Young Korean Refugee Sacrifices Love and Education for Stability in If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

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My Review:

This wonderful debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers around five characters growing up during and after the Korean war.  Haemi is a spirited, willful and independent 16 year old refugee who lives with and feels responsible for her widowed mother and her sickly younger brother, Hyunki.  She and her lifelong friend, Kyungwan, are experiencing young love, but he wants to get an education and be a better man before he expresses his feelings.  Kyungwan’s older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has no immediate family, and he also takes a liking to Haemi.  Before he goes off to war he asks her to marry him, with the hope that when he returns he will have family waiting for him.  Jisoo can ensure less struggling and provide food and medicine for Haemi and her family.  Despite her connection with Kyungwan, her hope of having a life with him, and her desire for education, she ignores her emotions and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, knowing this union will provide stability and financial security for her aging mother and sick brother, and will allow all of them to continue living together.  Understanding he cannot provide the security Haemi needs, Kyungwan leaves.  Jisoo returns from war and he and Haemi have children, but she struggles with life and loss, and has a difficult time finding peace with her decisions.  After 11 years, Kyungwan returns for a short visit…

If You Leave Me is a war story and a love story; life choices are influenced by the Korean war and the challenges of being a refugee.  Crystal Hana Kim takes us through 16 years and we witness the struggles…what they do for love and what love does to them.  This is a generational saga with multiple prospectives over time, and we see how the old and the young are influenced by western culture as it is integrated into Korean life. Families are torn apart during the civil war in Korea, and the people are desperately trying to repair their lives. If You Leave Me is about difficult decisions, the security found in new families, and the unforgettable ache of lost love.  If you loved Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, you will love this one!

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Crystal Hana Kim Book Talk

Upbringing

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Crystal Hana Kim and as always, hearing from the author enhanced my understanding of where the story ideas came from and gave me a deeper appreciation for the creativity, effort and final product.  I learned that Crystal’s  Korean maternal grandmother came to New York to help raise her for a few years when she was a baby and then returned home to Korea where she goes to visit every year.  Crystal remains close to her grandmother and they keep in touch through texts and selfies.  Her parents are immigrants and throughout her childhood they spoke Korean,  were influenced by the culture and ate Korean food at home.  When Crystal went to school she felt people did not understand her or know who she was.  When she told a boy she was Korean he said no, she must be either Chinese or Japanese.  Shocked to realize Americans knew little about Korea she decided she would one day write about her culture and her family’s country.

Grandmother

Crystal’s grandmother often tells her stories about her youth and how she was a teenage refugee and had to flee her home during the Korean war.  She talks to her about poverty and the restraints on women and how marriage gave her stability even though she wanted an education, likely influencing Haemi’s character development in If You Leave Me.  (In order to fulfill her dream of education today, Crystal’s grandmother is taking harmonica lessons and is in a poetry class!)

Research

Research for the novel started with Crystal’s knowledge of Korea and her own personal family experiences and traditions, and then expanded to a civilian focused effort, interviewing many of her Korean relatives.  Her hope was to create a novel that was vivid, descriptive and portrayed family and cultural history with integrity, and I believe she was hugely successful.  I loved If You Leave Me and highly recommend it.

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Q & A with Crystal Hana Kim

Q:  I enjoyed the multiple perspectives in If You Leave Me, and each character painted a vivid picture of their life and surroundings.  I know you are a first generation American…have you been to Korea?  How much of your story came from your experiences or people you know? Did your parents’ experiences influence your story?

A:  I grew up going to Korea every summer because my mother’s side of the family all live there. She wanted to make sure that my sister and I spent as much time with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so that we could maintain strong ties despite the physical distance. The stories in If You Leave Me are all fictitious; my favorite part of writing is creating characters, lives, and circumstances. My grandparents all survived the Korean War, and the tragedy of this war did inspire me to write about this particular time, but the characters are all my own. 

Q:  All your characters were flawed and realistic – and the war and political situation influenced their life choices and decisions.   In addition, the western cultural influences had an impact and it seemed like traditional values were being challenged by new thinking.  Do you think people who live through these type of unstable times and suffer terrible loss can recover from them and find happiness?

