Who We Are, As Told Through Literature

by kangcuzzi

“Let me simply bear my flesh, and blood, and bones. I will fly a flag. Tomorrow, when this house is alive and full, I will be outside looking in. I will be already on a walk someplace, in this town or the next or one five thousand miles away. I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home.” – A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee

Although I’ve been a self-professed literature aficionado for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been guilty of a simple hypocrisy: namely, revering an art form for its capacity to emulate life whilst completely ignoring the likes of my own. To put it simply, I’ve spent most of my reading hours situated in places far from where I live, acquainting myself with faces and names unlike mine, and buying in to the pernicious belief that what is ‘normal’ in stories is what is western, occidental, caucasian, etc.

I am not alone in my guilt. Nor is this guilt fully my fault. The happenings of history and anthropology have made it such that the overwhelming majority of celebrated books, movies and songs are western in both their origin and content. Some of the most prestigious literary awards of our time — such as the Pulitzer Prize — come with conditions that stipulate they can only be awarded to citizens of a particular country, which is more often than not the archetypal Western countries whose happenings and problems seem to matter most. Moving beyond the scope of literature and into that of filmmaking, the world was quick to denounce the Oscars’ lack of racial diversity but was not so quick to point out that the Oscars is an entirely Western-centric affair, with very little consideration given to works produced by the plethora of talented individuals who are duly and homogeneously labeled ‘foreign’.

It was in this context that I decided to rectify the imbalance of my literary exposure by actively seeking texts prominently featuring characters like me, who think like me and look like me, partially in the hopes of exposing my dreaded conditioning to certain social ‘norms’.

I first read Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, a semi-autobiographical story of a Korean student who emigrates to America to live out the American Dream. Being the very first novel ever about the Korean-American experience, it touches upon the traditional theme of assimilation as well as the lack of reciprocity that exists between an immigrant and his host nation. Although we live in a society many years removed from the world of Chungpa Han, Kang’s protagonist, it was certainly interesting to observe how his fictional experiences suggested real-life ‘antidotes’ for the problems I face as a third-culture kid.

In a society that celebrates the idiosyncrasies of the individual, I’m ashamed to admit that I am guilty of having either ignored or avoided my ‘compatriots’ in fear of being grouped into the dehumanising pronoun of ‘Them’ — a more specific, but nonetheless still detaching version of which would be ‘the Koreans’ (which does sound vaguely cultish, now that I’ve typed it up). I’ve lived my life under the assumption that it is humiliating to subscribe to a group mentality, especially when it is that exact mentality that leads to nasty instances of in-fighting, gossiping and other petty things that tend to occur within contained groups. But what I’ve failed to fully realise are the blessings that come with belonging to a small community brought together by mutual elements of identity — blessings that Chungpa Han realises for himself throughout his time in America. The  unspoken comfort that stems from shared cultural understanding, the guarantee of help, the familiarity of language and experience… the list goes on. As I stand at the cusp of my voyage into unchartered waters (i.e. college life), it is highly likely I will be returning to the virtues of belonging and counting my lucky stars for being as I am.

After East Goes West, I decided to explore the contemporary perspective of the Korean experience as told through the English language. Now, what better place to start than the ever wonderful collection of Chang-rae Lee in my school library?

And thus began my literary forays into Aloft and A Gesture Life. 

Aloft, in its most unjustly condensed form, is the story of Jerry Battle, a man who encounters a myriad of familial and existential difficulties that force him to consider the meaning of family and his role within the complex web of human relationships. It was slightly different from Chang-rae Lee’s other books in that the protagonist was not Asian; yet, it was nonetheless similar to the others in its exploration of Confucian themes such as family, filial piety, as well as the universal ideas of what relationships are, how we deal with them and what they mean to us. Meanwhile, A Gesture Life, from which the opening quote of this post originates, is the story about a war veteran, Doc Hata, who many years later continues to struggle with the lingering ghosts of his past. The duplicity of Hata’s character — on one hand a troubled war medic and on the other a friendly suburban neighbourhood pharmacist — closely resembles the ‘dual lives’ many foreigners construct upon starting again in a new land. As the book closes, Doc Hata decides to enter the limbo world neither in his past nor in his present, but instead in a world where he need not remember but simply be. Once again, a beautiful conclusion to a turbulent book (quite like what Chang-rae Lee did for The Surrendered).

One of the many things I appreciate about Chang-rae Lee’s books is that they prominently feature minorities in important, non-token roles. Having been raised on literature where almost every complex character is white, it was a little surprising at first — but incredibly enriching — to picture the interesting, multifaceted, troubled and generally human characters as Koreans, Japanese or Latinos. That people like me could be appreciated for doing things beyond the stereotyped notions of submission, timidness or intellectualism. As a writer raised in the way I have, one of my primary concerns has always been what my characters look like — not in an aesthetic sense, but a racial and cultural one (as I describe in this post on a similar topic). Reading Chang-rae Lee has shown me that there is no need to worry about how I express my characters, because ultimately a character is constructed by the details of who they are, how they act, how they think, etc… and, like real people, they don’t always have to fall into distinct categories depending on race and cultural background. Like real people they can exist in states of overlap, and it is this very overlap that makes them so interesting to begin with.

What started off as a quest of curiosity has now become a quest of necessity. Now I know how important it is to see myself in what I read, watch and absorb. To know that I am a fundamental part of human experience, regardless of where I am and what languages I speak. That can inspire the next influx of readers who will go on to live, and change, the world, which has been remarkably resistant to change but is now beginning to falter.

And to think this, the noblest of all adventures, begins with a good book. How lucky we are that there is plenty to choose from, as long as we look carefully.