Korean American experience resonates in ‘The Prince of Mournful Thoughts’

The longing for connection, for belonging, is woven throughout a dozen short stories in Caroline Kim’s superlative debut collection. 

University of Pittsburgh Press
“The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories” by Caroline Kim, University of Pittsburgh Press, 222 pp.

“There is so much I wish to make my daughter understand, but cannot,” an immigrant father muses about his pregnant daughter. “I am sure she feels much the same way.”

That disconnect between generations, between cultures, between histories, looms in Caroline Kim’s stupendous debut, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories.”

Winner of the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, one of the nation’s preeminent awards for short fiction, Kim was chosen by lauded novelist and essayist Alexander Chee (“The Queen of the Night”) with whom Kim shares a Korean American heritage.

“I wanted to read stories about what I felt was missing for myself: stories about Korea, what it was like in the past and during the war,” Kim said in an interview that accompanied the prize announcement. “I [also] yearned for stories where the POV came from a person like me: Korean, American, middle-aged, a mother, an immigrant, [and] an outsider.”

Almost two decades in the making – she says she wrote a story every few years – the result is a breathtaking literary accomplishment. A rarity among first, second, or even tenth collections, Kim maintains enviously superb quality throughout the dozen stories, in which she varies geographies (Korea, California, France), time periods (18th century to the future), and multiple generations.

The most emotionally resonant among the stories is perhaps “Picasso’s Blue Period,” featuring the immigrant Korean father longing for mutual understanding with his Westernized daughter who is about to make him a first-time grandfather. As he waits first in his daughter’s sleek California home and then at the hospital where the birth happens sooner than anticipated, the father recalls the family’s early immigration experiences and how, decades before, another pregnancy resulted in a drastically different outcome. 

Pregnancy also dominates “Arirang,” in which a young wife in pre-war Korea knows that her only hope of being treated as more than an overworked servant is to produce a son. Meanwhile, the village is already aflame with the latest gossip about a beautiful young mother of four who is pregnant yet again, this time – despite fervent protestations – not by the husband who comes home only once a month.

Mental health, a taboo topic in traditional Asian families, takes the narrative spotlight in multiple stories, including “Magdalena,” about the abandonment of a recently arrived immigrant wife and mother by her family, who choose this course of action rather than attempt to address her growing mental difficulties; and “Therapy Robot,” in which expensive, face-to-face counseling sessions are replaced by always-available, programmed-to-be-empathetic machines. 

The title story, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts,” is told in the voice of a nobleman who recounts his years of serving Crown Prince Sado, once heir to the Yi Dynasty in mid-1700s Korea. The rendering of Prince Sado’s tragic life is, for the most part, historically accurate, adapted with some liberties: The real Prince Sado’s fatal temper and murderous behavior worsened as his emperor father distanced himself further from his dangerously unpredictable son, eventually leading to the son’s execution in his late 20s. 

That ubiquitous, timeless longing for connection haunts Kim’s narratives throughout: Her characters, she reflects, “find themselves uprooted from where they began, looking for the place that will feel like home.” For Busan-born Kim – who immigrated to the United States at an early age and has lived on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in Texas – home is now northern California. Over decades, she’s honed her writing with both an MFA in poetry and a master’s degree in fiction. Her current pursuit of a graduate degree in counseling surely inspires insightful on-the-page conversations. Attuned to words both written and spoken, Kim composes with intelligence, clarity, and, occasionally, impeccably timed humor. Her cast of memorable characters includes the disappointed and determined, the contemplative and thwarted – all of them searching for connection. And for the fortunate few, finding it. 

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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