the blanks.  technical speak and business/political jargon are beyond me, though, which brings me to ...

the accusation.

the first story was more difficult than i anticipated.  the vocabulary was tougher, partly because of political terms and partly because of words that are either outdated or unique to north korea.  the korean publisher included definitions for the latter in parentheses, for which i am grateful -- and for which my dad's also unknowingly grateful because he was spared what would have been a fair number of texts ("what does xxx mean?  what about xxx?  and xxx?").  that said, while i had no problems understanding the story overall, there are definitely details that i missed; the primary example is that the narrator's father is punished for what i assume is anti-party something; but the precise political terms still elude me (and my dictionary).

also, wow, i'm slow.  painstakingly slow.  i read korean out loud, which slows me down more but helps me process, and it's good in that it forces me to read not only every single word but also every single freaking character -- i can't rush through passages (not that i could even if i wanted to), and i have to be 100% fully engaged, which admittedly isn't always the case when i'm reading in english.  i have slowed down considerably when i read in english, compared to ten years ago when i'd speed read like crazy (rather impressively, if i say so myself), and i do take in every word, but i can read and comprehend while also having other thoughts simmering in the back of my brain.  i can't do that with korean.  if i did, i'd be taking in sounds with very little meaning.

one weird thing i struggled with in this story:  names.

sometimes, on the rare occasion a name was mentioned (and not many were), i'd go to highlight it only to realize that it was someone's name, and, to be completely honest, i didn't even get the narrator's name until 3/4 of the way into the story.  i still don't remember what his wife's name is, if it were even mentioned.  i had no problems with the nephew's name, though, but it's a name also commonly found in the south, so there's that.

(fun fact:  rhee is a common surname in the north but is uncommon in the south.)

(this whole north/south delineation makes me feel squirmy and sad and furious inside.)

“탈북기" (pronounced "tahl-book-gee," "g" like in "god") means "the record of a north korean refugee," and the story is told essentially in two parts -- the first is narrated by the husband, il-cheol, who discovers that his wife is on birth control but doesn't confront her about it, suspecting her instead until he finally has to address her "suspicious" activity.  she gives him her diary to read, and the second part is taken from that as he comes to learn how much his wife has actually thought of him and grieved on his behalf and his nephew’s.  il-cheol's father was banned/exiled for (as i said above) anti-party something, and, as is the case in north korea, not only was the father punished, but that black mark has also been placed on his children and grandchildren (three generations are punished and/or executed).

to me, “탈북기” reads in many ways like a portrait of a marriage.  in some ways, if you look at it on the surface, it’s not very different from other portraits of marriages — of two people who don’t communicate with each other, who simmer in their suspicions or fears or doubts, who lack affection and seem tied together if only for duty.  there’s nothing quite unique about that because marriage has its difficulties and bad marriages aren't uncommon, but then you go in closer and examine this portrait of a marriage in an oppressive regime, and you start looking at it from a different perspective.

you can't remove the human element from it, though, the fact that marriage is, at times, hard work, requires communication and trust and respect, that, as people, we exist in relation to each other -- no man is an island.  sometimes, i wonder if there isn't a reductive way of looking at stories (whether fictional or non-fictional) through that one lens of "this is north korea; it is a regime of terror" that's much too prevalent, and to approach the accusation with such a perspective would be to do it a disservice.  it would be easy to look at “탈북기” and see it solely as a portrait of life under a punishing regime, but one big thing i appreciated about the story is that it doesn’t lose itself to that.  bandi is interested in the human first and foremost, and the story is one about people who live in this country, how they live, who they are.  i anticipate the entire collection to maintain this.

going back to "탈북기":  the north korean regime is built upon the extreme worship of a cult personality, and it's a society that's class-based, that's about the unit, not the family unit but the greater social unit.  it's not about the individual, which means that, in extension, it's not about individual marriages, not about individual families -- hell, it's not even about the individual generation, given that one generation's crimes are passed on to the following two.

you can see that bleeding into the marriage -- how, when a fear of the individual (how ever that is defined) is engrained, there is no room to trust even within a marriage, which requires trust in order to grow and thrive, and that lack of trust and communication, that fear injected into all interpersonal relationships, is another way of enforcing loyalty to a regime, whether that loyalty is assumed intentionally or not.

