Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Lost Mother, by Iltang (Kim TaeShin)

An important memoir of a famed Korean-Japanese painter, Kim Tae Shin, who eventually became a monk, following the footsteps of his equally famed mother, Ilyeong, who was a poet and feminist during the Japanese occupation. Ilyeong wrote feminist poetry and essays that shockingly advocated divorce, independence and sexual freedom for women. She was renowned not only for her views but for her writing and artistry. She had a love affair with a Japanese student from a prominent family, a union that begat the author. Shortly after giving birth, she became a monk and her son was placed by the father in a loving Korean home. The boy grew and came to learn of his mixed identity, a difficulty during the Japanese occupation. He then lived with a Japanese family, and had several father figures throughout his life; among them a number of prominent monks in both countries. His biological father, Oda Seizo, disowned his wealthy family, as they refused to acknowledge the son. Oda worked toward friendlier rule of Koreans under the Japanese, and was a viceroy as well as held other major positions in the occupation government. While he maintained tabs on his son, they only met a few times, and he worked in the background to ensure Kim's success and comfort, though he could never fulfill Kim's yearning need for mother-love. Throughout his school years, Kim returned time and again to the Buddhist monastery where his mother resided. She was loath to become attached to him, according to her vows, and greeted him with a mix of her own hidden yearning and and cold anger. Though Kim became a famous artist, his relationship with his mother colored all of his youth. He eventually married, after two women whom he declined to marry committed suicide, and became a famed painter, including portraiture and Buddhist themed art. For a time, he was held in North Korea in and was forced to become a portrait painter of Kim Ilsung and other Party leaders. He worked in his later years to help resolve the tensions between the two nations through the sharing of art and culture. He was more known in Japan than in Korea, as he was schooled in Tokyo and most of his early work was first recognized and awarded in Japan. He became a monk himself in his seventies, and never stopped painting. It is less a literary work than an important book that examines the lives and times of two famous artists that lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. It is also a story of his conversion to Buddhism and the principles he followed in order to find peace with his identity and his past.

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