- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

THE CALLIGRAPHER’S DAUGHTER: A NOVEL
By Eugenia Kim
Henry Holt, $26, 400 pages
REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

Although Korea has played an important part in our political history, Americans in general are unfamiliar with Korean literature and the traditional customs of that country. Now, thanks to Eugenia Kim, the daughter of Korean parents who came to the United States after World War II, we are afforded a tantalizing glimpse into a traditional way of life.

Miss Kim’s first novel, “The Calligrapher’s Daughter,” is a rich, elegant tapestry woven of the threads of the events in her mother’s life. As she explains, the “ghost story” she started writing about her maternal grandfather “kept growing and wouldn’t let me go. … [I]t was a touchstone for the wealth of family lore I’d heard throughout my life.” Vivid as the family stories were, Miss Kim felt they would best come alive through fiction. What she has created in “The Calligrapher’s Daughter” is a story and characters that indeed have a life of their own.

The novel is a mix of eventful third-person storytelling, a vivid first-person account by the main character, Najin Han and the evocative letters of Hajin’s mother to her daughter, revealing the innate complicity between daughter and mother and the strength of the latter’s Christian faith and traditional concepts. The combination of voices gives the novel an extra layer of depth and excitement.

Najin Han was born in 1910 at the dawn of the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea, the year the Treaty of Annexation made Korea a colony of Japan.

In the beginning, Japan acted as the “protector” of Korea; by the end of the Japanese occupation, the “protector” had become a tyrannical enslaver. It was not until Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation in 1945 that Korea was given back to the Koreans.

Najin was never given a first name by her autocratic, old-fashioned father, Han. Her birth foreshadowed Korea’s decline. “[T]hen as she grew, the Japanese occupation also grew entrenched. The more [Han‘s] traditions fell by the wayside of modernization, which he blamed entirely on the Japanese, the more he saw his daughter thrived in the change, and she came to represent to him Korea’s failures. He would resist the failure that surrounded him by refusing to name it — by refusing to name her.” Najin was so-called because she was “the daughter of the woman from Nah-jin.”

Han was an expert calligrapher, a great artist and member of one of the country’s leading families. He was traditional, formal, bound to his ancestors’ way of living. He expected the women of his household to submit to his will and wishes without question. They did so, although Najin had a will of her own: She was more boisterous, clumsy, more excitable than befit a young girl of her class and standing. She irritated and often angered her father, yet she “tried to walk modestly, ladylike, invisible.” She longed to get an education and to choose her own destiny.

The tale of Najin’s adventures begins when her father decides to marry his headstrong 14-year-old daughter to the son of a suitable family. Najin is distraught. Her mother, a devout Christian who had never previously defied her husband, short-circuits the marriage plans by sending Najin to live with an aunt in Seoul, where she goes to school and becomes companion to a princess in the king’s court. When the king is assassinated, Najin graduates and returns home.

Times change and the family, along with the rest of Korea, slips slowly into relative poverty. Najin goes to work to raise the money to pay her college fees, and later to help support her shiftless, spendthrift younger brother.

Later, Najin marries Calvin, a young seminarian chosen to be her husband, after a tender and loving courtship, on the day before he is to sail to America to continue his studies. She is denied a passport by the Japanese authorities and left in the care of Calvin’s parents, as was customary for a Korean bride. There, Najin is forced to live in mean conditions, working as an unpaid servant.

“[Her] hands and feet became calloused and cracked as [she] washed diapers in all seasons, chopped wood, wove mats, mended the stove, walls and shutters. Without a proper entryway, mud, dirt and dust tracked through the house, and [she] was forever cleaning the floor.”

Letters from her husband are hidden by her father-in-law so that she is without word for many years. She finally returns home to her parents.

The Japanese invade China and attack Pearl Harbor. Najin is arrested on charges of spying and imprisoned. “I sat on the stool in the far corner of the cell, wrapped in the blanket, though it gave no warmth. I watched the rectangle of light crawl along the wall. Sometimes dust visibly wafted through the light, once a pale green moth, and slowly I began to remember the Psalms. … The words gave me the vision of flowing green hills, the huge burial mounds of ancient kings and warlords, around which flowed streams of pure and silvery water that soaked the earth, encouraging the grasses to root farther, deeper, forever until the gold-crowned skulls, bound in twisting roots, collapsed in rot.”

Najin is released after she spends many hours explaining Christianity to her jailer. The war ends and through a strange coincidence, a young American soldier gives her news of her husband, with whom she is ultimately reunited. Her life’s journey has taught her to understand that her father’s rigid attitude was perhaps not due to “stubbornness but strength of conviction” and that it wasn’t “answers [she] was seeking all those years that mattered as much as the act of seeking itself.”

The absence of a name left her free to determine her own future, “drawing from the deepest well of unnamed possibilities. Yes, I was the calligrapher’s daughter, the daughter of the woman from Nah-jin, and I had grown to embody the singularity of my name, Najin.”

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.


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