Books are like soulmates— friends who meet us at just the right time and connect to our souls more deeply than we had anticipated. They teach us, help us, inspire and shape us. Madeleine L’Engle says, “Stories are able to help us become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.”
Chaos perfectly describes how it feels as I fumble through figuring out my cultural identity. When you hold more than one culture in your personhood, it’s a long journey of finding hidden puzzle pieces and seeing if and how they fit. It’s confusing, exhausting, and often lonely work. Others may have had family stories to help them know their roots, their heritage, but I didn’t grow up hearing stories. The few that were told drew faint lines of what my parents’ lives were like before they were married, before they became Umma (mom) and Appa (dad) to me. If I try to go back further to my grandparents’ lives and to the stories of Korea and her people, the picture fades into a gray haze. Social studies and history classes didn’t help form a fuller story, and I didn’t know to ask my parents for stories about the past.
As I became curious and earnest about becoming whole, Named, and to know more of my Koreanness, I found cosmos in the chaos through books. My husband recommended Year of Impossible Goodbyes to me— a book he had read in junior high during silent reading time. He told me it had helped him better understand Korean history. I read the book and its sequels and imagined my own Halmoni (grandma) telling them to me as if they were her stories, our stories, and it was through the stories Sook Nyul Choi wrote that my own story started to make more sense.
Sookan and her family lived under Japanese occupation in what is now North Korea during World War II, and after the Allies won and the Russians took over, they escaped to South Korea where they started a new life for themselves. The last of the three books told of Sookan’s transition to the United States and her life as a freshman in college, the first and only one of her kind there. Her stories traced over the faint lines I had of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives and made them darker, fuller. It was as though she were guiding my hand as I learned to draw in the details of myself. She gave reason to cultural traditions and etiquette I had always been told to do but felt suffocated by growing up as an “American” kid. She helped me understand how the generations before me survived war and loss and how that impacted their desire for my generation not to experience any hardships. She made me feel less alone and more known as a Korean-American woman, often the first and only one of my own kind when I’m not at church or with my Korean friends. She has been my grandma, she has been my parents, she has been me.
I finished her three books and felt compelled to let her know how much they meant to me. No contact information could be found on the internet except for her Facebook page so I wrote her a message. I thanked her for writing down her stories, for passing on to me what others in her generation couldn’t or didn’t do. I told her how I had been ashamed of my Koreanness for most of my life but that I’m finally finding worth in all of who I am. I thanked her for paving the road ahead of me as a Korean-American woman writer through the words she penned more than 20 years ago.
I received a reply from her today thanking me for the thoughtful note, and even though decades separate us in age, her book connected us as kindreds.
I’ve imagined the journey her book and I took to get us to where we met, and it seems providential, magical even. But that’s how it feels when we read the right books at just the right time— they feel like soulmates.