I was thinking about the Asian/Asian American literature I’ve read and I realized I haven’t read many (if any at all) books set in Korea or by Korean authors so I kind of scratched the surface this month with these three books. I didn’t realize as I was reading them that they actually had very similar themes to one another: about generational and cultural clashes, about themes of filial obligation and commentary on Korean society. I hope you find something you like! =) Goodreads links when you click on the picture!
Starting off with my least favorite…
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin; Translated by: Chi-Young Kim
A mother suddenly goes missing at a Seoul station subway and her family, mainly her daughter, son, and husband try and find her. With their mother/wife missing, they reminisce about their own relationship with her over the years.
PLAM, though not very daring as an overall book, is actually quite daring structurally. It alternates between 2nd and 3rd person perspective between the daughter, Chi-Hon (2nd), the brother Chong Hyul (3rd), and the father (2nd), and finally a perspective from Mom herself. It works and..doesn’t work at the same time. It works because the 2nd person perspective allows the reader to envision themselves as the daughter or the father and consequently feels like your own mother is missing. But the constant switching does not allow enough time to fully immerse myself in their relationship. It just starts to explore the daughter’s relationship with her mother before suddenly switching to the son’s perspective. And it would have been much more interesting if Shin had added a layered nuance to the relationship because they all end up looking like they have the same relationship and it was sooooo boring. The mother is a stereotypical type of Asian mom: you know the ones that are very self-sacrificing and when they are hurting, they hide it from everyone but to their kids, they have a very tough love mentality.* I’m not saying they don’t exist, but there’s always more to someone that just their stereotype. But essentially they all came to the conclusion that they should have been more grateful to their mother and they finally realize their mother was actually a person and not someone who just worked in the kitchen before she disappeared. PLEASE I COULD HAVE TOLD YOU THAT BEFORE I EVEN STARTED THE BOOK. But instead of seeing the mother as a person, they now put her on a pedestal and she’s basically an angel. And, in the end, I didn’t care whether or not they found their mom, which is sad, because if your mom disappeared I would think that you would want to convince me to care about her. It had so much potential to explore the themes it only scratched the surface of such as filial obligations, generational barriers, and Korean etiquette.
But I mean I did really like all the descriptions of the food. I mean, that’s enough to give it an extra star.
Sidenote*: I was reminded of this video when I was writing about the “stereotypical” Asian mom. It’s kind of a parody of the quirks that stereotypical asian moms tend to have. It still makes me laugh everytime I watch it.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang; Translator: Deborah Smith
Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegetarian (actually vegan) one day after a haunting nightmare. We follow the effect of this choice on her husband, brother-in-law, and sister
in 3 different parts of the story.
I can see why not everyone likes The Vegetarian. It’s a darkly odd and twisted book though not as weird to me as everyone claims it to be (maybe that just says something about me lol; my weird tolerance is very high). But I’m in the bandwagon that really enjoyed the reading experience. Like PLAM, it alternates perspectives between different family members that are important to Yeong-Hye. Her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister. But its writing and nuanced theme exploration far surpass PLAM’s. The writing is strangely detached and emotionless but it is so visceral in its imagery with hints of magical realism that kind of balances out the detached quality. It’s kind of funny that a book titled The Vegetarian (or more accurately, the vegan) is not really about being a vegetarian so to speak. It’s about the collapse of societal etiquette that was expected of her. What happens when a subservient wife starts rebelling against her societal role? She starts wearing obscene clothing, starts to ignore her husband and doesn’t cook for him, and even ignores her father’s advice. She is a very mysterious figure in the book but I felt like she was fully realized because every perspective had a different relationship with her and more so, I got to understand the desires and fears of the people around her because of her sudden change, how her husband didn’t marry her for love, her sister’s self-sacrifice, and how her brother-in-law wants to have sex with her (ew). What happens when their subconscious desires that have never been spoken of in polite society or fully acknowledged reveal themselves? And what will happen to Yeong-Hye when her own desires are stifled? What happens when she becomes unrecognizable, when her state of being becomes problematic but is never discussed in a society that prides itself on silently enduring problems? I love the commentary it raises and I thoroughly enjoyed this surreal journey.
Sidenote: Props to the translator, the words and their intended meaning were translated excellently.
Shelter by Jung Yun (Korean-American author)
A Korean man, Kyung Cho, and his Irish-American wife, Gillian who live with their 4-year-old son Ethan, deal with the aftermath of a tragic event that happened to Kyung’s parents.
Sidenote: I imagine Ethan looks cute af because let’s face it, halfies are so cute..
It’s a family drama that reads like a thriller and had me so anxious throughout even though when I think back on it, nothing much actually happens. In fact, I would argue that the writing is not really anything special that jumps out at you like the writing in The Vegetarian. It’s as blunt and direct as writing can get. But its strength lies in the way Yun so skillfully weaves in layers and layers to Kyung’s character without you realizing it. He’s quite the unreliable narrator, a selfish and resentful one, and because of that his actions are unpredictable and how we think of his parents, his wife is from his perspective, so even their actions are different than we expect because we think of them as one way from Kyung’s perspective when they might not be that person at all.
Kyung has a lot to deal with in this book but the one thing that’s always on his mind and controls his actions is the abuse he suffered as a child. Watching his father beat his mother, but also enduring the abuse his mother dealt him. I love the way Yun explores abuse in Shelter. Abuse doesn’t manifest itself in dramatic and obvious ways, she seems to imply, it just seeps into who you are. And as the story continues, I saw hints of his parents in Kyung, the people he never wanted to resemble. He struggles with being a good father and husband because he fears his past has not taught him how to be either. Yun explores what abuse has on cultural Korean norms as Kyung tries to reconcile his filial obligation to his desire to distance himself from his parents but also his struggle to hide and endure his past or finally acknowledge it. Can he let his past go? But more importantly, can he let his resentment of his past go? The subtle combination of these themes with the addition of fantastic storytelling (the reason I read this book in 2 days) makes this a must read.
Have you read any of these books? If so, what were your thoughts? Also, if you have any recommendations for books set in Korea or by Korean authors, I’d love to know!! =)