It’s fair to say that the world was entranced by Pachinko. It wasn’t like a blockbuster movie that had lines around the theater for the premiere at midnight. It was the consistent whispering of voices that passed on the exquisite recommendation of this sweeping story about a Korean woman and her life defining decision to escape to Japan that made this book became a must read, and spurred its adaptation into a series on Apple TV+.
If you found yourself thinking about the story of Sunja long after you finished reading, then you will welcome these other thoughtful offerings of those who face displacement from their homes, traditions and all that they hold dear to face a new path and reckon with how a homeland can define you.
This tale is the most epic of epics. Fleeing their homeland as it is handed over to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, these Korean characters from all walks of life leave in hopes of a more stable life on a whole new continent. The trouble is that in exchange for their voyage there, the emigrants are tricked into giving up their freedom. Adding to their troubles is the circumstance of finding themselves in a Mexico that is in the middle of its own revolution.
As characters fall in love, learn to connect to their new surroundings in South America and try to reunite with those that they were forced apart from as indentured servants, the reader finds that humans still have hope for what their future holds despite the direst threats to life and liberty. Perhaps that is when we are the most human.
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The Living Reed
This story is similar to the plot line of Black Flower with generations of Koreans reacting to the invasion of their country by Japan. But this time, the characters are staying in their occupied country.
The family in this story are close confidants to the royal family of Korea at the time that they are violently taken out of power. Because of their proximity to the former top of the hierarchy in the country, Il-han and his father are forced to “disappear” while finding a way to survive. Instead of just surviving though, the Kims realize that they need to do more. They want their freedom and their country back and they are willing to fight for both. Get to know four generations of Kims who make it an honored tradition to sacrifice for what you treasure above all.
A Southern Girl
The title of this book is a bit tongue in cheek. The “Southern” description has two meanings: the main character is adopted from South Korea into a family living in the American South. While the title is referencing Soo Yon, or Allie as she comes to be called, the narrative is cleverly told through the voices of multiple people in her life including her birth mother and her adoptive parents.
The pressures of living up to the social mores of genteel society are widely felt by Allie and surprisingly by her father whose family has called the South home for generations. Examining Allie’s roots give way to her father examining his own. He realizes just how many aspects of his family’s and community’s traditions are about staying close knit at the cost of keeping “others’” down and out.
The beauty of this novel not only comes from the travel the reader is privy to in the varied settings around the world, but in the internal journeys taken by characters trying to decide how identity is defined.
The emigration that occurs in this novel is not out of desperation but by choice. The motivation to leave their home country is the settling of new communities where the expatriate Japanese characters can practice their dual values of Christianity and Japanese heritage.
Emile, Haru, Kantaro, and Genji express different points of view stemming from their experiences at the beginning of the 19th century in in their new chosen home of Brazil. While the freedom to create a community literally from the ground up sounds like a dream, the costs of establishing the physical and social boundaries of said community can be unforeseen. Yamashita details the hardship and prejudice to be found by “outsiders” to a new land from those that are native to it.
How exactly does one balance honoring the heritage of your ancestors while trying to embrace the uniqueness of a new home and people? Tipping one way can lead to isolation when you may need support from locals while complete assimilation can lead to the loss of self.
Almost American Girl
Do not let the format of this book lead you to conclude that it is any less weighty in subject matter than Pachinko. This beautifully illustrated non-fiction graphic novel is far from a glib cartoon comic. Ha takes the reader on a journey with Robin. Born in Seoul, Korea without knowing any English, she suddenly becomes a new permanent resident of Huntsville, Alabama.
Throw in some betrayal felt by Robin when her mom announces that she is getting married after they had pretty much nailed a Gilmore Girls solid mother and daughter bond, add in some ice-cold shoulders from your new step family and top that off with being a teenager, check that, foreign teenager at a brand new school and you have a recipe for a pretty miserable existence. This memoir was born out of the world of art that Ha discovered as an outlet of expression to get through those times and flourish. And we are all the better for it.
If I Had Your Face
The magic of this novel is it presents itself as a straightforward #girlposse story but offers so much more to the reader who discovers it and falls under its spell. The modern-day Seoul, Korea setting is a through line for the plot but the characters are on journeys both physical and emotional.
Meet Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Wonna. Each with the hopes and dreams of contemporary Western young women but burdened with the traditions of their own homeland. The desires for a purposeful career, a romantic relationship and even creating a family collide with the expectations of their culture. In Korea, they are finding that women are often objects of beauty and pleasure for men and wealth and status are not easy to come by if you are not male. You can’t help but root for these women as they forge a friendship that will get through the highs and lows of this and every stage of their lives.
Featured image via Apple TV+.