Saturday, May 16, 2009

APA Book Review: Secondhand World -- Katherine Min

In honor of APA Heritage/History Month I thought I'd kick it off with a book review of a novel I just finished by Katherine Min, Secondhand World.

Click here for a Ms. review by Helen Zia and here for Katherine Min's website.

This is Min's first novel, and it's an impressive first attempt because she juggles many themes both common and unique to the already large body of Asian American literature. There are the typical tropes of immigrant hardship and assimilation. There are the war wounds (this time it's the Korean war) that trickle down and through this Korean American family living in upstate New York in the early 1970s. In some ways, this family is the tragic corollary to Gish Jen's more comic (and comedic) coming-of-age novel, Mona in the Promised Land. Both novels feature immigrant parents with Americanized teenage daughters living in white enclaves during the 1970s in the height of the civil rights era, where they are "the only one"--the only Asian Americans, the only one who really "looks" racially different from their peers.

But whereas in Mona, the title heroine assimilates with her Jewish American peers and becomes part of the cultural and historic moment, for the protagonist of Secondhand World, Isa Myung Hee Sohn (named by her more free-spirited Korean mother after Isadora Duncan but given a traditional Korean name by her more tradition-bound father), history and the larger world seem farther away and her peers are not also "minorities" but are, instead, middle-class WASPs who taunt her on the schoolbus, using racial and racist epithets across the ethnic slur spectrum: gook, chink, jap. But more painful than these childhood torments are the various tragedies that propel the novel--for it opens with Isa in a burn ward, disclosing to readers that she has been orphaned after her home burned down. How these events came about forms the basis of the plot (and mood and characterization) of Min's novel.

I don't want to give too much away--as I said before, there are some themes typical to Asian American literature, like the struggle to assimilate, to reconcile the ethnic past, to negotiate generational differences between Americanized rebellious children and their more traditional (and often conservative) Asian-ethnic parents. But there are also some differences, key ones, in Min's text that made me think she was doing something a bit different then just the typical American immigrant tale gone awry. One detail that is definitely different is the introduction of Herold "Hero," Isa's boyfriend, who also happens to be an albino. Yet perhaps it's the overall sense of sadness--of tragedy--that overlays the novel that makes it feel different than other typical immigrant hardship tales. Or perhaps it is because this novel seems to embody the Korean word "han"--a word that has no exact translation in English but that expresses a deep and abiding melancholy and sadness--one that is rooted in the core of one's being, that informs one's worldview and actions but nevertheless keeps one moving forward, because it's not a despairing melancholy but a knowing melancholy.

At any rate, the voice rings true--and it's a very easy read. Although I do think that there were some places that needed either truncation/editing (the bus scenes, in particular, while probably true/authentic to many of us who were tormented by racist slurs is just a bit too cliche) and although the "difficult immigrant father" trope permeated the first 7/8 of the novel (with the last 1/8 revealing a past and a rationale for her father's stoicism) there were other things that Min captured so well about being a teenage daughter mis-understood by her parents, struggling to figure out how she can adapt to her world--which is what all teenage girls struggle with at some point. So Isa's story reads as both universal and unique at the same time.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]

1 comment:

Andromeda Jazmon said...

This looks like a great book and I am going to put it on my summer reading list. Thanks for the review!