On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the so-called forgotten war was finally remembered. With the Associated Press’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “revelation” a year ago that hundreds of civilians were massacred under a concrete bridge outside the village of Nogun-ri, and the recent “uncovering” of the execution of dozens of leftists by the South Korean Army before the battle of Taejon, the horrors of the Korean War are beginning to come to light.
To the survivors and witnesses of these tragedies, however, the truth of their experiences was never in question. Their remembrances were repressed in a variety of ways–by government authorities, who denied these events ever happened; by society at large, which wanted to forget the past and move on; by family members and friends, who did not want to hear about such painful things; or even by themselves, who held these memories inside for almost fifty years. As a result, many have never spoken of what they witnessed during the three-year conflict, in which more than a million Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops died. The Korean War continues–in the lives of survivors and in reality; no peace treaty was ever signed, only an armistice agreement in 1953. Hence the enormity of headlines this past June when leaders from the two Koreas held a summit meeting for the first time since the Korean War.
In her memoir, Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, Elizabeth Kim tells of another forgotten legacy of the war. The daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI, Kim’s curly hair and hazel eyes branded her as an outcast in Korean society, a honhyol–“a despicable name that meant nonperson, mixed race, animal.” In a culture where patriarchal bloodlines form the basis of the most important structure in society–the family–mixed-race children were (and still are, in many cases) not tolerated. Kim writes, “National pride is deeply ingrained, and in Korea the intense love for the country’s heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage.”
Kim begins her moving yet vague memoir with the horrific “honor killing” of her beloved Omma (mother) by her own grandfather and uncle, an act she claims to have witnessed as a young child while hiding in a basket. Omma had brought great shame to her family, many of whom were village elders, by producing a honhyol. She also had the audacity to refuse the generous offer of another family to allow her child to work in their home as a servant–a higher status than that of a half-breed. In her relatives’ eyes, the family’s honor could only be saved by Omma’s death.
A sympathetic aunt leaves Kim, somewhere between the age of 4 and 6 at the time (or maybe even younger), at a Christian orphanage without any components of her identity: “In a Korean’s view, it would be better to be dead than to be the embodiment of shame such as I was: a honhyol, a female, nameless, without a birth date.” Behind the bars of a crib, she is sustained by memories of her mother’s love. “Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace.”
Kim relays her litany of sorrow in spare, poetic prose and never succumbs to self-pity or sentimentality. Her hellish existence as a nonperson continues in the squalid orphanage and even after her adoption by a white fundamentalist pastor and his dutiful wife from central California. Like many Korean adoptees of the time, Kim found herself in a community without any other Asians or people of color. Instead of being stigmatized by her Caucasian features, as she was in Korea, she was tormented because of her Asian ones in the rural desert community where she grew up. Her ultra-Christian parents reared her according to the edict of assimilation, never allowing Kim to speak of Korea or her birth mother. Instead, they openly disparaged the only person who showed her love: “My parents told me she was something very bad and sinful called a prostitute. She didn’t love me, they said; it didn’t matter to her whether I lived or died.”
Kim carries the stigma of the honhyol well into her adult life, as her sorrows multiply. A loveless arranged marriage to a deacon in her parents’ church follows her traumatic childhood, as do years of physical and psychological abuse. Mercifully, joy does make an appearance in this wrenching memoir, in the form of her daughter, Leigh. Kim finds the strength to spirit away the newborn from her schizophrenic husband before her daughter witnesses the abuse her mother has endured for years.
In the book’s most affecting sections, the author describes her brief yet loving relationship with Omma, in which the two outcasts create a private world of their own in a shack just outside their village (a portion of this was excerpted in the first issue of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, O). Decades later, the next generation of mother and daughter also live in poverty on the outskirts of a small town and find happiness through stories and fantasy. “Whether in Korea or in America, the make-believe tapestry made life bearable.”
But if fantasy was responsible for Kim’s happiness, was it for her despair, as well? Just as the sources for the AP’s story have come under question–in particular, one US soldier who originally admitted to getting the order to shoot civilians was not even in the vicinity of Nogun-ri at the time–Kim’s story has come under scrutiny as well.
In September the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul, published a letter to the editor titled “‘Memoir’ defames Korean culture.” The author, Brian Myers, a Korean studies scholar in the United States, sharply criticized Ten Thousand Sorrows as “wildly inaccurate” in its descriptions of “Korean life, language and custom.” He went on to write that Kim’s “account of the Confucian ‘honor killing’ is so improbable, that the only question for me is whether she herself believes what she has written.” Some in Korean studies have pointed out that it would have been more common in Korean culture at the time for a mother to have committed suicide than to have been murdered by members of her own family.
Answering such criticisms, Kim’s publisher recently issued a carefully worded press release stating that “there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea.” Doubleday subsequently promised to delete the offending term in future paperback editions of Ten Thousand Sorrows. Kim, a longtime journalist, admitted to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie that she was “careless” both in using the term “honor killing” (which is found primarily in Muslim cultures) and in stating in an admittedly “bad bit of writing” that Korea was divided by the Korean War, when in fact it was split years earlier, in 1945, after the country’s liberation from Japan.
Considering Kim’s background (she was most recently an editor at the Marin Independent Journal), her “bad bits of writing” are inexcusable and regrettable. In short, she should have known better. But as she has stated, her book “is not intended to be representative of Korean adoption or anything else. It’s just my life.” Kim’s critics are quick to dismiss her account because of errors and inconsistencies; they point to her six-figure advance as motivation for sensationalizing the truth. But as any seasoned reader of memoirs knows, the genre tends toward self-reflection rather than historicity or definitiveness in describing a specific culture or experience.
Kim’s critics forget, too, that the basis of any memoir is memory, which is by its very nature slippery, fragmented and often unreliable. What Kim is most guilty of in Ten Thousand Sorrows is not misrepresentation but neglecting to describe adequately the state and processes of her own memory. As a result, the book feels unfinished, like a work in progress, especially in the last sections, where it devolves into shards of self-help homilies. The book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of how the author’s early-childhood recollections coalesced in her brain over time and why she chose to believe the version of what happened to her that she devoted to print. The book’s unsatisfying ending suggests that perhaps the author hadn’t quite achieved the distance necessary to deal with such questions when she wrote the book.
In his letter to the Korea Herald, Myers questioned whether Kim believes what she has written, implying that the author might be guilty of willful misrepresentation. The same charge has been leveled at the civilians and US servicemen who witnessed what happened at Nogun-ri. Is the inherent haziness of memory (especially that of the Korean War, half a century ago) enough reason to deny the actuality of events? If one thinks so–even in the afterglow of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il’s first summit meeting–the wounds of the last battle of the cold war will never heal.