Friday, July 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Lost Names + Things that I Do in the Dark)

Lately I've been trying to pick back up and finish older books that I've set aside at the same time that I make my way through newer purchases. So for this month's review, I'm pairing two books that I've kept waiting for years, both of which were originally published in the 1970s (1970 and 1977, respectively). First up is a semi-autobiographical novel about the final 13 years of Japan's colonization of Korea, from the perspective of a young boy growing up in what's now called North Korea. And then, a collection of 1950s-1970s poems by June Jordan (edited by Toni Morrison) which contemplate selfhood, community, desire, and Black struggle/liberation.

Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood  by Richard E. Kim
I ordered Lost Names after reviewing The Martyred (Richard E. Kim's most decorated work), because I was interested in learning more about Korean life under Japanese colonization from the testimony of someone who had actually lived through it. According to my Goodreads account, I initially started reading this novel in March of 2018. Then I set it aside for a reason that escapes me now, but it was probably my usual folly of thinking I can pause one book, finish a handful of other ones quickly during that pause, and then resume that one book again in no time. Somehow three years passed, and last month I finally decided to start Lost Names over from the beginning. 
The novel focuses on a boy in a northern Korean town 50 miles south of Pyongyang, where he lives with his parents, younger siblings, and paternal grandparents. The boy's father is greatly-respected for his past involvement in the Korean independence movement (which resulted in years of imprisonment), and for feeding and employing local people through the apple orchard he owns. Because the boy's family is wealthy and well-connected but also community-oriented—all the townspeople know who his daddy is, regardless of status or ethnicity—this allows the boy some wiggle room to evade or even resist certain restrictions and punishments that Japanese authorities enforce at his heavily-militarized school. In seven chapters, Richard E. Kim describes a Korean boyhood that's loosely based on his own, starting with the boy's family getting harassed by military police while briefly relocating to Manchuria in 1933, and ending with the boy and his father leading their town in liberating itself on the day of Japan's WW2 surrender announcement in 1945. Additionally, because it's written from a child's perspective, most of the book describes events connected to the local school, where both Japanese and Korean teachers are employed to mold the boy and his classmates into future soldiers for Imperial Japan.
The title Lost Names refers to the townspeople being required to register "new names" (Japanese ones) at the local police station, risking consequences such as their children being banned from school if they refuse. However, the issue of names actually comes up a lot less often in this book than I expected. None of the characters are named, and so even when Kim depicts a specific day during winter 1940 where people line up to register new names, we don't actually learn what those names are. (Except for the Japanese family name that the boy's father has chosen, the meaning of which still manages to reflect the family's commitment to their fellow Koreans.) Without a doubt, the moments when the boy internalizes the fact that his people are having their names taken from them are pivotal and painful. But I'd assumed the book would delve more into what kinds of Japanese names Korean people registered and why, how and when Koreans employed their real names over their Japanese ones (and vice versa), and how those names might have changed or endured after colonization ended. (For instance, would a young Korean person who grew up only studying Japanese language and history in school want to hold onto a Japanese name post-1945?) And my assumption proved incorrect. Lost Names is less about names themselves and more about the constant institutionalized attempts to make Koreans forfeit their identities. The imperial war effort and assumptions of Japanese superiority infiltrate nearly all aspects of daily life in this particular Korean town, and many Koreans find themselves acquiescing in ways that they never would've thought possible.