A:  I’m an optimist, so yes, I believe in the resilience of humankind. However, I do think that the ways in which we cope with violence, civil war, hunger, and tragedy depends on the individual. There are so many factors that shape our individual selves, from our family relationships to cultural expectations to our access to class, privilege, and opportunity. In If You Leave Me, my goal was to create a complex, diverse group of characters who felt as real and human as possible.   

Q:  We never find out who received the yellow dress but are made to feel like Jisoo bought it for another woman.  Why did you choose not to tell us who received it?  Did it not matter? (It came up in the book discussion!)

A:  Ah, the yellow dress! I prefer books that do not tie up every loose end, that instead allows room for the reader to make their own judgments. What the yellow dress represented—mistrust, disloyalty, and the fracturing in Haemi and Jisoo’s relationship—were more important and interesting to me than neatly concluding whether or not Jisoo bought a dress for another woman.  

Q:  Haemi loses everything over the course of her short life…her father dies, she spends her childhood caring for her widowed mother and ailing brother, she gives up her relationship with Kyunghwan so her family has financial stability, she sacrifices her will to be educated to become a wife to a man she doesn’t love and she loses her brother.  She mentions several times how she has a hard time recovering after pregnancy.  She also was so angry and seemed to recognize this and try to control it at times.  Did Haemi have post partum depression or a mental illness? 

A:  Haemi had to sacrifice a lot for her family, and yet there were real moments of joy in her life as well. For example, even in her relationship to Jisoo, there is a form of love in the earlier years of their marriage. Even though she finds motherhood difficult and is not the perfect caretaker, she also deeply loves her children. I wanted her life to be complex and yet realistic to the time she grew up in. 

I specifically depicted Haemi struggling after pregnancy because I wanted to write about a strong female character suffering from post partum depression. Haemi tries to articulate how she is feeling to those around her, but they cannot comprehend her illness and thus have no empathy for her. I wanted to showcase how frustrating this could feel for a mother of young children—in addition to suffering from post partum, she does not have the vocabulary to articulate her illness to others.   

Q:  How long did it take you to write this book?

A:  In 2011, when I started my graduate studies in MFA at Columbia University, I began writing about Haemi and Solee. I was interested in their mother-daughter relationship and their circumstances. As I wrote scenes from their perspectives, the other characters began to take shape. At first, I thought I was working on an interconnected short story collection about a Korean family over three generations. In 2014, I realized that I could take part of that collection and turn it into a novel. At that point, the premise and scope of If You Leave Me was born, and it was published a few years later in 2018. 

Q:  Would you ever consider writing a book centered on one of the daughters as a continuation?

A:  Yes, I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book about the daughters in their adult years! I think it would be interesting to explore the different trajectories these daughters’ lives would take as they grapple with their childhoods, their mother’s leaving, and Korea’s modernization. I also think this could be a way to explore immigration to the United States, which, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I would love to write about.  

Q:  What 3 books have you read recently that you recommend?

A:  There are so many books I’d recommend! Chemistry by Weike Wang was published in 2017, but I read it this year. Chemistry is a funny and moving story about an indecisive Chinese American Phd Chemistry candidate trying to understand what she wants out of life. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is a slim, powerful, eerie, and odd conversation between a sick young woman in a rural hospital and a young boy. It’s an unsettling book that is difficult to describe but that will stay with you for a long time. The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir about the author’s return to Libya to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father decades before. 

Q:  What books are on your nightstand that you are looking forward to reading?

A:  I am very excited to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Crystal Hana Kim holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing editor for Apogee Journal. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Chicago.

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Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

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As seen on Goodreads:

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, are gay. They present an illusion of marital bliss to their conservative Sri Lankan–American families, while each dates on the side. It’s not ideal, but for Lucky, it seems to be working. She goes out dancing, she drinks a bit, she makes ends meet by doing digital art on commission. But when Lucky’s grandmother has a nasty fall, Lucky returns to her childhood home and unexpectedly reconnects with her former best friend and first lover, Nisha, who is preparing for her own arranged wedding with a man she’s never met.

