I spent most of yesterday reading Sung J. Woo’s Everything Asian. Reading has always been for me, in the end, a source of entertainment and pleasure and such was the case with Woo’s felicitous first novel. With a cultural context I am well aware of on a certain level, Everything Asian is the story of the Kim family: a mother, a father, and two children. The father, Harry, finally is able to move his wife (Emma) and two children (Susan, the older, and David, the younger) over from Korea and the novel elucidates the challenges accorded to the assimilation experience. Harry owns a basic variety goods store catered to Orientalia, a shop called East Meets West, from whence the title originates. Indeed, David, the son, believes that a better name for the store might have been “everything Asian,” from the pan-Asian items that are sold, including items like kimonos and fans. East Meets West (one can’t help but connect this title to Younghill Kang’s novel, East Goes West) is part of a mini-mall type area called Peddlers Town in which the Kims are one small part of a larger entrepreneurial community where other stores cater toward customers that have inclinations for various items, including specialty shops for mirrors, sound speakers, luggage, among other such novelties. While this novel could have followed some of the more rote trajectories with such a plot, the way Woo spins much of his tale through the eyes of a young adolescent boy grants the narrative a humorous and effortless quality. While the tone may at many moments be funny or light-hearted, the tone is cloaking very serious themes ranging from economic crises to terminal illnesses. Consequently, the novel cannot be one to dismiss as fluff nor can it be easily digested without recourse to contemplating the myriad ways in which the Asian immigrant must toil endlessly in hopes of finding even just one shred of the famed and mythologized American Dream. The novel’s strength also is mobilized by Woo’s eye to creating very attractive peripheral characters that refract the Kim family experience, so that we see them anew. There is the McManus family who is supposed to teach the Kims to better speak English. There is Alex, the super-model store employee that begins to threaten David’s sense of equanimity.
In terms of Asian American literature as a larger field, it is difficult to situate the novel because of its rather eclectic blending of humor, the immigrant narrative, and its unique narrative styling. Indeed, while the novel is certainly constellating around the Kim family, there are various chapters narrated from other points-of-view, most often of the other entrepeneur families that work in Peddlers Town. If there are points I would push the novel on, it would be through its framing device and the development of certain minor characters. The novel opens up with David reminiscing about the past, especially as he looks upon the now-empty apartment that his family first lived after having moved to the United States. The narrative thus ensues after that point, but the novel concludes without a full-fledged return to the “present” moment and I did wonder about how the “older” David might be living, what kind of life he had. At other points, Woo is certain to create such memorable side characters that one almost wants to follow those side plots as well, which is clearly a testament to his vivid characterizations. Everything Asian has a cinematic quality in this respect and reminds me most then of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, although the two works are obviously extremely different in terms of context and even fictional genre. Eminently teachable and never over-indulgent, Everything Asian is a unique and indispensable addition to the “field,” one that belies a still-emergent comedic impulse that is only beginning to be queried.
Within its own ethnically specific grouping, Everything Asian continues to contour the Korean American literary terrain. Other Korean American fictional reviews in this community have included Katherine Min’s Secondhand World (just recently), Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher (which noticeably did not revolve around characters of Korean descent), Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere, Min Jin Lee’s Free Food For Millionaires, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Angela Mi Young Hur’s The Queens of K-Town, Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin, and Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest. It is impossible to locate a single unifying narrative among this very diverse set of texts. For those like Janice Y.K. Lee and Susan Choi, the Korean American experience as one to situate a kind of racial oppression is not a model they specifically draw from, but the small business setting evoked by Everything Asian has been the productive location for works including Leonard Chang’s The Fruit ‘N Food and Suki Kim’s The Interpreter. Of the authors listed here, most are first time fiction writers, so hopefully can expect much more from these authors. It is already rumored that Min Jin Lee is working on her next novel and Leonard Chang’s newest work, Crossings, seems to be a return to the social realistic (and almost naturalistic aesthetic found in The Fruit N’ Food, deviating then from his Allen Choice detective series. One wonders about the long delayed newest novel by Chang-rae Lee, which was highlighted at some point here, entitled The Surrendered. And lest we forget, Korean American poetry fans can rejoice with the soon-to-be published fifth poetry collection from Myung Mi Kim, entitled Penury (Omnidawn, June 2009). We might then call upon Lisa Lowe’s “heterogeneity” model here offer up the increasingly nuanced representational landscape where the “ethnic” author no longer has to worry about being the sole spokesperson for an entire ethnic community. Nevertheless, it is novels like Everything Asian that remind us the importance of race and ethnicity as routed in fictional form remains ever dynamic and ever shifting.
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