Me, Myself, and Writing

I’ve always believed in the power of writing; whether it was to share my thoughts on some ‘serious’ so-called ‘intellectual’ issue, or to pour down personal feelings, which is apparently something I can’t do IRL. Seeing letters come to life on a blank space, letters and words that are far from being unique, but that for that space only, can and do become solely yours, is both rewarding and comforting.

Writing to me is a safe space, which ironically makes it personal and detached at the same time. It’s personal because unlike spoken words, I put a lot of thought and time into it, going back to my sentences and my choice of words, and the end product will depend a lot on my state of mind, not on the consideration of how my interlocutors will think or react. Not that I blurt out whatever passes through my head when I talk, but I don’t exactly spend more than seconds on my spoken words, whereas I could spend days on end on a single post. There are things I would never say out loud or share directly with friends, even close ones; not because they are fascinating and complex revelations about my personality, but… well, I guess because I’m not much of a great talker to start with.

Yet as personal as they can be, I know the number of people who will actually read what I write is limited, and words on a screen are still far from being my actual face, with my instant reactions and facial expressions . The medium of blogs and the computer screen I imagine people will stare at provide a shield I can safely hide behind, with no fear of judgment or ridicule, or even total disinterest.

For the past year however, I have had a hard time managing the delicate ‘personal’ and ‘detached’ equilibrium, mostly because I have come to realize another power that writing provides. Putting your innermost thoughts and feelings in writing is quite a compelling and vulnerable process, if you think about it. It’s admitting to the world, but first and foremost to yourself that you are feeling helpless. It’s not just about knowing that it’s wrong to feel certain things, but acknowledging it. Once the words are written, there’s no going back. Your doubts, feelings, and anxiety become truth. And there are certain things I don’t want to admit even to myself. No, especially to myself.

I don’t want to admit that I can’t do this on my own, that feelings of loneliness engulf me more times than I can count, that at least once a week I want to drop everything and disappear in the farthest, smallest corner of my existence, and not care about how others will feel.

I don’t want to admit that my heart rarely lets my head control my life, that I’m doing so many things against my belief and conscience, that I’m a more emotional being than a rational one.

I don’t want to admit that I need, that I want, help. I don’t want to admit that it would be nice to feel loved from time to time.

Because I’m a fucking 21st century strong woman, for god’s sake. Because I have so many things that should keep me strong – I’m not starving, I have pretty shoes, I have good friends and a supporting family, I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. Because there are so many other people who are struggling daily with so little. Because, theoretically, I should be happy.

But maybe happiness is not about being thankful for every single day. Maybe it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s a process, it’s a journey. There are ups and then there are downs. It’s about learning how to maintain your ups for a second longer than your downs. And maybe, some day… my ups will be there for a minute, an hour, a day, longer than my downs.

I am slowly learning that it’s okay to feel vulnerable – it sucks, but it’s okay.

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“Dear Life” – by Alice Munro (or Some Personal Reflections)

I’m cheating a little here because I haven’t really finished the book yet. And this is more of a reflection on my life for the past few months during which I haven’t been able to write, rather than a book review per se.

I haven’t written anything ‘voluntarily’ for almost over a year, and just like a foreign language, the skill, no, the sheer will of writing slowly disappears with its lack of usage. You lose its grammar, its vocabulary, its syntax, its flow.

I have spent every minute of my ‘free time’ this semester watching Netflix and Amazon Prime shows, YouTube videos, and browsing through meaningless Buzzfeed articles or shopping sites to fill in the gap in my life. Because none of these actually required me to take a minute to reflect on and acknowledge how shitty my life was. For the few minutes or hours my brain was wired to the moving images in front of me, I was allowed to forget I was still making mistakes in life well into my 30s (okay, not ‘well into‘ really, but you know). I didn’t have to face the fact that I had the tools to get out of the shithole I had dug for myself, but I just couldn’t push myself to use them. Or maybe I didn’t have the tools after all.

This is why I haven’t really written anything or even read anything (besides scholarly articles) to, however cliché it sounds, ‘feed my soul’, because writing or reading require you to face reality, your reality. And that’s absolutely scary when you’re still writing and re-writing your reality, and you have no idea how the ending will go. They demand that you pause your life for hours and face your joys and your demons. They cannot afford your brain to shut off, which is what you do when you laugh at Kimmy and Titus’ banter on “Unbreakable” or shudder at the thrill “Bosch” provides. They want you to understand the grammar rules, to finish the vocabulary, to review the syntax, and to analyze the flow of your day, your week, or that moment you decided beer would solve everything but didn’t.

“Dear Life” has, in this context, come at quite an opportune moment. I did learn earlier of the beauty of ‘that is not said’ that short stories provide; and today, as I read through Alice Munro’s words and sentences, they make a little more sense, and provide me with some sort of comfort. The comfort that just like her short stories, things can be left unsaid, yet still matter. The relief that I can still write my own future, with its good and its bad. It’s okay to make mistakes even at 31 years old. 31 years old is not too old to get heartbroken, procrastinate, or lie down in bed well past 9 am because you just can’t be bothered with life.

My life doesn’t have to be a 300-page novel with a clear start and ending. It can be a series of short stories; some find their happy ending, but most of the time, I am and will be left troubled with the missing details and at a loss as to how I should feel. But it’s okay. Each story matters.

Writing freely

Just something I wrote for my Qualitative Methodology class, based on the book by Kirin Nayaran “Alive in the Writing”.

“An argument that I particularly want to tell you about is one I had about a month ago with my mom. My mom, being the typical Korean mother – yes, sometimes clichés are based on truths – worries about everything and ‘meddles’ in every aspect of my life. Distance does not matter at all; in fact, coupled with the recent technology that allows instant messaging and video chatting almost anywhere in the world where there is internet, she devotes all her attention and time to particularly excel in both of these tasks (this, of course, is not what she thinks she’s doing). I have therefore learned from early on, and more specifically ever since I came to the United States, to keep her informed about what I do or feel on a minimal basis. One of those things I did not think she particularly needed to know was my brand new tattoos – three in total – that I got in the span of less than a year. I knew what her reaction would be if she found out – in her mind, getting a tattoo is the equivalent of an inevitable social and professional ‘shame’ and surely the next step someone with a tattoo will take would be to join a criminal gang or fall out from acceptable social norms into the depths of abomination. Unfortunately, another habit of hers is to text or call me on Friday nights here (which is Saturday morning in Korea and hence a good time for her to talk to me I guess), and unfortunately in this case, I do happen to enjoy some sort of social life on those days. Another unfortunate thing is that beer often makes me chatty and miss the people I left in Korea, which sometimes includes my parents. So all these unfortunate elements led to a Skype chat on a Friday night (midnight to be precise) when I happened to let my guards down and wore a T-shirt that showed the tattoo on my arm (the latest and the biggest one) when I decided to tie my hair. The two-hour ‘conversation/argument’ that followed suit was not a pretty one, to say the least. I had expected her to be angry, but I had definitely not expected her to actually be devastated and cry. I guess I did feel bad when I saw her cry (it wasn’t even that she was bawling, which I think I would have preferred, but silent tears that just seemed to fall down effortlessly and without her actually realizing), but my usual lack of empathy only gets worse when accompanied with beverages made of malted barley or wheat. I was therefore not in the mood to indulge her concerns about how tattoos lasted ‘forever’ (which is a fact I did and do know about tattoos) and her arguments about how society – especially the Korean one – was not ready to ‘accept’ me or my ‘quirks’ yet, and how this surely would prevent me from getting jobs or lead a ‘normal social life’ (I guess she meant ‘respectable’ by ‘normal’). I addressed these concerns by telling her that if people were willing to judge me based on what I had decided to do with my body, I wouldn’t particularly rejoice in working with or for them either. She then somehow linked this whole discussion with how I never told her anything – especially and specifically – about my love life, which I didn’t think was even near the point of this whole discussion, but that’s how mothers often work. My arguments about how as an individual and grown up, I did not have the ‘duty’ to report to her about everything that was going on in my life were useless. I was left disgruntled after the two-hour conversation because I had not prepared for this kind of talk at all and felt that I had not conveyed everything I wanted to say clearly due to my uneasiness in the Korean language and perhaps my inebriated state as well on some level. After two days of mulling over it, I resorted to writing her a five-page long letter, to which her answer was another source of frustration and exasperation, but perhaps I can talk about this one in another essay.”