As the connection between the two women is rekindled, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie. But does Nisha really want to be saved? And after a decade’s worth of lying, can Lucky break free of her own circumstances and build a new life? Is she willing to walk away from all that she values about her parents and community to live in a new truth? As Lucky—an outsider no matter what choices she makes—is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a vivid exploration of a life lived at a complex intersection of race, sexuality, and nationality. The result is a profoundly American debut novel shot through with humor and loss, a story of love, family, and the truths that define us all.

 

My Comments:

A lovely debut, Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings to light the layers of struggles that shape our decisions on how we choose to live our lives.  Lucky and her husband Kris are both gay, in a marriage of convenience to keep Kris in the country and for Lucky to mend the relationship with her disapproving family and save face in the eyes of the Sri Lanken community.  Lucky returns home to care for her ill grandmother and is reunited with Nisha, her old friend whom she had a romantic relationship with when they were younger.  Nisha is preparing for her arranged marriage to a man, but in the weeks leading up to her wedding the suppressed love and desire of these former lovers are unleashed forcing both Nisha and Lucky to reevaluate their choices and how they want to live their lives.  Is it better to follow your heart and be shunned from your family and community or should you live a lie to be accepted?  Marriage of a Thousand Lies brings us on a journey of struggles and pressures, as Nisha and Lucky make their decisions on how to live and where to find acceptance.

Last week, on the 20th anniversary of Ellen Degeneres coming out at  gay on national tv to 42 million viewers, I reflected on how far we have come in the United States when it comes to acceptance and treating all people equally.   Yes, we have progressed in 20 years, but there are still many individuals and groups that preclude some from being considered equal and treated fairly.  It is part of the human struggle to protect and honor the past while we grow and accept change and celebrate difference moving forward.  Little by little we are finding the balance, one family and one community at a time, as brave individuals choose to live authentically and gain support from their inner circle.  I enjoyed this well written novel as it touched on the personal struggles of  each character with the added bonus of Sri Lankan traditions and customs.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies will be available June 13th.

Preorder here on AMAZON.

 

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About the author:

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. Her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, won the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and was published by Split Lip Press. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Marriage of a Thousand Lies is her first novel, and will be released by Soho Press in June 2017.

The Unexpected Daughter by Sheryl Parbhoo

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As stated in Goodreads:

Three people’s lives intersect in a tumultuous yet redeeming way that none of them could have ever predicted. Jenny is a young professional from the South with an upbringing she wants to forget. She meets Roshan, an Indian immigrant who has moved to the United States with his mother, Esha, to escape family ghosts. With strong cultural tradition, Esha has devoted her entire life to her only child, both for his own good and for her personal protection from a painful past. Roshan understands his role as his mother’s refuge, and from an early age, he commits himself to caring for her. But when Jenny and Roshan embark on a forbidden, intercultural relationship, all three get tangled into an inseparable web—betrayal, violence, and shame—leaving them forced to make choices about love and family they never wanted to make while finding peace where they never expected to look.

 

My Comments:

I loved this story, enjoyed following each character as they fought their own personal battles and learned a lot about Indian culture and tradition along the way!  Roshan and Jenny have a unique friendship that grows into more but they resist the temptation to commit, he due to his Indian background, customs and parental influences, and she due to her fear of abandonment, and her difficult upbringing surrounded by poverty and addiction.  After fighting the attraction, going their separate ways and living their lives apart for a decade, they come together and are faced with the same obstacles and more.  As author Sheryl Parbhoo shows us in The Unexpected Daughter, it is impossible to escape our formative years, good or bad; it is a part of who we are and how we live in this world.  What we can do is make good decisions for ourselves, embrace opportunities, live authentically and love with an open heart.

One of my favorite types of books is a story of immigration, assimilation and the mixing of cultures.  The Unexpected Daughter delivers all of that so well as the backdrop with a rollercoaster ride of a story of a modern multicultural family as they come to terms with their past and grow together, navigating love, loyalty, addiction, ambition, death, birth and celebration….Life.    A wonderful debut!