you can see that with il-cheol's wife, how she wants to protect him, to protect his nephew, but to do so requires secrecy.  it requires silence.  it means that she can't confide in anyone; she can't even tell anyone how much it infuriates her or breaks her heart that the consequences for the actions of her husband's father extend even to her nephew because, to someone else, that could be a traitorous sentiment.  it becomes something she must swallow, words she can only write into a diary she must then hide, and it becomes a secret, something that seems good and born of kindness and love -- it becomes something that must be hidden, not only for her sake but also for the sake of her husband and their families.

thus, love is twisted into something dangerous, and that's what really gutted me about this story.  it even extends to motherhood, how there is a guilt and twistedness about wanting to bring a child into such a world.  in one passage, his wife writes, 

이 땅에 생명을 낳을 때 어미는 그 생명이 복되기만을 바랄 것이다.  한 평생 가시밭을 헤쳐야 할 생명임을 안다면, 그런 생명을 낳을 어머니가 이 세상 어디에 있으랴!  만약 그런 어머니가 있다면 그것은 어머니이기 전에 죄인 중에도 가장 잔악한 죄인이 될 것이다!  (45)

when she delivers life onto this earth, a mother can only want that life to be blessed.  if she knows it's a life that must push its way through a thorn field all its life, can there be a mother in this world who would give birth to such a life!  if there were such a mother, then, before she is a mother, she would be the most cruel sinner among sinners.  (45)

it might sound extreme to us, but, looking at it from the perspective of a woman in an oppressive regime, maybe it isn't that extreme at all.

there's strangely (or maybe not so strangely) quite a bit of fear to wrestle with when writing these posts -- a fear of sounding provincial and superficial, of not knowing enough, of not being a smart enough reader, all tied up with a fear that stems from my limitations of language.  there's quite a lot of frustration, too, and that's probably also tied into the current in-between status of my life, into a smidgen of regret, too -- and now we're getting confessional here, but i did feel like throwing that bit about the fear out there at least.

i am so curious to see how the accusation will be translated.  i wonder how the translator will convey the different ways of narrating — in “탈북기,” the narrator speaks in [what i think is] a particular way of speaking.  typically, korean sentences end in “했다, 됐다, 있었다” (haet-dah, dwet-dah, eess-ut-dah) or in a similar variation, but the narrator here ends his sentences in “했네 됐네 있었네” (haet-nae, dwet-nae, eess-ut-nae).  maybe the pity here is that i can’t actually explain why this is noteworthy, except to say that it's all about rhythm and cadence, about the way the language flows off your tongue, how something sounds softer or harder, more formal or more casual, more structured or more whimsical based on these grammatical choices.  the real pity, though, is that it is impossible to translate because the grammatical structure of english doesn't allow for it; the best a translator can do is capture the tone and convey that in english instead.

like i said in a previous post, translation is an art of loss, in this case, a loss of rhythm and cadence, but part of me thinks that's what makes it such a beautiful art.


i think one of the things we hope stories do is allow people to tap into a deeper sense of understanding than they may naturally be wont.  we hope that stories help people access greater sympathy, greater humanity, greater humility even, a sense that we exist in a big, full world populated by all kinds of people in all ways of life — and, in extension, all kinds of people experiencing all kinds of suffering.

one of the books i'm currently reading is rina by kang young-sook (in translation).  it tells the story of a teenage girl who escapes from an unnamed oppressive country and tries to get to the country of p, and it makes me think of the refugee narrative, how that is the desired and, in a sense, accepted narrative in the west.  we like these stories here, to hear about the hardships, the hunger, the prison camps, the brutality, the cult of kim, and we like the stories of escape, of people driven by desperation to cross the border into china, risking repatriation and death for a chance of something better.

it makes me wonder how much of reality we actually want to know.  we hear about girls sold into slavery, the exploitation of refugees, the gross human rights violations going on within north korea's closed borders.  we hear about the rape and forced abortions of women in the prison camps.  we hear about the cost of escape, how refugees need to pay off so many people just to get out of north korea, to get into china, to get out of china, to get down to southeast asia, to get, eventually, to south korea and/or the united states.  do we think about it, though, what that actually means, how that translates into the day-to-day, into the practical?  because, when you have nothing to exchange, to barter with, what do you sell?

because what does it mean, on the human level, to decide to escape, to become a refugee, to know that you are putting not only your life but your whole family's life at risk?  it doesn't matter if they don’t all try to escape with you; they'll still be punished for your attempt, anyway.

