Wednesday, May 9, 2007

"Secondhand World"

Katherine Min’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and Prairie Schooner, and have been widely anthologized, most recently in The Pushcart Book of Stories: The Best Short Stories from a Quarter-Century of The Pushcart Prize.

She applied the "page 69 test" to her highly-acclaimed debut novel Secondhand World and reported the following:
Page 69 of my novel Secondhand World turns out to be an encapsulation of Isa's (my 17-year-old Korean American narrator's) central difficulty -- the longing for acceptance by her Caucasian friends versus the filial bonds she feels toward her Korean immigrant parents. In her best friend Rachel's basement, Isa makes fun of her parents -- their accents and predilections -- for the pure amusement of her

"I would mimic my father cruelly," Isa says, "exaggerating the l's instead of r's, leaving out articles, making him sound like some dim-witted M*A*S*H extra." Later, Isa admits, "Oh, it was terrible what we did. My laughter was studded with guilt, pricked with shame. I watched Rachel laugh and could hate her for a moment, even as I laughed too, knowing that I was pandering to her racism, that my betrayal cost her nothing, that she was aware of no truth about my parents beyond what I told her. It made the laughter more pungent, more bracing. It made it necessary."

The book is about many things, but it is essentially this straddling of two cultures that leaves Isa feeling isolated from her friends and estranged from her family. I have thought about Isa more and more in the wake of the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech, and I wonder, under different circumstances, what role this sense of disconnection -- from both adolescent American culture and more traditional Confucian Korean values -- could have played in Cho Sang-Hui's own dark sensibility.

Isa finds a kind of redemption at the end of her struggle; tragically, Cho Sang-Hui did not. I only wish that he -- like Isa -- was fictional.
Visit Katherine Min's website, and read an excerpt from Secondhand World.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue