New: Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
What drew my attention to this first novel by Korean-American writer Catherine Chung was the endorsement on the book’s front cover by Korean-American novelist and Princeton academic Chang-rae Lee. Earlier this summer while in Louisville, Kentucky, for the ETS AP English Reading, Lee spoke on the craft of writing and read from his latest novel, The Surrendered. One compelling insight he shared with us was that to become better writers, one should write what he/she would want to read.
I’m not a writer, but if I were to become one, I would want to read of characters like those in Chung’s story — two sisters. Chung’s is centered around two Korean-American sisters, Janie and Hannah, saddled with an emotionally complex and yet enduring, loving relationship, as well as intergenerational ones with their Korean parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother.
Also similar to Chung, I too would probably wish to read/write a coming of age story fraught with psychologically internal, as well outside external conflicts. As Janie and Hannah grow into adults independent and estranged from one another, they struggle to fuse together turbulent childhood identities from their parents’ culture and their adopted American one. In time, they come to realize they are also afflicted by their Korean family’s curse, where a sister in each generation of the family fatally disappears or dies.
Thus, while weaving Korean folk tales into her characters’ lives, Chung describes a ravaged and yet beautiful country for us, the readers, to learn of, that is within and without. For the sisters’ internal and interpersonal conflicts, in turn, are embedded in those of an entirely other country that Chung vividly portrays,
one that was …
*annexed early in the 20th century by a foreign power and thereafter colonized for two generations,
*wracked by regional and later two major wars on its soil,
*only then to suffer repressive authoritarian rule and militarization for decades.
Janie and Hannah’s family moves to Michigan to become American. However, the sisters’ story also partly remains Korea’s story as well — occupied and colonized by Japan for about 35 years, caught up in regional, world and civil war, as well as the geostrategic Korean War, and dire repression at the hands of military regimes only until about 30 years ago.
Come check it out at the Library!