A novel by Suki Kim
After reading halfway through Suki Kim's debut novel, "The Interpreter", my mother announced, she's so Korean! I agreed. As first and second generation women, we both saw ourselves reflected clearly in her text; it put a mirror to our faces in a way that literature has not done before.
What does that mean, so Korean? Maybe we identified with the working class immigrant roots so accurately outlined in the book; the journey of most Koreans of the late 70s from small mom & pop grocery stores to the more middle class lifestyles we see today. Maybe it was the depiction of young Korean Americans -- lost, sarcastic, with sharp views but muddled actions. But for me, as a reader, it was the unmistakable voice of the narrator, Suzi Park -- her long, rolling stream of consciousness passages, her slightly droll, slightly noir attitude, which reminded me distinctly of my pool-playing girlfriends from high school.
"The Interpreter" centers around Suki Kim, a woman in her late twenties whose parents have been killed five years earlier while working in their grocery store. It traces her life as a court interpreter, her relationship with a white professor, and her journey to discovering who was behind the murder of her parents. It slips into the crime underworld of Korean gangs, and the shady and not-so-shady workings of the NYPD around the case. The story starts out slow and thoughtful and builds suspense steadily along the way; the last fifty pages contain a torrent of actions and truths that leave the reader reeling.
Other Korean American novelists like Chang Rae Lee have written more about an upper middle class Asian American reality, using precise and eloquent language that is lovely but sounds distinctly European in flavor. His first novel, Native Speaker, attempted to explore the intricacies of mostly Asian American urban hubs like Flushing, but failed. Nora Okja Keller employed mythological and fantastic folklore in her writing, which also distracted from daily reality. The only other novel that is comparable in dealing with Korean American working class issues has been that of Patti Kim's A Cab Called Reliable.
Suki Kim has been able to craft a novel that brings nods of understanding and reflection from both sides precisely because she straddles the middle as a 1.5 generation Korean American; someone who was born in the mother country and immigrated to the States as a child or young adult. Being in such a place, with fluency in both languages, one is attuned to the nuances in both cultures. Is a unique and useful vantage point. Junót Diaz and Edwidge Dandicat are two other young authors who bring revelatory passages to us from this point of view. It is ironic then, that instead of finding that place to be advantageous, the narrator instead feels"a persistent hollowness" as if"she was stuck in a vacuum where neither culture moved nor owned her." Interestingly, Kim's characters engage in a discussion about Nabakov -- his life as a series of exiles from one country to another. They also talk about his loyalty (or lack thereof) to one nation. One can see the narrator relating this unconsciously to her own life, and to the vagrant, seemingly haphazard migrations of her parents, from Korea to the United States, and her own ambivalent feelings for both countries.
Absence and loneliness pervade the whole novel, bringing to mind Alex Kuo's quote, "we are what we lose." The absence of the narrator's parents and her sister from her life are not like holes, but more like a permeating fog of sadness throughout. It is also a mystery novel, a literal page-turner that keeps one hungering for more.
Kim's writing style in admirable, especially considering the fact that she immigrated to this country when she was already a teenager. Her passages are fluid and easy to read, and accented with moments of particular grace and beauty. She never slips out of the voice of the narrator, and follows this exciting story on to its dramatic end.
The only small lament I have is that aspects of the plot push the limits of believability: story-spilling by random characters who reveal more than necessary. Some of the passages seem too much like explanations of Korean American culture meant for a reader who is not familiar with it at all, like the one that states,"A church was where most Koreans gathered on Sundays, and it would have been foolish to ignore its usefulness." Although some background text is necessary, I have seen it done more gracefully; Toni Morrison for example, does not have to explain street culture when she mentions the roosters on the corners of East Harlem in Jazz. But the fact that I am even mentioning her in reference to such an icon puts her in good company.
"The Interpreter" is definitely an edgy, young, and suspenseful work. An addictive novel -- one that will keep both you and your immigrant parents reading deep into the night.