In Angela Mi Young Hur’s new novel, Folklorn, she writes about a “Korean American Cali-Gothic” family that tackles family trauma going back to the Korean War. The story is a Korean-American immigrant struggle story, yes, but more than that most of it atypically takes place in Sweden, where Hur lives with her Swedish physicist husband and their two children. Hur also dips liberally into Korean folktales, elements of which make regular appearances in the story.
When Elsa Park is still a teen, her mother explains that the women of their family are constrained by folktales. It is also a family plagued by mental illness: her brother Chris’s schizophrenia and her mother’s debilitating breakdown. Elsa wonders:
One theory I’ve got is that we became addicted to neurochemical hormones in our childhoods. Mom grew up in wartime, her developing brain brewing in adrenaline and fear and the desperate need to survive at all costs. This hormonal cocktail became the norm, so she thrived during trauma and crisis. A useful state of mind for an immigrant, especially with buffets and items on clearance. But when there wasn’t danger, she became uneasy, jonesing for a fix, the next adrenaline spike. So she conjured unseen enemies, a war between her and forces even more powerful than the ones who’d severed her country in two. For what was a war among men and their ideologies when there were ancestral curses, ancient stories that would never let her go?
Elsa turns to science—and particle physics specifically—to work on questions that have nothing to do with her family background or their culture. Yet while Elsa is at a crossroads in her research—neutrinos are not what they’re cracked up to be—she meets Oskar, a folklore professor who was adopted from Korea by Swedish parents decades earlier. Sweden’s connection to Korean adoptees was news to her.
With a population of 9.5 million, Sweden has over 9,000 Korean adoptees since the war, the highest per capita in the world. In absolute numbers, Sweden ranks third. Scandinavia as a whole has the second biggest population in a homogeneous land with very little Asian immigration otherwise.
Oskar, although he did his doctorate in Old Norse poetry, is an expert in Korean folktales. Slowly, Oskar reveals more of the struggles of Korean adoptees in Sweden:
Most Swedes don’t like to discuss racism at all, believing it unnecessary since they are not racist, of course. They fear talking about it might make them complicit or guilty by association, or that saying anything more nuanced than “racism is bad” might reveal something untoward. Conflict avoidance, repression, and denial—such cultural characteristics make for calm dinner conversations and ineffectual discussions.
One reason for the connection between Sweden and Korean adoptions was that around the time of the Korean War there was a Swedish hospital in Seoul. With children—including biracial babies—orphaned from the war, the Swedish doctors and nurses facilitated adoption to what was presumed to be a safer and “better” land. Elsa and Oskar bond over their Korean backgrounds, and he helps her unravel the meaning behind the folktales her mother leaves behind.
Hur writes with compassion about mental illness and identity. And while the title emphasizes the folktales, it’s the history of Korean adoption and its ramifications that make this novel unique.