it's something bandi gets at -- at the end of “탈북기,” il-cheol writes,

물론 위험천만한 탈출 방법이네.  해안 경비대나 순찰정의 총알에 맞을 수도 있고 풍랑에 나뭇잎처럼 삼켜질 수도 있으니까.  허나 이렇게 살아 최악의 고뇌에 시달리느니 차라리 죽어 잊어버리는 것이 낫겠기에 목숨을 걸어야 하는 탈출 방법도 서슴없이 선택한 우리들이네.  (52)

of course, it's an extremely dangerous way to escape.  because we could be shot by the coast guard or by patrolmen, and we could be swallowed up like a leaf by the sea.  however, rather than live like this, suffering the worst anguish, it would be better to die and forget, so we have chosen without hesitation even an escape route on which we must stake our lives.  (52)

it's sobering, isn't it, the refugee narrative.  it's one of life and death, not simply a good story to tell -- and, lest anyone misunderstand,  i'm not trying to be patronizing, and these aren't judgments i'm making of other people but questions i am actively asking myself as i read and learn more about north korea and, in a way, as a korean, examine my position in relation to korea, whether north or south.  sometimes, i think to be a korean-american is a funny position to be in, all these divisions and delineations we must make in our lives -- but that is something i'll likely continue to touch on in the future.

for now, on to the next story!  "유령의 도시," or, in english, "the city of ghosts"!

the accusation, post zero.

i have not abandoned this project a week in.  i actually finished reading the first story, "탈북기" ('the record of a north korean refugee"), over the weekend, but it's taking me longer to go through and fill in my vocab blanks and write this post.  overestimating myself and underestimating the project at hand -- who's surprised?

the post will come soon; i am working on it, focusing all my available time on it actually; but, for now, as an update, here are the photos i took for each day i thought i'd have a post ready to go.  (:

thanks for your patience!

my year reading korean and korean-american literature.



in 2015, i read 11 books (of 70) by a korean or korean-american author.  it was an interesting experience, surprising in some ways that i didn’t expect.  the most surprising was the shock of recognizability and the pleasantness of it, never having been the kind of reader (or viewer) who needed or wanted to relate to characters in books (or film or tv).  truth be told, it never occurred to me to be bothered by the whiteness of the world around me until i was in my twenties; i suppose there’s a privilege in that as well as a significant measure of unawareness and, probably, self-absorption.

a lot of it, though, came from the fact that, when i fell into pop culture and entertainment as a pre-adolescent, i fell into korean pop culture and korean entertainment.  my boy band was h.o.t., not ’n sync or backstreet boys.  my celebrity crushes were tony and junjin and jang geun-seok.  the women i considered beautiful were jeon ji-hyun and song hye-gyo and shin mina.  i grew up watching korean dramas, not american television, and, to this day, my nostalgic cultural references are all korean and i often sit silently, confused, when listening to friends talk about their adolescence because i can’t relate.

the strangeness of that also didn’t occur to me until i was in my twenties.  i was born and raised in the states and have never lived in korea, and it wasn’t like my parents forced me to partake only of things korean.  (they actually hated my k-pop obsessions; i often joke that, had i grown up in korea, my parents would have shaved my head because you know that drama answer me 1997?  i was sung shi-won, minus the cute romance.)  maybe it was that i had friends who were also into k-pop; maybe it was that, growing up, 80% of my friends were korean and the remaining 20% asian.  maybe part of it was that i am fluent (to a degree) in korean, so the language barrier never existed, and maybe it was also that this was all during the days of wimpy dial-up internet when on-line forums were starting to become a thing and making things more accessible.

and yet, though my sources of entertainment were korean, my reading life was solidly fixed in the west.  my parents didn’t encourage me to read outside the classics when i was young, so i grew up on the brits, the french, the russians.  when i started reading contemporary literature circa 2005, i still stuck with the familiars — the british, maybe a few americans, haruki murakami — and i have to confess i stayed away from “asian-american literature,” uninterested in what felt predominantly like “immigrant narratives,” stories i couldn’t relate to and wasn’t interested in, as horrible and snooty as that sounds.  (i’ve since come around and seen the errors of my prejudice, so don’t judge me too harshly.  i was young and very immature.)

the stupid part of that is that relatability (which is apparently not a word but i am running with anyway) is such a broad thing.  we can relate to so many things, so many different circumstances, because there’s something universal about human struggle, about human pain, about human love and desire and fear.  that’s why it’s so infuriating to me to see such a narrow focus in publishing, the dominance of white stories, the reluctance for publishers to take risks and throw their weight and support behind diverse writers of color from different places who have different stories to tell from the lives they’ve lived because there’s that fear that the american public “won’t relate.”

