Finding her place in turn-of-the-century Korea
Author Amy Tan created her own subgenre of popular literature back in the late 1980s (sweeping, semi-autobiographical stories of family, loyalty and love set in various Asian times and cultures), beginning with The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife. More recently, Lisa See has carried the torch with Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love.
Now, first-time novelist Eugenia Kim confidently enters the field with The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a bold, richly detailed story about the young daughter of a well-known calligrapher in turn-of-the-20th-century Korea.
Najin Han was born in a Korea already under Japanese occupation. Her father, Nin, clings to the traditions of a dynastic country he feels slipping away (even serving time in prison for his loyalty). He looks to marry his only daughter off to the young son of a respectable family, but Najin and her mother resist, wanting more for her life. They secretly arrange for her to serve on the royal court as a companion to the princess, a betrayal Nin only discovers later through a letter sent to his wife.
But when the king is assassinated, young Najin leaves the court seeking to further her education and find freedom amid oppression. After a thwarted attempt to join her husband in America, she remains in Korea as a teacher, but like so many of her countrymen, never stops seeking a better life.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Kim grew up hearing stories of her family’s life before the Korean War. A dearth of literature about the lives of Korean women during the occupation led Kim to interview her mother. That, with other meticulous research, helped the Washington, D.C., resident paint this vivid, heartfelt portrait of faith, love and life for one family during a pivotal time in history.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.