Min Jin Lee, 2017 (read 2018, amazon.com link)
Book club. I do not care for historical fiction.
Fun, but between a half and three-fourths way through, my patience started to wane, and I started to look forward to finishing the book. I respect Lee trying to describe the lives and changes over many generations of Koreans, but I grew increasingly uninterested in each set of characters introduced after the halfway point. There must be a better way: I think this book would have been better off as a nonfictional description of the lives of each generation of Koreans (I’d read that), or a nonfictional description in each of 4-6 “books” or “volumes,” followed or preceded by a fictional short story such as those in the book here.
I like fiction that aims to be fiction – like The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games, or any of a thousand other novels. Perhaps the Harry Potter series too, which I haven’t read. Each creates its own fictional world, even if we want to philosophically discuss the “reality” of that world within the mind of its author/creator and its audience. Historical investigation – equal to nonfiction “popular science” or scientific musings, I think – attempts to inform us of the truth of events as they happened.
But this kind of genre I do not care for. Surely re-reading writings by myself, like losing one’s self in thoughts while walking on the sidewalk, simply reinforces existing prejudices. And conversely, by opening my mind to new perspectives, every damn work I read by someone else distorts the artificial boundaries of reality and illusion in my own mind a little bit… if I really wanted to break the boundaries beyond real and non-real, I wouldn’t read historical fiction, I would take hallucinogenic mushrooms or LSD. I enjoyed Oil and Marble far more, as it “felt” plausible and real, and while some events were clearly imagined, 1) the author notes the majority in her afterward, and 2) I doubt the emotions of those events were far from the truth of their lives.
Perhaps fictional authors cage themselves in from nonfictional books and vice-versa, but if so, they all do a disservice to the world. An author is an author, perhaps they should all write a broader variety of works.
Lee gives us a good sense of what it was like for many Koreans during the war and afterwards. But it’s a sense, distilled from her own, far-more-educated sense of history… Useful, but not exactly likely to warrant respect by any Koreans or Japanese in conversation, no?
In her Acknowledgements, she says,
I wanted very much to get this story right; however, I felt that I didn’t have all the knowledge or skills to do this properly. In my anxiety, I did an enormous amount of research and wrote a draft of a novel about the Korean Japanese community. Still, it did not feel right. Then in 2007, my husband got a job offer in Tokyo, and we moved there in August. On the ground, I had the chance to interview dozens of Koreans in Japan and learned that I’d gotten the story wrong. The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that. I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people I met in Japan that I put aside my old draft and started to write the book again in 2008, and I continued to write it and revise it until its publication. [all emphasis mine]
That phrase says it all: “I was so humbled by the breadth and complexity of the people I met in Japan.” Duh, no? We are all prisoners to – and must challenge – our own prejudices of others, and simple stories that explain away groups of people during wars and migrations are only useful for their simplicity. Once learned, all must be unlearned. They always lack nuance, and each family and individual is affected by these forces and reasons – grounded in truth, of course – but each situation is always more complex than that. Indeed, we should be humbled by the depth of each person we meet; as is often said, if we find someone boring, all that truly shows is our unwillingness to discover and/or discuss their true passions.
If it hadn’t been for the book club, reading that paragraph above and the interview with her would have spared me from reading the book. Like all authors, to be sure, she wrote this for herself – nothing wrong with that. But I would have (and have) filed it away in my mind, reading it if ever I wanted to gain a little education on the east China/Korea/Japan region in the early- and mid-1900s. It is wonderful to have a sense of this aspect of Asian history, broadening my mind and augmenting my own actual education as a kid and senses from growing up. But I myself have not read all the primary literature that Lee has, nor interviewed the people she has, nor actually read a few diverse books on the region’s history as I might, were it necessary. Thus, I must not confuse her fictional creations of what happened in and around Korea last century with the actual truth. I must not adopt her own prejudices and ideas about this history – educated and valid – as my own, simply because I’ve read one particular historical fiction – uneducated, invalid. It is useful to have a sense of this history.
But it is also dangerous, because I may believe I am more educated than I really am: I know about Korean history, because I’ve read a book! Dangerous.
[see notes for Educated]
Generic complaints out of the way…
The belly as memory and our emperor…good reasons to fast:
“But did you know, the young man had already heard of your cooking from his brother who stayed ten years ago? Ah, the belly has a better memory than the heart!”
Changho-ya, you’ve worked for me, you’ve had enough food and money, so you’ve started to think about ideas—that’s normal. Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.
Also loved the comments below on protesting and action being for youth (especially unattached males) with nothing to lose, whereas the opposite was equally dangerous: getting too enraptured in ideas, rather than practical life, might lead us to be exploited by ideas. And so I see many baby boomer Americans feeding conspiratorial ideas on all sides of the political spectrum, especially as they age.
Protesting was for young men without families.
For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor.
Neat quote opened Book II by Benedict Anderson on the concept of the nation as imaged. Reminded me of Yuval Harari’s description in Sapiens of our most powerful imagined concept to date: money.
Major theme: Life is suffering for women, life is suffering for women…
Yes, life is suffering. Not for wo-men, or for men, but for hu-mans. Life is sadness, hatred, anguish, pain, anxiety, and suffering… but it is not only suffering and negativity, it is also joy, excitement, growth, calm, connection, and so much more. Life is what we feel, interpret, and make it in each moment.
Loved this note about the importance of physical touch to the sick:
“Your grandmother Sunja and great-aunt Kyunghee visit me on Saturdays. Did you know that? They pray for me, too. I don’t understand the Jesus stuff, but it’s something holy to have people touch you when you’re sick. The nurses here are afraid to touch me. Your grandmother Sunja holds my hands, and your great-aunt Kyunghee puts cool towels on my head when I get too hot. They’re kind to me, though I’m a bad person—”
Finally, some great life advice:
Sunja said nothing. In the market, say very little, her father had taught her.
“Does your parlor need a boy?” Sunja asked.
“Sure, but no fighting. That’s not the only way to be a man,” he said, feeling sorry for the kid who didn’t have a father. “Being a man means you know how to control your temper.
“Just study,” Hansu had said. “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.
- Important: Find 5-10 books exploring major cultural differences in the world, each with perhaps a few regional examples from Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, Polynesia, etc.
- Remember to consider her categorization of narrators when reading fiction in the future: “There are remarkable narrators in great works of fiction that are wry (Pride and Prejudice), sarcastic and unreliable (Lolita), opinionated and high-minded (Jane Eyre), humble and curious (David Copperfield), and intellectual and world-weary (Middlemarch).”