of a New Generation of Writers
Upon Echoes, published by the Asian American Writers'
to pin down a common, collective experience from "Echoes
Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings," an
anthology of extraordinarily diverse stories from contemporary
Korean American writers, is a daunting task. After poring
over 271 pages of haunting vignettes, humorous shorts,
nostalgic memoirs and vivid poetry, all I could come
up was the frequent mention of kimchee.
Lee writes of the comfort of opening her school lunch
box to the heady aroma of kimchee, and although Dominic
Choi's protagonist, a powerful businessman, has conquered
mainstream America, "deep down he was never happy
unless he was eating bahp and kim chee gegah."
M. Rain Noe's narrator looks for his "Sense of
Self," and just when he's got it pinned down, he
realizes that "it smells a little too much of kimchee
this is someone else's Sense of Self!" There must
something about the unapologetically pungent pickle
dish that both comforts and alienates, a guilty pleasure
that affirms roots but keeps the "American"
kids from sitting next to you at lunch. Add some footnotes
and a long bibliography, and this review starts sounding
like a bad senior thesis (Korean American Identity and
the Omnipresence of Kimchee).
than that, the 38 short stories and poems in this anthology,
published by the Asian American Writers' Workshop and
edited by two UC professors, are as diverse as the writers
who penned them, as they range from award-winning M.F.A.s
to fresh-out-of-college youngsters, from New York advertising
execs to a professional dog walker, and from American-as-apple-pie
Seoul adoptees to recent immigrants. It is a mistake
to try to draw sweeping conclusions about the "Korean
American experience" from them; in fact, this collection
should be savored for just that---its refusal to define
a singular Korean America.
H. Kim (shown above) edited the anthology with Laura
Hyun Yi Kang.
Courtesy of berkeley.edu
into three sections, "arrival/return," "dwelling/crossing,"
and "descent/flight," the anthology presents
a rich tapestry woven of an array of variegated experiences.
There is Jae-Hyun, the narrator of Junse Kim's "Son
of Kings," a half-Korean, half-Irish Harvard graduate
who works for the Peace Corps in Tunisia and is obsessed
with his lineage: Jae Hyun is the "first son of
the first son of the first son and so on." There
is Genie, a guitar strumming, Leonard Cohen loving teenager
from Washington D.C. who learns about love and loss
at summer camp. And then there is Eunice, the narrator
of Carolyn Sun's "Eunice and the Center,"
an obese New Jersey native who recounts her painful
weekly trip to an eating-disorders clinic with hilarious
acrimony: "I keep my eyes on the tablecloth the
whole time, hoping to avoid seeing the expressions of
dismay mixed with pity and freak show fascination that
midgets and dwarfs must get when they walk down the
street in the 'big people world.' I mean, I already
know I'm not anyone's wet dream."
stories tell of alienation and assimilation, of empowerment
and numbing paralysis, of lingering homesickness and
rejection of tradition and heritage. Some deal with
the absurdities that result from being caught between
two cultures. In Dominic Choi's "Friday the Day
I Hate Being Korean," Jaewook, a corporate big
shot for an unnamed Fortune 500 company, is bound by
filial duty to work at his parents' fish store every
Friday. Jaewook marvels at the incongruity of exchanging
his three-piece suit for a butcher's apron every Friday,
and of gutting fish just hours after brokering multimillion-dollar
deals. Yet he diligently commutes from the tall glass
tower (where he regularly snubs people who are not wearing
suits) to the fish market, where he endures racist insults
from the mostly black patrons, driven by his obligations
as the eldest son, as well as fierce pride---Jaewook
cannot bear to imagine his elderly father taking out
another evocative story, Frances Park's "Around
the Block," a mother recalls the cruelty she faced
as a Korean American child growing up in an all-white
neighborhood in suburban Virginia on a Norman Rockwell-esque
street called Lilac Lane. Mercilessly attacked by her
classmates, she slowly becomes a "quiet girl of
earthquakes," descending into submission and passivity
and becoming numb to the anger brewing inside her. When
she meets Courtney, who is "gorgeous and rebellious
and smoking with rage," a firebrand who is similarly
outcast because she is the daughter of divorced parents,
the two go on a rampage, razing Lilac Lane and declaring
war on the "all-American family." The story
is a triumphant tale of empowerment as well as a poignant
reminder of the cruelty of children.
another anthology published by the AAWW.
Courtesy of temple.edu
of the most heartrending stories is Jane Park's "Falling,"
a beautifully written narrative that deals with the
vulnerability of parents and the fragility of life.
In "Falling," Elly, the daughter of Korean
immigrant parents, reminisces about growing up in the
back of her family's general store in a deserted former
mining town in Canada. Every morning, Elly's father,
a quiet, introspective man, goes to his "office"
in the woods, which consists of a plank of wood between
two branches and a milk carton seat, to read and write.
Her father's love for literature becomes a sore spot
for the family, who is struggling to make ends meet.
Taking place in the lonely, rural town of Pincher Creek,
at the base of a forested mountain, which "was
less a mountain than the last whimper of the great Rocky
Mountain range," the story is permeated with images
of winter and snow, which eventually come to signify
death: Elly's father is killed by an avalanche one day
on his way to his office. The story ends with the lingering
memory of a poem Elly's father wrote, about how falling
snow symbolizes words, and just as no two snowflakes
are identical, "neither are the words we say, which
also fall and melt into oblivion."
some pieces don't quite live up to their writers' ambitions,
the emotions they present are raw, uncultivated, and
very real. While most of the stories are written in
the tradition of realism, a few indulge in flights of
fancy. In M. Rain Noe's untitled piece, for example,
a Korean New Yorker realizes he has lost his "Sense
of Self" and goes on a frantic search to look for
it: "My Sense of Self is smaller than a newspaper
but bigger than a chewing gum blemish, so if I've dropped
it on the street it shouldn't be too hard to spot."
this particular story sometimes feels a bit contrived,
the sense of a desperate search for identity resonates
throughout the anthology. The narrator in M. Rain Noe's
piece isn't quite sure what his Sense of Self looks
like, mistaking a crumpled garbage bag and then an Italian
silk scarf for his identity. In the end, just when he
has a handle on his Sense of Self, it slips from his
fingers into a room overflowing with lost Senses of
Selves, scattered on the floor and dangling from the
ceiling fan, and all hope is lost. One can't help thinking
that with "Echoes Upon Echoes," Korean America
has found a tiny piece of its sense of self, not as
a collective identity but as a room filled with pages
of all colors, shapes, and textures, all bound together
in one remarkable anthology.
Asian American Writers' Workshop, a New York based non-profit
literary organization devoted to fostering Asian American
literature, has published a number of anthologies in
past years, including "Watermark: Vietnamese American
Poetry and Prose" (1998), "Flippin: Filipinos
on America" (1998), and "Quiet Fire: A Historical
Anthology of Asian American Poetry" (1998). The
books can be ordered online at aaww.org or from Temple
University Press at temple.edu/tempress.