Memory in letters (Collector of memories #3)

I love scribbling and writing all sorts of things.

I enjoy writing diaries, I get a kick out of writing blog entries (although I can get very lazy), I believe in writing thoughtful birthday/holiday cards for my close friends instead of just giving gifts (and my friends have often accused me of writing the bible instead of a simple message), I have fun scribbling stupid stuff on the note pads lying around in the living room, and I have recently found that the best way to tell Dad I care about him more than I let him know (ugh, that just gave me goosebumps, just writing that) was by leaving notes on his smartphone while he’s not looking so that he can read them later at work.

But if there’s one type of writing I enjoy more than anything else is writing letters. I know that it’s usually the old people who go around complaining ‘Ah, back in the old days’, ‘They don’t do them like they used to’ or ‘It’s a lost art these days’, and I agree, it’s not the most pleasant thing to hear. To these people, I usually just want to calmly tell them ‘Deal with it, times are changing, embrace change. Don’t dwell in the past’. Nevertheless, one true art I can’t help mourning for its loss is ‘that of writing letters’.

Picking up and choosing the right pen and letter pad, seeing the memory lane of your mind fold into letters on paper, folding the stack of papers to fit in the small envelope (if I write long cards, imagine how long my letters are), the weird taste of the stamp on the tip of your tongue, carefully writing down the address, which you’ve memorized by now, but which you nevertheless make sure every time you’re getting it right, and sending it off at the post office.

Then, comes, of course, the waiting. Will the letter have reached its destination by now? Is my letter en route?

Finally, the moment you see an envelope with a hand written address on it, your address, and your name, those nano-seconds that spend between you having the envelope in your hand and deciding between being excited at the thickness of it or a little bit disappointed by the lightness of it, ripping out the envelope, and reading the lines, which you’re sure your friend put down with the same care and devotion as you did, the second reading after the first moments of excitement have calmed down, and finally the answering.

Every single day, my sister and I would leave for school with the distinct and clear feeling we were going to get a letter that day. As soon as we got off from the cab that used to take us back and forth from school, we would rush and run through the front garden so that we would each be the first to reach the front door… most of the times, only to find out that nothing was waiting for us on the top of the shoe shelf, where Mom usually put the mail. But oh the joy when there was a single letter waiting for me, or even, once or twice, two letters at a time (the ecstasy!), and the envy and jealousy when only one of us received something. Mails still get lost these days in countries like Korea and the States, so imagine how it was, 15 years ago, in Mauritania. Having that precious envelope in hand was a symbol of the fortunate end of a risky adventure, the happy ending of a thriller with an open scenario.

Getting letters became a much more significant event in my last years in Nouadhibou, mainly because… well, all my friends had left town to go to ‘bigger cities’ and my sister and I were barely going to school (lack of students and lack of professors… *sigh*). Letters were a divine distraction from the boring routine and lack of excitement and novelty we were going through, studying at home for the Baccalaureat and going through mind blowing (not in a good sense) theories of philosophy. The format of these correspondences would vary too, through time. When I first got letter pads from Korea (once again, I cannot emphasize enough on the awesomeness that is Korean stationary), I was at awe that one could write on such precious papers. I could not make myself use them at will, and would carefully copy all the drawings on a separate piece of paper, so that I could have more stationary to use. Then, the computer came, and it was a new world that opened up, typing away, changing the fonts at every single opportunity. And once in a while, for special occasions, came the recorded cassette tapes; recording my favorite boys band songs to my Korean pen friends, along with myself in between.

Among the many pen friends and letters I have had and have kept, some obviously have more sentimental value than others. They are mostly those that prevail on others in numbers and time.

From left to right, Adrianna from Hungary, with whom I kept in touch until I came to Korea, and then, somehow, lost touch. Mansoura, my best friend in Nouadhibou, who stuck in that small town long after everyone else had left, but then moved to Senegal in 11th grade. Next to her stack is the correspondence with my only cousin of the same age, which, frankly speaking, doesn’t have much sentimental value. But somehow, we managed to exchange a large number of letters when I was in NDB, and I have to give her credit for that, although it didn’t take long after I came to Korea to realize we actually had nothing in common. The two stacks below are the ones I cherish the most; the left one from my most devoted pen friend among the many people I’ve corresponded with, which makes her my oldest Korean friend, and the right from my oldest French friend from NDB. You can see some stamps have been cut from the envelope (by now it shouldn’t be a surprise that I also collected stamps, right?) and… the numbers on each envelope because naturally, my obsessive side would never allow for these letters to get mixed up and not be in order according to the date they were received.

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Rummaging through these letters, I discovered people I had completely forgotten about, them mostly being temporary pen friends with whom only a few letters were exchanged… and then had naturally disappeared from my memory. Debbie from the St Lucia island, Ludovic from France (who, by reading his letters now, was most definitely a nerd…), Miss Pat from the States who was very religious.

I was pleasantly (for the lack of a better word) surprised to find two postcards from a Korean ahujussi whom I had met through a Yahoo chatting room, back when internet had so barely started it was even too early to call it a ‘sensation’, and chatting rooms were exploding everywhere, even in the small living room of our house in NDB. Remember, a/s/l? Chatting rooms were of course another open door to getting more potential people to write to, this time through email, and in my defense, I think there were much less perverts at the beginning than now. It didn’t take long for these chat rooms to be crowded with weird people, but for the short time frame before that happened, I think there were more people who were genuinely interested in making ‘new email friends’ rather than unleashing their degenerate tendencies over the net. This Mr. Song was in his 30s I think, was living and working in Germany, and had sent me two postcards during his trips to some other countries in Europe.

There are also old friends from NDB, with whom we can now keep in touch through email and Facebook, or with whom I’ve unfortunately lost touch with and seriously wonder whether I will hear from them ever again, among them Mlle Chantal, my first grade teacher, and Mr. Moreau, my second grade teacher.

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Like many things we share, my sister and I share the same devotion to this outdated mode of communication. And naturally, the times we have spent living in separate corners of the world have left their trace through a bewildering accumulation of letters and cards. The first bundle on the left is from when she was in Canada, and then Spain, while I was in France. The one next to it is our correspondence from August 2010, when she left for the States and I stayed in Korea. And… the last one on the right… well, that’s an embarrassing story for another time.

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Since I had some Disneyland plastic bags left from my trip to Tokyo Disneyland in 2010, I decided I would use them to organize my latest collections of letters.

From left to right, the birthday and Christmas cards from a very close unni I briefly worked with in 2007, but still keep in touch, who has been a support and an inspiration in so many ways ever since. Although I am now fervently doubtful about the Catholic church, there was a time when faith and church people meant a great deal; and that is why I cannot uncouthly put the remains of that past behind me. Those remains are safely bundled in the second plastic bag. Then comes birthday and Christmas cards from my group of besites since university. Although we don’t meet up as often as we used to, and  there have been times one of us was overseas, without them, I would have been even more lost and miserable during my first years in Korea. Finally, cards and notes from my GSIS peeps.

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A tribute to my mother

As I was writing my review for “The Color of Water”, I was suddenly reminded of a paper I once wrote for my class in Feminism. It was the most unconventional paper I’ve ever had to write, yet the one that I remember the most, and the one most dear to my heart, regardless of the actual quality of the writing.