In an American context, I'm aware of the cynical argument that education systems exist to cultivate a future workforce, masses of young people whose labor can be exploited once they're capable and of age enough to supplement and/or replace the current workforce. But Lost Names is probably the starkest example I've read of a school that's unabashed in its campaign to turn children into tools. Furthermore, I had no idea just how militaristic Japanese schools were in Korea. At the boy's school, there's no pretense about nurturing well-rounded people, educating children for the sake of their own personal development, or giving them ample options for the kinds of adults they can grow into. These students are not merely children, they are future bodies to be sent to Japanese front lines abroad. And the institution where these children spend most of their days is not merely a school, it's a soldier factory. Now admittedly, I'm not familiar with how military schools work, and perhaps an American military academy wouldn't be so different from what Kim describes. But my goodness! The boy's schooling escalates from rigid morning assemblies and a field trip to view propaganda films on his first day of second grade, to most of his second year of junior high being spent building an airfield (manual labor all day and two hours of class at night)! "Extreme" simply isn't a severe enough word to describe this education system.
Remarkably, even amidst so much oppression, pockets of resistance show up throughout this story. Farmers start producing less (or quit farming altogether) when Japan creates an artificial shortage by sending most of Korea's meat and rice to Japan. The boy's mom teaches her children and the household's young servants to read and write Korean when Japanese authorities prohibit such instruction in schools. The boy's family (among others) delays registering new Japanese names for as long as they can, and the boy's father makes a point of wearing Korean clothing when he goes to the police station to register. On two occasions, Korean staff at the boy's school intercede when the boy is being beaten by Japanese staff. When the boy's Japanese teacher forces him to star in a pro-Empire propaganda play put on by the school, the boy goes onstage and pretends to forget the monologue that the teacher wrote for him. The boy's uncle, a high-ranking military officer in Manchuria, works with Korean and Chinese resistance fighters in secret. And the boy's father consistently has secret meetings and conversations with people who await (or are actively working toward) Korean liberation.
Before reading Lost Names, I never considered that Korean people at that time would've felt guilty toward their ancestors and future generations, who might resent them for supposedly letting the Japanese run over them the way they did. Of course, colonialism is layered, methodical, and insidious, and it's never something that the colonized just "let" happen. Plus, Korea is known for having a relentless resistance movement even before the country's status as a Japanese colony became official in 1910. But in Lost Names, Kim's adult characters express such a profound sense of remorse and a shame-tinged hope that past and future generations will forgive them, and it's absolutely heartbreaking to read. Even on the day of Japan's surrender, the boy and his father commiserate over how bitter they feel because it seems like liberation was bestowed upon Koreans by someone else, instead of them seizing it for themselves sooner. And that's another sentiment that I didn't anticipate. 
The townspeople's successful and highly-organized efforts to take power back from the Japanese allows this book to close with resounding triumph. This is a brief moment in time, between Japanese colonization and the Korean War, where anything seems possible for the future of an independent, non-partitioned Korea. Which is why I couldn't help but add my own sorrow to the immense hope that radiates from the boy and his father, because they have no idea what troubles are still to come. Even as I write this review, my heart hurts for what might've been. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history and Christianity in the early to mid 20th century, children's lived experiences of Japanese imperialism (especially surrounding WW2), or father-son stories, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"I think about it, however. Would the Japanese Emperor know that we children are bowing our heads to him? He may be asleep... he may be eating his breakfast... or he may be in the toilet, for all we know... and I can't help giggling about the picture conjured up by the last image... the Emperor is in the toilet and someone knocks on the door and says, 'Your Majesty, Your Majesty! The children, the children! They are bowing to Your Majesty!'... and the Emperor says, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I have my pants down!' Ha, ha, ha, I laugh" (30-31).
"People are driven into the cold, dank, and gray recesses of their houses with nothing much to do but think about the warm spring... Children are bound, too, into wherever they can find a little warmth, with a monotonous routine and a frustrating and demoralizing suspicion that, somehow, life has come to a stop. But, of course, life has not come to an end; it is, simply, in captivity, in the grips of a very cruel season...." (88).
 "No, you don't forget that. No, I won't forget that... I merely reflect, with a quick, sharp ache within me, that that is only one of the many other things that I cannot and will not forget. 'Vengeance is Mine,' says a god. 'Vengeance is Yours,' I say, 'Memories are Mine'" (135).

