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

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Book of Dead Birds, by Gayle Brandeis

Winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction, this novel tells the search-for-identity story of a black Korean American daughter of a former prostitute who worked near a GI base in the mid 1960s postwar Korea. The structure juxtaposes present-day and present-tense narrative by the daughter against third-person accounts of the mother’s hardship story. The daughter of famed Jeju-do divers, Hye-yang follows a close girlfriend to leave the harsh working life of her island fishing community and ends up first in a folk village, then in the lurid prostitution district. Along the way, she encounters two sexual experiences (minor in contemporary standards, but devastating to her virginal world) that were virtually rapes. She escapes to America married to a GI who believes she is pure, but when her black daughter is born, is violently beaten and abandoned. Working in massage parlors until her daughter is older, she scrapes together a living making craft products from eggshells.

Ava, her daughter, doesn’t seem to know how to live in her own skin. She is clumsy and lost. Several accidents over the years claim the lives of birds kept by the mother, who documents their deaths in a book. The two live parallel in their hurts and needs, but the one place they can connect is when the mother breaks out in pansori, story-song, to bemoan her past, while Ava drums to the story’s emotional melody. The bird theme is in heavy use throughout, including Ava’s sojourn to the Salton Sea where thousands of birds have perished from botulism. Recurring themes of death, freedom, capture, release, dependence and connection are exemplified with the birds’ presence in the book.

Inclusion of the bird-death notebook entry, poems, excerpts from Audubon writings, use of different typefaces and the mother-daughter divide theme hearken to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s seminal work, Dictee. The structure and plot of buried, pain-filled secrets also recall Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman. Brandeis’ prose, especially when describing Ava’s senses and her feelings, is elegant, lyrically detailed, elegiac, evocative and a thing of beauty.

No comments: