By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — Despite the fact that Korea is at the forefront of technology these days, from robotics to automobiles to renewable energy, depictions of life in that country in American literature are not that common.
This is one reason to read Forgotten Country (Riverhead Books) by Brooklyn resident Catherine Chung, who will be reading from the book at the powerHouse Arena, 37 Main St., DUMBO, on March 14 at 7 p.m.
But another reason to read Forgotten Country is because it is a well-written, interesting drama about a family whose members always seem to be outsiders. And along the way, we discover that some stereotypes that Americans often hold are basically false.
Forgotten Country focuses on Janie, a PhD. candidate in math (Chung herself was a math major), her sister Hannah and their parents. The family lives far from a typical big-city Korean-American community, with its Korean-American churches, delis, dry cleaners and other businesses.
Indeed, in their small Michigan town, they and an elderly Chinese couple are the only Asian-Americans. In one incident, Janie is taunted by a classmate whose father killed a Chinese man and who brags, “The chink had it coming to him!”
We later learn that one of the reasons that the family left Korea was because Janie’s father had been involved in anti-government activity. Until the 1980s, Communist North Korea wasn’t the only dictatorship on the Korean Peninsula — anti-Communist South Korea was a dictatorship, too. Since then, South Korea has moved toward democracy, while North Korea has become even more despotic and extreme.
As the book gets under way, Janie and Hannah are both college students, but things take an unexpected turn when their father, suffering from cancer, moves back to Korea because of an advanced treatment that is being tested there. At first, only Jamie accompanies the family, but Hannah joins them later. In Korea, they have to get used to a whole new set of relatives, including an aunt who puts their father down for turning his back on Jesus.
The sisters’ standing between two cultures is dramatized by a passage in the book that reveals that when Hannah, as a small child, first came to America, she refused to eat Korean food, wanting only cheeseburgers and French fries. Then, when Asian food became trendy, she started to eat it again. By the time she visits her parents in Korea, she accepts both types of food.
Chung, who like Janie was a math major, grew up “all over the place” because her father was a professor who taught at several different colleges. She now teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and other venues.
She moved to Park Slope about a year ago “because Park Slope has the highest per-capita number of writers than any other place in the country. I walk a short walk from a place I love called the Tea Lounge. You can walk around Park Slope and see such a great mix of different kinds of people from different places.”