maybe that’s one reason i never put much stock in the idea of being to relate to what i was reading or watching.

there is a pleasure and comfort in it, though — i’ve learned that as i read more from korean and korean-american authors last year.  there’s something pleasurable about being able to immerse yourself in a world and find yourself there in the specifics, to see that there are other people out there who’ve had similar experiences, who’ve struggled with belonging, with balancing what oftentimes feels like a dichotomous existence.  it’s one of those things i didn’t really learn until i realized how nice it felt, these oddities of being korean-american, never really belonging in any group, whether it be white americans or korean-koreans or, even, kprean-americans.  being korean-american, in and of itself, isn’t a unifying force; there are so many of us growing up in different cities, in different neighborhoods, in different second-generation upbringings that the only common thread between us sometimes is that we are korean-american.

all that said, though, only two of the eleven books i read in 2015 really brought that sense of relatability to the surface in a dominant way:  patricia park’s re jane (pamela dorman books, 2015) and jung yun’s shelter (picador, forthcoming 2016).  both books follow a korean-american and beautifully capture that dichotomy of being korean-american without that identity being the focus of the story, and both park and yun weave it into the narrative rather, showing how our ethnic identities do influence us in ways that we might not intend or realize, how many of our decisions and actions are unconscious reactions to the way we grew up.



what’s not surprising is that my awareness of myself as an Other came through my experiences with book culture.  i grew up in southern california, specifically in the valley, and i never like a minority because there were just so many asians and i grew up in the korean community.

the first book event i ever attended was an ian mcewan reading at the LA public library.  it was for solar (jonathan cape, 2010), and i was excited for it because, one, i’d never seen an author “in real life” before and, two, i loved ian mcewan and had recently gone through his backlist in a frenzy.  it was weird to me, then, to queue before the doors opened, looking around at the white crowd around me — in an auditorium in little tokyo, no less — feeling like i must stick out like a sore thumb, this twenty-something asian girl among all these white people, most of whom were much older than i was.

part of me relished it.  another part of me wondered where all the other readers of color were because i knew i couldn’t be the only one, and that’s been the question that has remained with me over the years as i’ve attended many, many more readings but haven’t lost that sense of being the asian unicorn in the room.  i know we’re out there and, to take it further, that we’re out there reading from a range of authors, so it’s an honest wonderment of mine, and i love when i go to a reading of an author of color and find the room filled with a diverse range of readers, which goes to show that we are here and we want diverse books.

to bring this back to the topic at hand, though:  the concept of the Other obviously exists differently in korean literature.  i feel like all the korean books i read last year told stories of people who lived outside the norm, on the fringe, almost to the point that i wonder if that is the role literature plays in korea or if it is simply reflective of what editors here are compelled toward and want.  the filtration system of translated korean literature is of interest to me.

it’s true that society gravitates towards hierarchies and groups, and homogeneous societies will draw lines, too, making Others of people according to criteria other than skin color.  in many ways, to korean-koreans, the korean-american is the Other — the time i felt most acutely like the Other was in 2012 when i went to seoul for the first time in twelve years.  i spent ten days in seoul after spending three weeks in japan, which in itself was a crazy experience because i couldn’t communicate, so i’d anticipated some comfort going to korea where i could speak the language and was familiar with the culture.

i suppose that familiarity with the culture should have prepared me for how acutely aware i would be of myself as the Other.  i speak enough korean well enough for koreans to be impressed, but my limited vocabulary and weird accent set me apart and put me down.  more importantly, though, i don’t fit the korean (or the seoul) “type” or standard of beauty — i’m not thin; i’m too tan; and i don’t wear make-up.  i don’t wear the right clothes, and i don’t have aegyo or a “cute” personality, all of which is fine, until you step into a homogeneous society that is very open about giving you the look over and judging you by your appearance.

in the face of seoul’s trend-obsessed mainstream, it’s not surprising to come across very different lives in korean literature.  there’s a bleakness to korean novels that isn’t found in literature elsewhere, and many of the characters in the korean novels i read were people who had somehow been left behind or cast aside, who were struggling in these “outside” communities, who were Others because of their lack of prestige or education or financial stability.

korean-american literature, on the other hand, explores the korean as the very obvious Other, and i think the one korean-american author i’ve read who really straddles the korean/korean-american divide well is krys lee.  i read her debut collection, drifting house (viking, 2012), in 2013, and i’m still amazed when i think about it today because it’s like she has one foot firmly in korean-america and the other in korea.  that’s not an easy thing to do, but she does it beautifully and hauntingly, and i can’t wait for her novel, whenever that’s published.  i hope it’s soon.



reading in translation when you’re partially fluent in the original language is an interesting experience.

when i’m reading, say, a russian novel-in-translation, i admittedly don’t really think about it as a translation — as in, i’m not acutely aware of it, even though i know i’m reading in translation.  as in, because i lack any familiarity with or knowledge of russian, i’m able to take the translation with little resistance, almost at face value.

when reading korean novels-in-translation, though, i’m always aware that i’m reading in translation.  i frequently pause to wonder what the original korean says, how many liberties the translator has taken, how much nuance has been lost.  this awareness is more acute with certain books (i.e. han kang’s the vegetarian [hogarth, forthcoming 2016]), less noticeable with other books (i.e. jang eun-jin’s no one writes back [dalkey archive press, 2013]), and, sometimes, i’m so bothered that i have to stop reading the translation altogether (i.e. gong ji-young’s our happy time [atria books, 2014]).

this often has little to do with the translators.  the nature of translation is that it isn’t hard or rigid but porous with each translator bringing his/her own method and philosophy to each book, and translating from korean to english is hard.  english, as lovely as it is, is a limited language; it doesn’t have the width or breadth of words that korean has, words like 원망 or 정 or 아쉽다 — words that encompass so much more than their english counterparts can possibly convey.  korean is also structurally looser, more prone to poetic freedom and ambiguous pronouns, and there’s a rhythm to the way sentences usually end — 했다 한다 간다 — that creates a tone and cadence that simply cannot translate.

the inevitable by-product of translation is, therefore, loss.  we lose nuance; we lose points of cultural significance; we lose layers of voice and tone and mood.  one of my favorite books from 2015 was han kang’s human acts (portobello books, 2016), and, in the introduction, translator deborah smith writes:

born and raised in gwangju, han kang’s personal connection to the subject matter meant that putting this novel together was always going to be an extremely fraught and painful process.  she is a writer who takes things deeply to heart, and was anxious that the translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear.  her empathy comes through most strongly in ‘the boy’s mother’, written in a brick-thick gwangju dialect impossible to replicate in english, korean dialects being mainly marked by grammatical differences rather than individual words.  to me, ‘faithfulness’ in translation primarily concerns the effect on the reader rather than being an issue of syntax, and so i tried to aim for a non-specific colloquialism that would carry the warmth han intended.  though i did smuggle the tiniest bit of yorkshire in — call it translator’s license.

one of this translation’s working titles was ‘uprisings’.  as well as the obvious connection to the gwangju uprising itself, a thread of words runs through the novel — come out, come forward, emerge, surface, rise up — which suggests an uprising of another kind.  the past, like the bodies of the dead, hasn’t stayed buried.  repressed trauma irrupts in the form of memory, one of the main korean words for ‘to remember’ meaning literarily ‘to rise to the surface’ — an inadvertent, often hazy recollection which is the type of memory most common in han kang’s book.  here, chronology is a complex weave, with constant slippages between past and present, giving the sense of the former constantly intruding on or shadowing the latter.  paragraph breaks and subheadings have been inserted into the translation in order to maintain these shifts in tense without confusing the reader.  (human acts, 4-5)

i loved this.  i almost wish more translators would address such things in introductions or afterwords or something.  in some ways, i think smith’s introduction actually helped me read human acts when han’s other book-in-translation, the vegetarian, left me feeling a little frustrated and lost because i could feel the things that had been lost in translation.

that said, the idea of loss shouldn’t discourage us from reading in translation.  i think it’s absolutely crucial that we read in translation, if only because we lose so much (or fail to gain much, i suppose is the better way to put it) when we read only the offerings of english, and i find it discouraging whenever i hear how reluctant americans are to read books-in-translation and, in connection, how publishers are reluctant to acquire and publish books-in-translation, which is why i give major props to dalkey archive press for its “library of korean literature” published in collaboration with the literature translation institute of korea.  i read a number of titles from them in 2015 and am planning to read more in 2016, and it’s been a pleasure to read their translations, not only for the quality of their work but also the range of books they choose.

(also MUCH love to mcnally jackson for regularly carrying several titles on their shelves.)

there was more i wanted to write here, but, as i plan to read even more from korean and korean-american authors this year, i’ll end this here.  in 2016, i also plan to make good on my 2015 goal to read a book in korean every month, so i anticipate that there will be a lot for me to think about as i read, so we shall continue this discussion over the year!

thanks for reading!