Academic journal article MELUS

Cross-Cultural Reading versus Textual Accessibility in Multicultural Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

Cross-Cultural Reading versus Textual Accessibility in Multicultural Literature

Article excerpt

Reed Way Dasenbrock, in his article "Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English," concludes that unintelligibility should not be an obstacle to the "understanding and evaluation of multicultural texts" (11). Instead, he contends, readers gain "an experience of multiculturalism" by doing some work to make the text intelligible (12). Dasenbrock's main assumption is that writers, even when writing for a universal audience, often choose not to translate certain words or contexts so as to force readers outside their cultural boundaries to experience different cultures. Explaining why unintelligibility is a crucial element in a multicultural work, he makes an interesting statement: if an author makes "things easy" by explaining everything in the reader's terms, the text would deny the reader "the experience needed to come to an understanding of the culture" (18). At first, his statement seems provocative and even questionable. After all, common sense dictates that our cognitive process inevitably includes translating the unfamiliar into our own, easy terms. Upon further investigation, however, I find his statement to be true, but not so much because the text denies the experience, but because readers refuse to have that experience. Insofar as multicultural literature is concerned, readers seem to play a significant role in extracting meaning out of the text, not only as co-creators of the "unwritten part," to use Wolfgang Iser's terms (51), but also as destroyers of the written part. To illustrate my point, I first examine the intelligibility of Kim Ronyoung's Clay Walls, then investigate the reception of the novel by two communities of readers--one with the cultural knowledge and the other without--and discuss implications of my findings, particularly in regard to reader-response theory and multicultural literature.


Kim Ronyoung's 1986 novel, Clay Walls, a nominee for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, is the first major fictional exploration of the experiences of Korean immigrants and their children in America. Kim(1) portrays a Korean couple, Haesu and Chun, who escape in the 1920s from the Japanese colonial regime in their homeland to America, where they attempt in vain to find freedom and peace.

The first part of the novel introduces the protagonist Haesu, a young woman from an aristocratic family who against her wishes marries a man of a lower class, a farmer's son. When her husband, Chun, is chased by the Japanese colonial police in Korea because his name is mistakenly on a list of political demonstrators, Haesu follows him to Los Angeles, where she is repelled at having to earn a living by cleaning someone else's toilet, a labor unimaginable for a woman of her status. She soon quits her job and persuades Chun to start their own business--apple sales on a street cart. As the business grows into a sizable produce retail shop, Haesu stays home attending English classes, raising her three children, and participating in the regional political movement for Korean independence.

Having enough money to travel back home, Haesu and her three children board a ship. Chun is to join them later with all their money, provided Haesu finds enough political security in Korea. While on the ship, Haesu falls in love with the captain, a Korean who has assumed a Japanese identity for his job security. Heasu's sense of morality prevents the romance from being consummated.

Once in Korea, Haesu feels uneasy for several reasons. Korea is still under Japan's severe colonial policy; Haesu herself is questioned by the police for being seen with a Korean independence fighter; and she cannot easily readjust to Korean traditional culture.

With the family back in Los Angeles, the novel's second part is narrated from the perspective of Chun, whose business runs downhill after his major supply contract is terminated. His love for his wife and children is shown in his desire to hide his business mishaps from his wife and in his efforts to buy a piano for her. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.