Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Everything Belongs to Us"

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and son.

Wuertz applied the Page 69 Test to her debut novel, Everything Belongs to Us, and reported the following:
From page 69:
He pulled out two long plastic sleeves, which he rolled over his shirtsleeves. Namin thought, I don’t even know how much to pay him. Somehow the idea of asking how much the service cost was more than she could bear. He stepped into the bathroom, ducking around the doorway to find the light. His apron was tied smartly behind him, the two sides of the bow perfectly symmetrical. The knot was tight against his back, and he was squatting to examine something. Namin tried to rehearse what she would say when he came out. Would they make small talk? Would she ask how his wife—who was nauseated not by him, but by the new creation of their child—was faring this morning? And this last plagued her worst of all: Should she apologize for the mess? Or was the right answer to pretend there was nothing to be ashamed of, nothing he should feel ashamed of?

Namin took a book and waited outside, leaning against the outer wall of her house. She pretended to read, even turning the pages at proper intervals, but the text was just lines on a page, nothing she could form into meaningful words. When a neighbor came by and asked what she was doing, she avoided answering but managed to ask how much she should pay Mr. Hong.

“You mean you really don’t know? I guess even a college student like you has to have something to learn.”

It was irritating to have her flaws pointed out so baldly, but Namin understood the neighbor meant this in a friendly way. This was the way of Miari—opinions were free and abundant. Namin would always be measured against her status as a Seoul University student, an ongoing honor that still earned her a measure of local celebrity. But the attention cut both ways as even the most casual acquaintances felt free to dissect her shortcomings as if she were a member of their extended family.
Namin is a student at an elite University in Seoul in 1978, but because her family is quite poor, they don’t have indoor plumbing. Usually it’s her older sister’s job to track down the sanitation worker and beg him to empty their latrine, but her sister has shirked her responsibilities. Now Namin is dealing with the hated task, but she feels awkward and embarrassed, as many of us might in her circumstances.

Two things strike me about this passage. The first is the juxtaposition of low and high class that Namin struggles with throughout: the urgency of her overflowing latrine against her attempt to focus on her textbook, which represents her elite education and her way out of poverty. I think that line about her town’s attention cutting both ways captures the central dilemma of her life. Her education and the status it affords her is a double-edged sword because it both lifts and differentiates her from her community.

My second note is remembering that this scene was built from my mom’s memories of the hated latrine in the homes of her childhood and youth, which distressed her so much she had nightmares into adulthood well after life became more comfortable. Sometimes it might be easy to assume that people who are born into difficult circumstances “get used to” their challenges. That somehow it bothers them less than it might bother us, who enjoy greater privileges. But my mother’s memories made me realize that hardships are traumatic no matter how much it might be normalized as the day-to-day reality. I recall this astounding, sobering statistic I once read, which is that there are currently more cell phones in the world than working toilets.
Visit Yoojin Grace Wuertz's website.

My Book, The Movie: Everything Belongs to Us.

--Marshal Zeringue