Echoes of a New Generation of Writers
A mélange of new Korean American literary voices reverberate alienation, tension, and the dissonance of living between cultures.
Published: Friday, September 12, 2003
Trying to pin down a common, collective experience from "Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings," an anthology of extraordinarily diverse stories from contemporary Korean American writers, is a daunting task. After poring over 271 pages of haunting vignettes, humorous shorts, nostalgic memoirs and vivid poetry, all I could come up with was the frequent mention of kimchee.
Mijin Lee writes of the comfort of opening her school lunch box to the heady aroma of kimchee, and although Dominic Choi's protagonist, a powerful businessman, has conquered mainstream America, "deep down he was never happy unless he was eating bahp and kim chee gegah." M. Rain Noe's narrator looks for his "Sense of Self," and just when he's got it pinned down, he realizes that "it smells a little too much of kimchee…Christ, this is someone else's Sense of Self!" There must be something about the unapologetically pungent pickle dish that both comforts and alienates, a guilty pleasure that affirms roots but keeps the "American" kids from sitting next to you at lunch. Add some footnotes and a long bibliography, and this review starts sounding like a bad senior thesis (Korean American Identity and the Omnipresence of Kimchee).
Other than that, the 38 short stories and poems in this anthology, published by the Asian American Writers' Workshop and edited by two UC professors, are as diverse as the writers who penned them, as they range from award-winning M.F.A.s to fresh-out-of-college youngsters, from New York advertising execs to a professional dog walker, and from American-as-apple-pie Seoul adoptees to recent immigrants. It is a mistake to try to draw sweeping conclusions about the "Korean American experience" from them; in fact, this collection should be savored for just that---its refusal to define a singular Korean America.
Structured into three sections, "arrival/return," "dwelling/crossing," and "descent/flight," the anthology presents a rich tapestry woven of an array of variegated experiences. There is Jae-Hyun, the narrator of Junse Kim's "Son of Kings," a half-Korean, half-Irish Harvard graduate who works for the Peace Corps in Tunisia and is obsessed with his lineage: Jae Hyun is the "first son of the first son of the first son and so on." There is Genie, a guitar strumming, Leonard Cohen loving teenager from Washington D.C. who learns about love and loss at summer camp. And then there is Eunice, the narrator of Carolyn Sun's "Eunice and the Center," an obese New Jersey native who recounts her painful weekly trip to an eating-disorders clinic with hilarious acrimony: "I keep my eyes on the tablecloth the whole time, hoping to avoid seeing the expressions of dismay mixed with pity and freak show fascination that midgets and dwarfs must get when they walk down the street in the 'big people world.' I mean, I already know I'm not anyone's wet dream."
The stories tell of alienation and assimilation, of empowerment and numbing paralysis, of lingering homesickness and rejection of tradition and heritage. Some deal with the absurdities that result from being caught between two cultures. In Dominic Choi's "Friday the Day I Hate Being Korean," Jaewook, a corporate big shot for an unnamed Fortune 500 company, is bound by filial duty to work at his parents' fish store every Friday. Jaewook marvels at the incongruity of exchanging his three-piece suit for a butcher's apron every Friday, and of gutting fish just hours after brokering multimillion-dollar deals. Yet he diligently commutes from the tall glass tower (where he regularly snubs people who are not wearing suits) to the fish market, where he endures racist insults from the mostly black patrons, driven by his obligations as the eldest son, as well as fierce pride---Jaewook cannot bear to imagine his elderly father taking out the trash.
In another evocative story, Frances Park's "Around the Block," a mother recalls the cruelty she faced as a Korean American child growing up in an all-white neighborhood in suburban Virginia on a Norman Rockwell-esque street called Lilac Lane. Mercilessly attacked by her classmates, she slowly becomes a "quiet girl of earthquakes," descending into submission and passivity and becoming numb to the anger brewing inside her. When she meets Courtney, who is "gorgeous and rebellious and smoking with rage," a firebrand who is similarly outcast as the daughter of divorced parents, the two go on a rampage, razing Lilac Lane and declaring war on the "all-American family." The story is a triumphant tale of empowerment as well as a poignant reminder of the cruelty of children.
One of the most heartrending stories is Jane Park's "Falling," a beautifully written narrative that deals with the vulnerability of parents and the fragility of life. In "Falling," Elly, the daughter of Korean immigrant parents, reminisces about growing up in the back of her family's general store in a deserted former mining town in Canada. Every morning, Elly's father, a quiet, introspective man, goes to his "office" in the woods, which consists of a plank of wood between two branches and a milk carton seat, to read and write. Her father's love for literature becomes a sore spot for the family, who is struggling to make ends meet. Taking place in the lonely, rural town of Pincher Creek, at the base of a forested mountain, which "was less a mountain than the last whimper of the great Rocky Mountain range," the story is permeated with images of winter and snow, which eventually come to signify death: Elly's father is killed by an avalanche one day on his way to his office. The story ends with the lingering memory of a poem Elly's father wrote, about how falling snow symbolizes words, and just as no two snowflakes are identical, "neither are the words we say, which also fall and melt into oblivion."
Although some pieces don't quite live up to their writers' ambitions, the emotions they present are raw, uncultivated, and very real. While most of the stories are written in the tradition of realism, a few indulge in flights of fancy. In M. Rain Noe's untitled piece, for example, a Korean New Yorker realizes he has lost his "Sense of Self" and goes on a frantic search to look for it: "My Sense of Self is smaller than a newspaper but bigger than a chewing gum blemish, so if I've dropped it on the street it shouldn't be too hard to spot."
Although this particular story sometimes feels a bit contrived, the sense of a desperate search for identity resonates throughout the anthology. The narrator in M. Rain Noe's piece isn't quite sure what his Sense of Self looks like, mistaking a crumpled garbage bag and then an Italian silk scarf for his identity. In the end, just when he has a handle on his Sense of Self, it slips from his fingers into a room overflowing with lost Senses of Selves, scattered on the floor and dangling from the ceiling fan, and all hope is lost. One can't help thinking that with "Echoes Upon Echoes," Korean America has found a tiny piece of its sense of self, not as a collective identity but as a room filled with pages of all colors, shapes, and textures, all bound together in one remarkable anthology.
The Asian American Writers' Workshop, a New York based non-profit literary organization devoted to fostering Asian American literature, has published a number of anthologies in past years, including "Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose" (1998), "Flippin: Filipinos on America" (1998), and "Quiet Fire: A Historical Anthology of Asian American Poetry" (1998). The books can be ordered online at aaww.org or from Temple University Press at temple.edu/tempress.