Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.
I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.
Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.
Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.
More About Growing Up in Korea:Read More
What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, which I illustrated, was published five years ago. It tells the story of a Korean American baby’s first birthday through the eyes of her older brother, Chong.
What fun when an event you’ve illustrated comes to life!Read More
I haven’t been blogging lately:
Taemin Anthony Keough, born April 3 to our daughter Yunhee and her husband Josh.
I’m a grandmother – and besotted!
I’m writing from Seoul where I’m connecting with old friends as well as doing a few presentations, including talking about my graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, with a classroom of Korean 6th graders – in Korean! Quite a stretch for my language skills, requiring learning/trying to recall a whole set of vocabulary: editor, research, picture book, manuscript, theme, final art, etc. (Another group of vocabulary is easier because it’s just a Korean pronunciation of the English word: sketch = su-keh-chi; character = keh-rik-tuh, and so on.)
Next week I’ll be joined by my mother and siblings, to take some of my father’s ashes to Geoje Island for a memorial service and reunion with former staff members, colleagues and friends. (Dad was the director of the Kojedo Community Health Project from 1969-1978.)Read More
“Adopting Yunhee was one journey; raising her was another. My own passion for Korea, which became my second homeland and the source of my second culture and second language, made me determined to give Yunhee a sense of her birth legacy. But how does a white American, even one who grew up in Korea, raise a Korean American – on an island in Maine?“
The essay examines how we attempted to give our daughter not just a sense of where she came from, but also encouragement to voice her experience of growing up as an American of color, and the challenge that posed for us as white parents:
“Talking about race gave Yunhee permission and language to unpack her own observations and experiences, and a structure for understanding the nuances of racial identity in America. At various ages and stages, it helped her find her voice to express her grief, her rage, her confusion (at age six, “Why couldn’t somebody in Korea take care of me?”)… It was essential for me not just to convey that all her thoughts and feelings were welcome, but also to become aware enough of the filter of my own white and non-adopted privilege that I could respect Yunhee’s authority in naming realities as she perceived them. I had to work to not inadvertently discount her observations and difficulties just because I wished they weren’t true.”
Korean American Story is building a fine and useful archive of narratives across the spectrum of Korean American identity, a significant contribution to exploring what it means to be American.
Go take a look.
He taught me in words, but more powerfully in deeds, that we are all one family, that every person I meet is my sister or brother, that each of us has infinite and equal worth and value.
And that, given this truth, we can only respond to the world as it is with fierce compassion, a fire for justice, and a desire to alleviate suffering wherever it is found.
He modeled a hunger for and delight in connection across differences of race, class, religion, language and culture.
He dared to imagine a better world, to see visions of what was possible, and to give his all in pursuit of a dream.
He inspired me to shine.