Order on AMAZON today!

 

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Sheryl Parbhoo is an author, blogger, educator, and mother of five. A native southerner, her interest in the intricacies of human culture led to a BA in Anthropology from the University of Memphis. Her longing for the spice of life culminated when she married her high school sweetheart, a South African Indian immigrant, and became a stay-at-home mom to their five children for over 20 years. After diligent, dedicated PTA and Room Mom duties, she earned a BS in Education from Kennesaw State University, becoming an ESOL teacher, focusing on immigrant students from Mexico and Guatemala.

Sheryl is known worldwide for her blog, Southern Life Indian Wife, where for four years she has shared stories from her spicy masala/southern cornbread way of life raising her large multicultural family and navigating the quirks of Southern and Indian in-law relationships. These, along with the responses received from readers, are the real-life inspirations for her novel, The Unexpected Daughter.

On sherylparbhoo.com, Sheryl shares her love of writing and personal experiences as a writer. She has been a featured contributor for Masalamommas.com, Twins Magazine, among others. She and her family’s blended cultural traditions have been highlighted on PBSNewshour.com, as well as on various online sites.

Nadia Hashimi – Author Obsession

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It is very exciting to discover an author who’s novels are so compelling, educational and engrossing that I want to read everything they have written. Nadia Hashimi is one of those brilliant and heartfelt authors. Her writing is smart and rich in history and traditions. Over the past few years she has published three fantastic novels, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When The Moon Is Low, and A House Without Windows. She also wrote a YA book, One Half from the East which came out in Sept. 2016.

 

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Below are excerpts from the author’s bio on Goodreads…

Nadia Hashimi was born and raised in New York and New Jersey. Both her parents were born in Afghanistan and left in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion. Her mother, granddaughter of a notable Afghan poet, traveled to Europe to obtain a Master’s degree in civil engineering and her father came to the United States, where he worked hard to fulfill his American dream and build a new, brighter life for his immediate and extended family.

Nadia was fortunate to be surrounded by a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins, keeping the Afghan culture an integral part of their daily lives.

Nadia attended Brandeis University where she obtained degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology. In 2002, she made her first trip to Afghanistan with her parents who had not returned to their homeland since leaving in the 1970s.

It was a bittersweet experience for everyone, finding relics of childhood homes and reuniting with loved ones.

Nadia enrolled in medical school in Brooklyn and became active with an Afghan-American community organization that promoted cultural events and awareness, especially in the dark days after 9/11. She graduated from medical school and went on to complete her pediatric training at NYU/Bellevue hospitals in New York City. On completing her training, Nadia moved to Maryland with her husband where she works as a pediatrician.

She’s also a part of the “Lady Docs,” a group of local female physicians who exercise, eat and blog together.

With her rigorous medical training completed, Nadia turned to a passion that had gone unexplored. Her upbringing, experiences and love for reading came together in the form of stories based in the country of her parents and grandparents (some even make guest appearances in her tales!).

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The Pearl That Broke Its Shell was released  in 2014.

As stated in Goodreads:
In Kabul, 2007, with a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can only sporadically attend school, and can rarely leave the house. Their only hope lies in the ancient custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. As a son, she can attend school, go to the market, and chaperone her older sisters.

But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom. A century earlier, her great-aunt, Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life the same way.

Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell interweaves the tales of these two women separated by a century who share similar destinies. But what will happen once Rahima is of marriageable age? Will Shekiba always live as a man? And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?

 

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When The Moon Is Low was published in 2015.

As stated in Goodreads:

Mahmoud’s passion for his wife Fereiba, a schoolteacher, is greater than any love she’s ever known. But their happy, middle-class world—a life of education, work, and comfort—implodes when their country is engulfed in war, and the Taliban rises to power.