The reason I understood James McBride in his desire to write the story of his mother is that that’s what I’ve always wanted to do as well. Writing is just a hobby and a fun and often rewarding pastime, but one of my ‘secret’ wishes and dreams ever since I was little was to publish a book. I don’t know on what it will be, or when it will be, or even if it will actually happen some day, but it’s just something I like keeping in the back of my mind. One of my very first book projects was my mother, if not the first.

I’ve had a happy childhood, I won’t complain, but one of the saddest memories I have of those times is when mom would sit or lie with my sister and I in bed as we were about to sleep, in the dark, and tell us about her childhood and her first years of marriage. I don’t think she ever came with the actual purpose of telling us sad stories. I guess at times we were the ones to urge her to tell us about when ‘mommy was a little girl’. Most of them started with a simple reminiscence of how she would have to go in the small hill behind her house to gather wood to make fire, or how she was always the tiniest, ugliest student in class, but also always the best and most studious. But that was the extent of her happy memories of these years long gone by (actually, the wood-gathering story is, technically, not a happy memory either). Then came the ‘real deal’, which is just too much for me to write it all down here. And inevitably the tears would come rolling down, and all my sister and I could do was whisper to her ‘Mommy, don’t cry. We’re here now’. I don’t know how much of an actual comfort that ever brought her.

But worst than those stories were how her in-laws, my dad’s mother, sisters and brothers (and he had plenty) treated her during the 4 years she was in Korea after her marriage. Once again, I would literally have to write a book about those, but suffice it to say, that was enough for me to -still- have profound disdain for my dad’s side of the family.

(Mom now says she’s forgotten all about it, that she’s not the ‘weak, young and naive’ 20 something year old she was back then, and although she doesn’t ‘hang out’ with my aunts, she can at least be civil to them when they meet once a year, and well, say everything she couldn’t have said back then with a smile on her face. Her being the one to actually have those ‘family gatherings’ at least once a year, I’m still baffled and annoyed at her nonchalant policy of ‘putting the past behind’, and in the end, I’m the one left with the spite. Strangely enough, my antipathy won’t go away that easily, although technically, they haven’t done any wrong to me. It’s all very twisted, I know.)

Anyways, as the child who had to listen to her mother’s tears in the dark of the night and cry with her, the best ‘revenge’ I could think of back then was to write a book about my grandmother, my aunts and uncles. I would tell the world of what I considered the atrocities they made her go through (but I guess many women went through such treatment back then, not that it makes it any less abominable). I would devise whole chapters after my mom left, reassuring us, alas too late, that ‘it was all over now’. But then I began worrying about practical things, such as how my real name would be published on the book and how dad’s family would read about it and knowing them, they wouldn’t be filled with regret and remorse, but would probably torment my mom for not raising her daughter right. It also seemed a bit ‘too much’ to ‘expose’ them as such. And so I gave up my first book project.

Nonetheless, I still think Mom had a pretty ‘interesting’ life, although to this day, she will not tell me about what she did in her early 20s before she married dad. Between her high school graduation and October 9th 1983, their wedding day, her life to my sister and I remains a blank slate with just a few scribbles faintly discernible. I don’t even know if she will ever tell us. So there goes my other book project.

However, thanks to the Feminism class, I had the opportunity to have a tiny taste of what that would be like, writing a book about her, and it was also my real first attempt at trying to see my mother as an individual and not just as mother and wife.

So this is a small extract of the essay (the prologue and the conclusion) I would like to share, as a tribute to my mother, my very first feminist and hero, despite all her petty prejudices and faults. You annoy the hell out of me sometimes, but this is for you, Mom. I love you dearly.

(I think this is by far the most personal blog entry, as I’ve tried to avoid issues too personal at heart (this is, after all, the internet…) But well, I think a writer, whether it is something you do as a hobby or as a profession, should know how to open up a bit from time to time.)

