A colleague and I were discussing just how interesting it was that Asian American literature (however that might be defined) that we’d been reading lately had been, for the most part, set outside of the United States. The ongoing discourses of transnationalism and globalization that have energized critical interests can certainly be mirrored by the representation content of fictional works that I’ve seen. Along these lines, Eugenia Kim’s The Calligrapher’s Daughter contours the Korean transnational terrain, where the vast majority of the text is set in Korea during the Japanese colonial occupation. This period has mobilized or influenced so many pivotal Korean American literary texts, including but not limited to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman, among others.
There are probably two major thematic strains to draw out from the novel that predominant its political propensities. The first and most obvious one stems from its anti-colonial message, where characters struggle to retain their Korean identities even as Japanese colonial authorities continually circumscribe Korean culture. The novel’s temporal arc over about three decades of course includes the infamous 1919 incident in which an anti-colonial demonstration turned violent and deadly. The protagonist, Najin, is not a proper name at first because her father uses it as a symbolic register of the inability to protest the colonial authority. Of course, the challenges of living under the Japanese regime continue to haunt the family, as they must negotiate having to learn Japanese and willfully forget Korean history. While Kim is quite effective at dramatizing the atrocities that Koreans faced under colonialism, her novel perhaps takes its most poignant theme in its feminist politic. Indeed, while Korea has been stereotypically been represented as a country steeped in inflexible patriarchy, Kim ingeniously infuses her narrative with strong female characters that tactically negotiate gendered expectations. For instance, the protagonist’s mother continually asserts the imperative that her daughter become educated, not only in Korean culture and history, but in other ways as well, to the extent that the mother outright defies her husband in a climactic sequence that sees Najin shipped off to her aunt in Seoul, where she is schooled in a variety of arts under the auspices of attending to the royal court. Najin is in some ways exceptional, but we see that this feminist revisionist narrative stands as a way to counteract the expectation that there could only be one paragon of the traditional Korean woman. Kim therefore attempts to assuage these configurations. The disastrous end of the royal court sees Najin return to her family and finally face the prospect of marriage.
In its scope and its unique character trajectory, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a refreshing read. More relevant to the concerns of some of the more domestically-inclined investments of Asian American Studies, there is an aesthetically creative sequence towards the conclusion of the novel where Najin’s husband, Calvin Cho, pens his experiences from the United States. We first remember that in this age of e-mail and instant gratification that different eras required other modes of communication. Again under the watchful eye of colonial authorities, Cho’s letters are actually redacted, with blank permanent strips that disable the reader’s ability to fully understand what Cho is communicating to his wife. The reader is able to surmise what might be being communicated based on the historical period. Indeed, as the Japanese authority comes upon the resistance of the Chinese and the ensuing Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the letters become increasingly redacted and censored. In these letters, too, we see some of the problematic ways in which race appears in the United States, as Cho comes to aligned not with other minorities, but is often read as “white” in contrast to the treatment he observes when African Americans are present. In this regard, the novel is truly transnational and the wide scope of colonialism, racial ideology, and violence can be seen in comparative scope.
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