Caroline Kim’s debut short-story collection The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories grew out of an identity crisis she suffered some fifteen years ago. How would her life have differed had her parents not left South Korea for the US? Would she look different and like different things than her Korean-American self? And what does it even mean to “be Korean”?
She sought answers in books, only to find few English-language works set in Korea, apart from the English translations of several early 19th-century memoirs written by Lady Hong. The title story of the collection, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts”, is the result. The eponymous story tells of the dilemma King Yongjo faces when his son, Prince Sado (husband to the author many decades earlier) turns out to be a maniacal killer. To stop the killings, the King decides his son must die. Kim was moved to write this story because Lady Kong penned the memoirs it was based on and wrote in Korean language, not the Chinese characters the upper classes in Korean used at the time. The other stories in the collection take place in more recent periods, from just before the Korean War until the present, and mainly delve into how the characters’ lives change according to their new immigration or socioeconomic status.
In “Lucia, Russell, and Me”, the young teenage narrator lives in a transient apartment building in rural New England. It’s her family’s first home in the United States since immigrating. Although most people don’t stay for long at this complex, the narrator’s family lives there for seven years.
The narrator’s best friend is Lucia, a white girl who lives with her mother and one of the mother’s rotating boyfriends. The mother works night shifts as a nurse at the local hospital. The narrator’s parents allow their daughter to stay over with Lucia to keep her company at night, even before the girls enter middle school. Lucia and the narrator become friendly with Russell, a low level drug dealer. He calls the narrator “China”. Kim shows how the narrator could have easily remained in this environment for her teenage years, but then the apartment complex burns down. Her family uses this opportunity to move into their own home—thanks to help from the Red Cross—and finally achieve the American dream. Or do they?
Our neighbors mowed their lawns every Saturday and hung American flags even when it wasn’t the Fourth of July. Small children chased each other on front lawns while their parents washed their cars in the driveway. They waved when we passed but we would never know each other.
“Arirang” is told in the second person and it begins in North Korea some years before the Korean War. The protagonist is married to a man who is kind, but doesn’t pay her much attention. It turns out he has always had feelings for a childhood male friend. The protagonist cannot keep a pregnancy and feels like a failure, especially when it comes to her in-laws’ expectations. Then war breaks out.
The North Koreans, dressed in Chinese uniforms and carrying Russian guns, come marching in and wet-plaster giant pictures of Kim Il-sung’s face on every available surface. Within days they began seizing everything: land, crops, tools, animals, dwellings. One night you and your husband look at each other and say, “Let’s part.”
With the blessing of her in-laws, she leaves and walks a day and a half to a train station in Songdo, not far from Seoul. She ends up in Pusan, about as far away from the north as she can get. There she meets and marries an American soldier from Montana. Her life will change in fortunate ways she could never have imagined in her first marriage.
These stories are told from the perspective of women, but a couple of powerful tales are narrated by men. In “Mr. Oh”, an aging Korean immigrant in the US reflects on his life as he experiences undiagnosed medical issues. In “Picasso’s Blue Period”, another Korean immigrant father awaits the birth of his first grandchild in California as he thinks back on a difficult decision he and his wife were forced to make when they couldn’t afford another pregnancy years earlier.
During Kim’s search for books about Korea, she found few answers. Since then, there’s been a burst of English novels and memoirs set in Korea, both written in English originally and translated from the Korean. The connections Kim sought seem to now be coming though, and she’s added a selection of her own here.