(Note: Her full name was an important part of the essay, but I had to remove that, just as a matter of privacy and precaution. Also, ‘ssi‘ in Korean is used as a way to address others in the ‘adult world’, so that you won’t sound rude by just calling out first names.)

Prologue

The daughter – S.L.:

MS.C. The sound of these three syllables, coming from her own throat, and moreover hearing it from other people’s voices, echoes distantly and unfamiliarly to her ears.

MS.C. Yet she was born as so, she was raised as so, this is what her friends used to call her in her school days. Her mother and father at some distant time in her life must have given a more tender and affectionate meaning when they first whispered these syllables into her ears. Or did they ever? Yet she still seems to yearn for that sprinkle of tenderness these three syllables must awake in her heart and her memory.

Ajumma. Mrs. L. S’s mom. G’s mom. These are the appellations she is used to now. Since a time she cannot venture to remember now, they have replaced her identity as an individual and as a woman. Being a wife and a mother brings unexpected joys, emotions she would never trade in a million years, yet when she finally muster the effort to sit down and rest her mind at ease just for a second, she can still see the faint shadow of a young MS.C., sitting at her desk and nibbling her pen in search for an inspiration to support her fellow labor union members.

Dreams. Hopes. Ambitions. Challenges. Passion.

College degree. Writer. Role-model.

Words and ideas that once had power over the woman she used to know as MS. Stars she wanted to reach, goals she wanted to become once. These stars faded away and these goals became crushed when she realized that being a 25 year old woman without a father to depend on or a mother to take advice from, with three younger brothers to take care of, placed her in a whole different dimension, closed off from the world she wanted to live in. What was she to do, what good were these aspirations of hers if she could barely pay her rent and buy food for the day? As she walked up the aisle that day, each step she took towards the altar was one step away from her hopes.

 The mother – MS.C.:

MS.C. It feels good to have it resonate in my ears, even after so many years of living as Mrs. L and S and G’s mom. It may only be a tiny whisper, a distant sound in my memory, yet the fragments of memory these three syllables bring me still provide me with the sense of power I used to be accustomed to. I can still sense the power surrounding the young MS ‘ssi’ when I announced firmly and proudly I would be called so and not by ‘Miss C.’, as were my few female colleagues. ‘Miss C.’ would have their coffees made and brought to other male colleagues, would make photocopies for them, would smile at their jokes for no reason. ‘MS ssi’ would stand up to them, voice her opinion and speak for herself.

Yet it was not easy being ‘MS ssi’ during those times. Even when the word ‘feminist’ was yet unfamiliar to many people and especially to men, I was already viewed as a ‘feminist’, hence taunt, rebellious for no reason and making things uncomfortable when they should not have to be.

MS ssi. This name was the shield I brandished against the inequality I was facing and a medal I wore proudly as my identity. I was not yet anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother. This name represented my ambitions and my possibilities. It did not take long however to realize this shield and medal came with a difficult price. Using my talent of writing to promote the rights of labor unions was only a speck of sand amid the political mess from which labor unions were not exempted. Fractions and divisions occurred within the organization and confrontations escalated to a point that my involvement became a barrier to pursuing my studies.

My lifelong experience of living in utmost poverty and my frustration, transformed into passion to fight for the rights of the least privileged, were not sufficient to continue what had become a plight. With my three younger brothers to take care of and with no hope to be expected in the near future, disappointment and hopelessness subtly and slowly replaced what there had once been courage and perseverance.

On a beautiful fall day, I left a trail of MS ssi on every step I walked up on the aisle. As the pale leaves on the trees touched the ground, I felt as if small parts of myself were falling with them, only to be left on the ground to disappear one day.

