A Common Thread that Binds Families in “Long for this World”

Judith van Praag July 21, 2010 1

The release date of “Long for This World” by Sonya Chung was March 2nd. If it hadn’t been for Chang Rae Lee’s latest “The Surrendered” hitting the shelves two weeks later, everyone who reads the Sunday paper’s Parade Magazine would have come across a review of Chung’s debut novel. But hers was bumped for the review of the better-known author’s book.

On her publication countdown blog at SheWrites.com (a community platform for writers) Chung mused about sour grapes and bad timing, and how unlikely it is for major publications to review two Korean Americans novelists around the same time. To which I say: that’s a major shame.

At Richard Hugo House (where Elliott Bay Books hosted Chung’s presentation during the store’s April move to Capitol Hill) the author talked about “Long for This World”.

“I had been writing short stories for a long time,” she said. “That’s what young writers do. I knew I had a novel because of the sprawl [of her new material], the many voices, geographical locations and cultures.”

Still, the novel reads at times like a patchwork of independent vignettes, the whole, like a “pojagi” the Korean patchwork wrapping cloth.

“Long for This World” is about cultural contrasts, about longing, loss and love. Chung relates the story of the Han family in America and in Korea from multiple points of view. An omniscient narrator tells of Han Hyun Kyu’s flight by ferry from his native island to the Korean mainland. The story of this same middle brother’s airplane flight from America to Korea 52-years later is told from a third person point of view.

“Koreans are culturally reserved in manner and third person was suitable, it creates distance. Han Hyan Kyu’s daughter Jane needed to speak in 1st person voice. She’s a contemporary born-in-America Asian American.”

This may be so, as a war-photographer Jane places the camera between herself and the object of her attention, thus creating distance. After she suffers a miscarriage, it is her partner who knows to express his grief better than she can herself. War injuries could have added insult to injury, but the rehab allows Jane to follow her father to Korea, allowing her to connect with an ailing female cousin and bond with an uncle by marriage. It’s the latter relationship that offers an unexpected lease on life, and an antidote to the loss of her only sibling.

Like the camera in a Robert Altman movie, the author’s focus shifts repeatedly between scenes, following different characters as they are on their way or ready themselves to gather at the home of Han Jae-Kyu, the younger brother. In her preparations for the family get-together his wife Han Jung-Joo has something in common with Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dallaway”. The occasionally used omniscient voice adds something Dickensian.

At first the reader may be overwhelmed by the various storylines, but while turning the pages one becomes more and more familiar with the folks who inhabit the stories and starts to recognize the threading that hold the piecework together, the whole more than the individual parts, the cloth a family’s history is made of.

“Long for This World” by Sonya Chung, published by Simon & Schuster is available in hard cover ($25), mp3 audio, CD audio, as well as e-book formats.

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