Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s debut novel, The Last Story of Mina Lee, is a unique immigrant story that takes place in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Kim traces not just the struggles of adapting to a new country but also the tragedies Mina leaves behind in Korea.
As a culture and country, they had so many tragedies from wars already that they persisted in a kind of silent pragmatism that reflected both gratitude for what they had now, and an unquenchable, persistent sadness that manifested itself differently in each person. Some had become drunks, surviving off the tenacity of their families in denial. Some had become obsessed with status symbols—luxury cars, designer clothes, and watches. Others worked diligently, a form of numbing the pain that at least had some kind of productive outcome—money in the bank, a roof over their heads, food on the table.
When Mina Lee arrives in Los Angeles the summer of 1987, she worries she’s made a horrible mistake. She leaves Seoul around the time of the student protests, but those don’t figure in her decision to emigrate. Instead, she’s trying to escape personal loss, loss going back to the Korean War and continuing to the time she leaves South Korea.
Mina had escaped North Korea with her parents during the War, but becomes separated from her parents and is almost left for dead when she makes it across the border. She’s only four; Mina ends up in an orphanage and is never adopted. When she ages out, she finds some semblance of normalcy when she marries a kind man and has a daughter, both of whom are later killed in a car accident in 1987. Mina finds little to live for in Seoul and leaves for the US to start over.
On paper, she was on vacation, visiting a friend from work. She had always wanted to visit America. She would be here for a month to see the sights—Disneyland, the beaches, Yosemite. On paper, she would relax, enjoy herself and return to her life in Seoul, her job as a designer of women’s casual clothes.
Mina visits none of these sites and quickly finds a room to rent and a job at a grocery in Koreatown. Twenty-seven years later, her grown daughter, Margot, finds Mina dead from an apparent fall. In alternating chapters depicting Mina’s story and Margot’s search for how her mother died, details of Mina’s life in Seoul and her early years in LA unravel with several twists and turns.
Woven into the dramatic twists of this story are real worries many immigrants face in the US, especially when they don’t speak English, as Mina does not. The prevalence of guns in a supposedly peaceful land of opportunities is perplexing. When Mina’s boyfriend Mr Kim gives her a gun to protect herself, she keeps it hidden in a closet, yet:
She could be anyone she wanted to be with this gun. She could be young and powerful again. In this country, it was easier to harm someone else than to stay alive. It was easier to take a life than to have one. Was she finally an American?
Nor, for immigrants like Mina, are the police to be trusted:
She could never trust the police, never knew what she could be deported for and when, what could happen to Margot if she were taken away. She had worked so hard in this country for so little, which could be destroyed at any moment—either by criminals on the street or men in uniforms.
The Last Story of Mina Lee’s gritty LA isn’t the one usually portrayed by Hollywood, nor does the act of immigrating draw a bright line between the past and oft-promised and sometimes delivered American Dream. Mina’s new life carries her old one with it, a past not immediately visible to the next generation. Margot lives a comfortable life in Seattle, capable of supporting herself on an administrative assistant’s salary. Not her dream job, perhaps, but her life is carefree compared to her parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Assimilation, it seems, carries some amnesia with it.