It did not take long for ‘MS ssi’ to become a treasure hidden and cherished only in my memory. The ‘me as individual’ was still there, but surviving besides the strong presence of the new ‘me as daughter-in-law’ and ‘wife’ and soon ‘mother’. Fortunately, I still had my writing to keep ‘MS ssi’. Writing to me was a conversation with myself, with MS as individual. Unattached, defined only by what I intended myself to be and by none other. To the outside world, I may have been the new bride, the unsatisfactory daughter-in-law, the soon-to-be mother, but as the words formed themselves on the white, untamed sheet of paper, I would find myself back and MS would come back to life. However, this thin string of my individuality was taken from me when my mother-in-law and sister-in-law decided to secretly open and read my diary. The feeling of being violated, not to mention betrayed, came with an indescribable shock as the broken lock fell to my feet. I felt as if the layer of wrap I had carefully put around my conversations, around myself, had been brutally ripped and I was not even allowed to complain or mutter a word of protest. Every time I saw my mother-in-law and sister in-law share a secret laugh between themselves, I knew they were unveiling a small piece of myself behind my back, snickering at it, wiping the betraying smile off their faces with that part of me and tossing it after they were done with it, like a useless piece of paper. All I could do was watching these pieces of myself being torn from my memory and pride, yet my hands and feet were chained by my duty as daughter-in-law and I was not even allowed to kneel and pick them up to put them back where they belonged, in my personal space. These pieces they have brutally torn left a hole in my heart and mind, a hole that even today, nearly 30 years later, has not been filled.

Wife. Mother. People may think these are the only two words that have defined me for the last 30 years of my life. With their books, theories and opinions, they try to convince me to find my identity. Do they not see that by assuming I do not have my own identity, they too fail to see me as the ‘individual’ they want me to be? Who are they to glance their sympathetic glances and point out to my ‘lost’ identity when I have, from my own way?

I may have spent much of my time pondering on how to maintain the household, on how to raise my children, on how to support my husband, but my mind still had time to devote some of these thoughts to myself and my eyes were still mine to observe the world around me for my own purpose and my pleasure. I have always been MS, daughter, wife and mother.

Concluding thoughts – no more guilt

This essay began as an attempt to look at my own mother from a different perspective and perhaps as an unconscious effort to ‘save’ her from the usual victimization of mothers so frequently conducted in the Korean context. However, as I tried to give a voice to my own mother, who does not write anymore because of a ‘trauma’ mentioned above, I found myself victimizing her and attributing words and thoughts that I thought were hers. A simple conversation with her made me realize my mistake, which I believe is probably the mistake of many authors and directors, all children of their mothers. There are basically two elements in the Korean culture that project a wrong image of the mother. The first is the feeling of guilt that mothers seem to constantly carry as their burden, guilt that they feel towards their children, which also transforms into a feeling of guilt felt from their children. In other words, the guilt resides in both groups, the mothers and the children. Mothers feel guilty that they could not provide more to their children, while the children feel guilty that they neglected their mothers and their mothers could not achieve the dreams they might have had. The second element is that mothers are rarely portrayed as independent, separate individuals. They are always followed by their devotion to their children, this overarching reality they would do anything for them; which is not untrue, but which is only a part of what makes them a ‘person’.

Only when mothers will be void of this feeling of guilt and will be portrayed as people with their own freedom and dreams, will we finally have a culture that accepts mothers as they really are and not as what we think they are.

“Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s stories are so depressing… yet not in a ‘real depressing’ way but in a way that leaves you in a helpless state of void emotions, that writing a review for her book is like… one of those nightmares I often have, where I absolutely have to run, away from danger, but I can’t, because my feet feel like they weigh a hundred tons each and all I can do is drag my whole body 1 mm for an equivalent of a hundred times the effort. (Result: I’ve been staring, writing, erasing and re-writing for the past hour and a half).

In that way, her work is quite similar to Chang-Rae Lee’s. Their works all bear a similarity to one another, and they are certainly marked by their signature. Not like Jeffrey Eugenides, whose scope of writing is one of the more extensive ones I’ve experienced so far. Their beginnings are never too ominous, yet there is a definite feeling of uncertainty and even stillness that makes you ill at ease. Their endings are never happy-endings per se, nor are they tragic, and even with the unshakable feeling that it could have gone better, you know that this was how it was meant to end.

