In the U.S., the Korean War has been called “the forgotten war” — a sideshow in geopolitics and American novels such as Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate” or, more recently, Philip Roth’s “Indignation.” The conflict, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, never had an official peace treaty and saw no territorial gains for either the North or South. Not surprisingly, “Who won the Korean War?” is a frequent search on the internet.
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, Historical Fiction.
But the commercial success of Min Jin Lee’s novel “Pachinko” showed that Korean history can charm Western readers. In the wake of “Pachinko” — and already praised by Lee as “a gorgeous achievement” — comes Eugenia Kim’s novel “The Kinship of Secrets,” an Asian-American saga in the vein of Amy Tan or Pamela Rotner Sakamoto. It is a measuredly moving story of a girl losing and finding a home, the ways in which families grow into units, and immigrants into citizens.
Kim’s first novel, “The Calligrapher’s Daughter,” was inspired by her mother’s life during the Japanese occupation of Korea. “The Kinship of Secrets,” a sequel also based on Kim’s family story, picks up the lives of Najin and Calvin Cho, when, in 1948, they move to America. One of their daughters, the 1-year-old Inja, is left behind in Seoul with an uncle, to rejoin the family later.
When North Korea invades the South, Inja is cut off from her parents. Even after the armistice, political tension and immigration restrictions continue to foil a reunion. Fifteen years pass until Inja, now a teenager who barely speaks English, meets her family in Washington, D.C., an event clouded by long separation and a shameful family secret. Slowly, it is revealed why Najin, torn with guilt, feared that she took the wrong daughter to America.
In the afterword, Kim explains how much the book follows her family story. Her own sister, Sun, was stuck in Seoul for years, eventually leaving her home for a family and a country she didn’t know.
“On a trip to South Korea to research my first novel, I asked my sister what it was like to have come to the U.S.,” says Kim, explaining the origins of “The Kinship of Secrets.” “Her answer — that it was ‘heartbreaking’ — surprised me, and took me on a journey into the story of her life.”
With historical fiction, the challenge for any writer is the balance between story and background. Period detail — what the novelist Salvatore Scibona calls “the charisma of fact” — has to evoke a convincing texture, without feeling forced or slowing the story to where readers lose interest in the characters.
Kim, whose writing focuses on domestic scenes, began her first book as a memoir, to honor her family’s story. But she soon changed to a dramatized version, which better conveyed the emotional truths. To write the wartime chapters in “The Kinship of Secrets,” Kim used Pinterest for her research, compiling hundreds of images from university libraries, periodicals and historical sites. Still, it remained a challenge to weave historical detail organically into the story.
“I made a detailed timeline of Korean — and to a lesser extent American — history, to see when and how it might have affected the lives of the characters, especially during the war,” says Kim. “History can happen in tiny details. What kind of food did people eat during wartime? How hard was it to get goods during reconstruction? How would people discuss politics in their daily conversations?”
Thus, readers see students in Seoul protesting in the 1950s, while some girls are eating their first bananas. In 1960s and early ’70s America, Inja and Miran watch “Cleopatra” at the drive-in and discuss their father’s support for Richard Nixon, all the while trying to make sense of their own identities. Throughout the decades, both sisters struggle with the dilemma of “being Korean yet not being Korean.”
About Miran, the older “American” sister, Kim writes: “She saw herself as an American soul in a Korean body — a state of being she called ‘The Great Pretender,’ after the song made popular by Sam Cooke, meaning she always felt as if she were acting at being either Korean or American.”
Kim herself, who was born and raised in the U.S., says it took her until her 50s to resolve her own issues of belonging. The fictional retelling of her family history — entailing her research about Korea and a visit to Seoul with her sister — helped Kim to accept both sides of her Asian-American identity. But while she sees living between two cultures as a benefit, she admits that immigration is ambiguous.
“It’s often traumatic, even when leaving your country voluntarily,” says Kim. “Dealing with losing a former culture is a heavy burden to bring to a new country. Any uncertainty about permission to be there, and the legal wrangling that follows, makes the issue even more tangled. The effects last long after families are reunited.”
Looking into the future, Kim is “pessimistically hopeful” that the relationship between North and South Korea can improve. Still, despite the recent detente, she is doubtful about reunification.
“The regime of the North and the prejudices of the South would have to change greatly for that to happen,” says Kim. “After 70 years of division, it’s hard to imagine they can reunify in a way that satisfies both. Like the trauma of separated children, the separation of the North and the South has its own lasting trauma that can’t easily be remedied, if at all.”