Korean literature is on the rise. When, before this summer, have you seen a Korean novel on The New York Times bestseller list?
“Please Look After Mom” – the searing story of a family’s search for their missing mother by award-winning South Korean novelist Shin Kyung-sook – has now been published in 27 countries and in at least 18 languages. That is the book that I actually intended to pick up. Instead, it was a copy of Brazilian-born Korean-American author Samuel Park’s This Burns My Heart that fell into my hands. But I’m not sorry.
Park is a professor of English who teaches at Columbia College Chicago. This novel – Park’s first – tells the story of Soo-Ja Choi, a beautiful and spunky young South Korean who stubbornly marries one man even though she really loves another. Forced to move in with her very uncongenial in-laws, it looks as though Soo-Ja may be destined to spend the rest of her life nursing regret over her poor choice and finding consolation only in her precious daughter, Hana.
The emotional dilemma at the heart of the novel (do you follow your heart or your head?) is quite familiar but for at least for readers in the United States the setting (postwar South Korea) is not. Park does a good job of bringing the rapidly changing South Korea of the 1960s alive. As cities sprout from beanfields and rickshaws give way to Kias, the world around Soo-Ja and her family is changing at a frightening speed. The societal revolution makes it all the harder for Soo-Ja to know her own heart. Once she had been taught to sacrifice for her family. Now the message seems to be that Koreans must sacrifice for their jobs – with the goal being to earn more and consume more.
But if a South Korean woman is freer to work outside her home, does this also mean that she has the right to pursue happiness in her own way? Soo-Ja is no longer sure of her place in society and that makes navigating her unhappy marriage all the more confusing. Capitalism suggests the rise of the individual – yet it also meshes neatly with traditional Korean ideals of self-sacrifice. What does that mean for a woman who becomes her family’s chief ricewinner – only to help prop up a marriage that offers her little in exchange?
While the Chinese were starving to death during the Great Leap Forward, the South Koreans were drowning in an unexpected surplus of material goods. Both peoples, however, were also struggling with a dizzying loss of their traditions. And for the women in both countries, a new way of life was offering new freedoms – but not equality.
Although Park is a man, “This Burns My Heart” is a woman’s story. Maybe Park – like See – will stretch his story out over the generations. I hope so. I’d love to see how Hana moves beyond her mom in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.