"Precious Possessions Hidden": A Cultural Background to Ronyoung Kim's Clay Walls

By Oh, Sae-a | MELUS, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

"Precious Possessions Hidden": A Cultural Background to Ronyoung Kim's Clay Walls


Oh, Sae-a, MELUS


In the middle of the twentieth century Korea was officially divided into two countries. (1) This was done without input from a legitimate Korean government and without consent of the Korean people. The halving of Korea was the cataclysmic finale to decades of imperialist aggression early in the twentieth century which profoundly altered the political establishment and cultural traditions of Korea and resulted in the displacement of thousands of Koreans to Manchuria, China, the United States, and even Japan. The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 triggered the first great wave of Korean emigration. (2) Some of these emigrants who went to the United States hoped to return someday to a restored independent Korea, but the defeat of the Japanese empire in World War II proved only to be the prologue to a more protracted drama. In its opening round, the Cold War mined Korea into a tragic arena for the exercise of imperialist territorial and ideological ambitions and indefinitely suspended the hope for an independent, united Korea. Ronyoung Kim's autobiographical novel, Clay Walls (1987), is placed within the context of this traumatic upheaval. The book is not better known, perhaps, because it brings to a subject that has been the established purview of historians the unmediated intensity of a personal fictionalized narrative. In her perceptive critique of the novel, Jane Phillips points out that "Clay Walls has received little attention in either the discourse of Asian American literature or that of ethnic women writers" (174). She attributes its "current marginal position" to the fact that "it neither appeals to certain current white American aesthetic expectations of Asian American literature, i.e. exoticism, nor advances any polemics with regard to the political issues of the time" (174). Phillips goes on to criticize Kim for "inadvertently" privileging Korean culture at the expense of Chinese and Japanese culture and for the elitist attitudes of her yangba (3) Korean heroine, Haesu (177, 184). Whether these ostensible failings are more justifiably attributed to the author Kim or her characters is a moot point which ultimately depends upon a critic's take on the always sketchy relationships between art and polemic, text and author, art and reality. But Phillips also concludes that "Kim has not revealed Korean customs, myths or other ethnic characteristics which might provide us with a more intimate understanding of her `other' culture which would enable us to more deeply appreciate and value Korean culture" (186).

At a glance this statement looks true because most of the story literally takes place in the United States, inside the large Korean immigrant community that settled in Los Angeles. But in fact, Kim includes a great deal of Korean culture and traditions within the story because it is reflected and refracted through the eyes of Haesu. Its setting really is Korea. It is not a physical or real Korea, but the Korea of Haesu's mind, the Korea to which she hopes to return. Because Haesu is the psychic center of the story, her traditional Korean values rest at the heart of the narrative. To appreciate fully Kim's book, it is necessary to understand how the often subtle inflections of Confucian thinking and Korean heritage shape the narrative's two chief discursive interests. But like the imperialist history that underlies the story, these details are not emphasized at the expense of the narrative. As a Korean scholar whose lifelong interest has been English literature, yet who nevertheless has been raised within a cultural framework similar to that represented by Kim, I hope to clarify the fundamentally Korean aspects of Clay Walls which I propose are essential to Haesu's story. (4)

Clay Walls is three individual narratives, those of Haesu, Chun, and Faye, brought together in a sweeping personal history. Each is told from the perspective of a member of a family directly or indirectly impacted by the imperialist legacies of Korea. …

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