Some may criticize them for sticking to what they know best and what they are familiar with, without escaping much from their ‘comfort zone’. Their characters are never too emotional – never too happy nor too sad – at first glance, they may even appear dull and as failures of adjustment, sexually, racially and socially. Yet each one is a bundle of identities, often conflicting, but also complementing one another at times.  And it does make one wonder, whether writing about the search or the lack of search for identities and the effort of adjusting oneself to one or multiple societies can ever be titled as a writer’s, or anyone’s, ‘comfort zone’. That is why I don’t get tired of neither of their writings, I guess (side note: writers whose similar works I have indeed gotten tired of: Jodi Picoult and Isabel Allende).

Just like ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories, and one longer story, and most of them are about the lives of Indian immigrants and Indian-Americans. You would think that after a collection of short stories, and a full novel (‘Namesake’), there would be nothing new to tell anymore on this topic. Yet the struggle to adjust and the search of that feeling of belonging, one way or the other, never ceases, for anyone, and it is even more so for immigrants and their children.

‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about the dutiful daughter left to rummage through her brother’s fall, it’s about the middle-aged retired widowed Indian man who finally wants to have a life of his own, it’s about the daughter of that man at loss facing the side of a father she never knew, it’s about the helpless white boy who can only observe the emotional tumult his Indian roommate is going through. It could be something you experienced yourself, maybe to a different degree, but it could also be something you could never even fathom for your life.

But when it comes to finding the strength to merely survive on this earth, to root yourself wherever life takes you, only to find that this earth is never to be accustomed, this is about all of us.

“‘Tis” by Frank McCourt

There are certain books for which the first word of its review you don’t dare write, for fear of not being able to live up to the impression it has had on you. You feel like you would have to use big words, those you can only come up with the help of a Thesaurus. Your descriptions and thoughts ought to be blooming like flowers in the middle of a cold snowy winter, unexpectedly warming the heart of the few readers and visitors you will have. And then you realize, this is not what the author is about at all. It’s exactly the opposite.

Frank McCourt’s style is about exposing the truth and reality as it is, without adornment or unnecessary descriptions, to the point that it may feel void of emotions at certain times.  At the end of the day, what can you say but that ‘it is’? It is life, it is how things are, no matter how hard you may try, there are certain things that can’t change. And what else can you do but nod along and accept them? In a word, ’tis.

It is reality that teachers skip classes to complain about the desolate state of American education at a pub, it is so that you’re never ‘just American’ in the States, you’re always something else. ‘Tis that students at NYU and Columbia will be complaining and discussing about existentialism and Camus when most of them weren’t forced to work afternoons and nights at the docks and banks to pay for their living and their tuition.

So don’t expect any good Samaritan entering the stage of 19 year-old Frank McCourt’s life to save him from the miserable life he has cleaning hotel lobbies. Don’t expect him to achieve some admirable deed while being in the army in Germany. If you hope that he drastically changed the lives of some kids at the vocational high school he taught, then you would be disappointed.

After all, the life of young Frank McCourt, recently arrived in the States, barely making a living, without a high school diploma, with two sickly eyes, with a family to support back in Ireland and with that never-changing Irish brogue that betrays his origins wherever he goes, is no paradise. And the author doesn’t try to embellish his life story, nor does he try to move his readers with his very often sad and gloomy experiences, which, more than once, let us believe that happiness and happy endings are not written in his destiny. Yet it is his candor, bluntness, honesty and hopelessness that leave you desperate, sorry, hopeful, excited, exasperated, hurt and even happy at times. McCourt knows how to be human and his book is about this simple fact, and in his seemingly effortless attempt at conveying this message to his readers, he leaves us more human than we could possibly be.

I’m going to have to re-read “Angela’s Ashes”, but not right away, because I don’t want to feel that heartache at the end of the book twice in a row.