Mahmoud, a civil engineer, becomes a target of the new fundamentalist regime and is murdered. Forced to flee Kabul with her three children, Fereiba has one hope to survive: she must find a way to cross Europe and reach her sister’s family in England. With forged papers and help from kind strangers they meet along the way, Fereiba make a dangerous crossing into Iran under cover of darkness. Exhausted and brokenhearted but undefeated, Fereiba manages to smuggle them as far as Greece. But in a busy market square, their fate takes a frightening turn when her teenage son, Saleem, becomes separated from the rest of the family.

Faced with an impossible choice, Fereiba pushes on with her daughter and baby, while Saleem falls into the shadowy underground network of undocumented Afghans who haunt the streets of Europe’s capitals. Across the continent Fereiba and Saleem struggle to reunite, and ultimately find a place where they can begin to reconstruct their lives.

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A House Without Windows was published in 2016.
As stated in Goodreads:
For two decades, Zeba was a loving wife, a patient mother, and a peaceful villager. But her quiet life is shattered when her husband, Kamal, is found brutally murdered with a hatchet in the courtyard of their home. Nearly catatonic with shock, Zeba is unable to account for her whereabouts at the time of his death. Her children swear their mother could not have committed such a heinous act. Kamal’s family is sure she did, and demands justice.
Barely escaping a vengeful mob, Zeba is arrested and jailed. As Zeba awaits trial, she meets a group of women whose own misfortunes have also led them to these bleak cells: thirty-year-old Nafisa, imprisoned to protect her from an honor killing; twenty-five-year-old Latifa, who ran away from home with her teenage sister but now stays in the prison because it is safe shelter; and nineteen-year-old Mezhgan, pregnant and unmarried, waiting for her lover’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. Is Zeba a cold-blooded killer, these young women wonder, or has she been imprisoned, as they have been, for breaking some social rule? For these women, the prison is both a haven and a punishment. Removed from the harsh and unforgiving world outside, they form a lively and indelible sisterhood.
Into this closed world comes Yusuf, Zeba’s Afghan-born, American-raised lawyer, whose commitment to human rights and desire to help his motherland have brought him back. With the fate of this seemingly ordinary housewife in his hands, Yusuf discovers that, like Afghanistan itself, his client may not be at all what he imagines.
A moving look at the lives of modern Afghan women, A House Without Windows is astonishing, frightening, and triumphant.

 

My comments:

In A House Without Windows, Nadia Hashimi shows us how honor and integrity pay a significant role in the lives of Afghan women. She also gives us an indication of how men rule the court system and how women’s prisons are full of modern Afghan women who have fallen victim to acts of violence and misfortunes by men. The people of the country have great respect for spiritual leaders, sorcerers and special powers/magic-like spells, and family honor is of utmost importance and runs deep. Even though this novel takes place in current times it feels old fashioned with superstition a real part of the belief system of the people. I love a mysterious crime and a court case. When it is set in a tradition rich, male driven country with multiple, strong women characters with flaws and good intent, I am in heaven!

Nadia Hashimi’s writing is brilliant and A House Without Windows, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and When The Moon Is Low all take the reader on intense, soul seeking journeys with strong, determined and deep thinking women of Afghanistan.

 

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One Half from the East is a YA novel published in 2016.

As seen in Goodreads:

Internationally bestselling author Nadia Hashimi’s first novel for young readers is an emotional, beautiful, and riveting coming-of-age journey to modern-day Afghanistan that explores life as a bacha posh—a preteen girl dressed as a boy.

Obayda’s family is in need of some good fortune.

Her father lost one of his legs in a bomb explosion, forcing the family to move from their home city of Kabul to a small village, where life is very different and Obayda’s father almost never leaves his room.

One day, Obayda’s aunt has an idea to bring the family luck—dress Obayda, the youngest of her sisters, as a boy, a bacha posh.

Now Obayda is Obayd.

Life in this in-between place is confusing, but once Obayda meets another bacha posh, everything changes. The two of them can explore the village on their own, climbing trees, playing sports, and more.

But their transformation won’t last forever—unless the two best friends can figure out a way to make it stick and make their newfound freedoms endure.