Friday, August 19, 2011

This Burns My Heart--The Korean Immigrant Narrative Reworked by Samuel Park (who visits Boswell on September 7)

Immigrant family stories, whether as memoir or adapted into novels, are driven by the American dream. It's a trying business, and in a sense, it's all about trying.

1. The first generation tries to survive.
2. The second generation tries to forget.
3. And the third generation tries to remember.

There are variations of course. The poor acclimate differently from the wealthy, and usually need a few more generations.  There are those who are political refugees who yearn to return.  Somtimes they do, but other times they find that their kids don't want to come along.

It seems of late that the literary culture that is most on the upswing has been South Korea. From Janice Y. K. Lee (The Piano Teacher) to Eugenia Kim (The Calligraphers Daugher) to Kyung Sook Shin (Please Look after mom), Korean novelists are reaching new heights of acclaim, and I am not even thinking about two of my favorite writers whom I've been reading for a number of years--Chang-rae and Don Lee (not brothers to Janice, or rather, only siblings in talent-ness).

Even spouses are getting into the act, with Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli, where Howe followed his wife and Mom into the business of running a Brooklyn deli.  I think it's going to take another generation for writers to tackle the restauranting and dry cleaning and other entrepreneurial pursuits of new American arrivals.  For now, it's the stories of the homeland that resonate, and that's what Samuel Park has chosen to write about in his new novel, This Burns my Heart.

Samuel Park’s story takes the hallowed traditional road of a woman who has to overcome a number of odds for success. And Soo-Ja Choi has given herself a particularly tall challenge, as she wants to be a diplomat.  You've got to have just the right kind of husband to allow that.  And just to be clear, the option of not marrying isn't available.

She picks a snappy dresser from a well-off wealthy family, willing to do anything for her.  But then she meets an earnest doctor and she's got to make a choice.  Well guess what?  She makes the wrong one. She's been lied to on several fronts. The family's finances are teetering.  Her new husband turns out to be lazy, but hardly docile.

Oh, and the love of her life that she turned down?  He turns out to be a real catch.

Now many folks at this point would accept fate, but not Soo-Ja.  And folks that had the can-do spirit would be looking to America for their salvation. But Park turns the immigrant narrative on its head; Soo-ja has not intention of leaving her homeland and plans to make her fortune in Seoul.  And in a sense, the story is of twin meteoric rises in fortunes--of the Koreans in the United States and of South Korea itself.

Park captures South Korea in all its rich culture, at a time of great economic upheaval.  Using a traditional fiction framework, he balances poignancy and "unabashed melodrama" (I'm referencing a quote because I couldn't say that better), adding some sly, modern winks along the way. I really enjoyed This Burns my Heart, but I do warn you that Soo-Ja is both a tough cookie with some serious judgment issues. She's not always the most sympathetic heroine.  But the strength of a great novelist is to present a character with flaws and make you love her anyway. And that Park does.

Advance reviews were very strong, and there have been a number of powerful recommendations from other writers. 

"This Burns my Heart is at once a passionate and sensitve love story and a fascinating historical novel set against the cultural dislocations of a rising South Korea.  In his heroine Soo-ja, Samuel Park has created an emotionally resonant character that readers will root for and long remember."
--John Burnham Schwartz

"Quietly stunning--a soft, fierce story that lingers in the mind.  Samuel Park is a deft and elegant writer; this is a very exciting debut (novel)."
--Audrey Niffenegger

"Samuel Park's astonishing novel, This Burns my Heart, povides mesmerizing perspective into the life of a Korean wife and lover--intricate and intimate as only a woman's secret life can be."
--Jenna Blum

"The emotional world of the heroine, Soo-Ja, is beautifully realized; I found myself caught up in her dramas from start to finish, and was reluctant to part with her at the novel's close.  A lovely, romantic, haunting book."
--Sarah Waters.

Yes, I know, pretty great quotes, and I had my pick of a half dozen more.

I've had a few email interactions with Mr. Park and have found him quite charming. This is a good thing for all of us, as he is reading at Boswell on Wednesday, September 7, 7 pm, traveling up from Chicago where he is currently teaching.  I'm hoping to get the word out about this wonderful novel and author who has added another important chapter to the novel of immigrant experience.

It's been a little tougher than some of my other cultural events (Paolo Giordano and Oliver Pötzsch come to mind) as the author is not reading in Korean. We've been trying to do outreach to several organizations, but I still need more help.  Perhaps Mr. Park does know how to speak Korean? It seems to be a draw.  Eh, probably not.

Help us get the word out. If you know someone who might be interested, send them this blog's link.  Much thanks, and see you at Boswell on the 7th of September.

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