Things that I Do in the Dark: Selected Poems  by June Jordan
Two coincidences led me to read this collection of poetry, even though understanding poetry has never been my forte. I found this first edition copy (so first edition that it has an ISBN but no bar code!) back in college, at a book sale that some student org was running one day in the grassy open area next to my dorm. I was even less skilled at resisting the urge to pounce on a book deal back then, and so June Jordan's Things that I Do in the Dark was one of the works I bought for cheap that day. I wish I could remember why I was drawn to it. I'm certain I didn't know who June Jordan was, and I'm certain I wasn't paying close enough attention to notice Jordan's note of thanks to Toni Morrison (her editor) in the collection's opening pages. Maybe it was Alice Walker's co-sign on the back cover? Maybe I skimmed through the pages and found a phrase that caught my eye? No clue! But I bought the book and kept it stowed away in various places over the years that followed. Cut to May 2021 when, after watching the documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir on Netflix, I went digging for two of her books (as-yet-unread, of course) that I knew I'd put away somewhere in the house. My search was successful, and I also happened to rediscover my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark in the process of digging through multiple book storage bins. I started reading it in June, and finished it this month.
This collection contains over 130 poems that were written from 1958 to 1973 by June Jordan, a celebrated and proudly-bisexual Black woman poet, professor, and activist who was raised by Jamaican parents in Brooklyn. Some of these poems are descriptive, some are declarative, and all of them demonstrate Jordan's earnest desire to make sense of the relational and political systems that Black people were situated in at that time. And this is mostly the '60s and '70s we're talking about, so there was a lot to make sense of. The book is divided into four thematic sections, and the following parentheses are the exact descriptions I wrote in the margins for each one: For My Own ("herself/her people"), Directed By Desire ("romantic relationships"), Against The Stillwaters ("politics"), and Towards A Personal Semantics ("abstract?"). Obviously, the last section contains most of the poems that I understood the least. However, up until that point, I felt surprisingly enthusiastic about this book because I was reading June Jordan's poems more smoothly than I've been able to read any other poetry in a long time. Did every poem make sense to me? Of course not! But what made the difference was that I didn't agonize over what I didn't understand. I just kept reading the next line that followed. I would even venture to say that Jordan's poetry seems to make more sense when not read too slowly; there's frequent enjambment, and the rhythm of these poems is faster than I'd expected.
I'm not a Kentuckian but my mom is, so my interest is always piqued when I notice Kentucky mentioned in the books I read (here's to you, Marriage of a Thousand Lies and The Portable Promised Land). Hence, despite my efforts to push the horrific details to the back of my mind, the poem that still lingers with me the most from June Jordan's collection is "Poem for My Family: Hazel Griffin and Victor Hernandez Cruz". The first part of this four-part poem details the butchering and burning of a 17-year-old enslaved boy named George, who was murdered in western Kentucky by his two masters in 1811. The masters who murdered him, the Lewis brothers, were also Thomas Jefferson's nephews. And knowing what Thomas Jefferson did to James and Sally Hemings, for me the mention of his name in this poem chillingly underscored how widespread the evil was in that extended slave-owning family. The poem goes on to say that young George lived and died being treated like meat, and argues that Black people's freedom necessitates that Black people reclaim themselves and white people incur "property loss" or "property damage" (because Black people literally stop being "property" when no longer enslaved). Every time I look at my copy of Things that I Do in the Dark, even without touching it or opening it up, I think about what June Jordan wrote about George. 
Other favorites of mine include "These poems they are things that I do in the dark" (self-explanatory); "Ah, Momma" (about the revelations Jordan discovers about her mom by observing her habits and exploring her closet); "On a New Year's Eve" (where Jordan lauds the temporary and fleeting aspects of her relationship with her lover over the supposedly rare or magnificent things in life that last forever but are overrated); and "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies" (where Jordan throws down the gauntlet and vows to antagonize rather than appease white people, since they're going to act scared of her anyway). If you're interested in poetry written by Black women, what it feels like to love/be loved, or Black liberation and self-determination, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"To begin is no more agony
Than opening your hand" 
(from "Who Look at Me", p. 5)
"Although the world
forgets me
I will say yes
(from "Who Look at Me", p. 10) 
"...once, in there you told me, whispering, that once, you had wanted to be an artist: someone, you explained, who could just boldly go and sit near the top of a hill and watch the setting of the sun
Ah, Momma!
You said this had been your wish when you were quite as young as I was then: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl who heard your confidence with terrified amazement: what had happened to you and your wish? Would it happen to me too?" 
(from "Ah, Momma", p. 37-38)

"the temporary is the sacred

[...] let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
(whatever that may be) 
it is this time 
that matters

it is this history 
I care about

the one we make together

[...] all things are dear
that disappear

all things are dear
that disappear
(from "On a New Year's Eve", p. 74-76)

"I will no longer lightly walk behind 
a one of you who fear me:
Be afraid.
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavement anymore
[...] I must become the action of my fate.
[...] I must become a menace to my enemies." 
(from "I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies", p. 145-46)

No comments:

Post a Comment