Barrack Obama isn’t black enough.
You’ve heard that, right?
Amy Tan isn’t Chinese enough.
Maxine Hong Kingston ditto.
Chang-rae Lee isn’t Korean enough.
Picture me, a writer exploring Korean characters and culture, biting my nails.
I can trace four ancestral lines. No doubt my lineage contains the requisite number of horse thieves, courtesans, peasants, warriors and whiners. One line snakes back as far as 1000 CE (thanks for your research, Carolyn and Randy). I am that nondescript blend of Scottish, English, Danish and Swedish.
Alas, not one drop of Korean blood courses through my veins.
I met my first honest-to-goodness Korean in 1974. Korean/Caucasian, actually. Reader, I married him. Clever way to nail one’s source, n’est-ce-pas? Not so fast. For one thing, I wasn’t writing novels then. For another, my husband, adopted and raised as a Swedish American, knew next to nothing about Korean culture. On the upside, he was able to fill in some gaps in understanding of my Swedish roots. (Mention the word glogg, and a faraway gaze fills his eyes.)
I bring this up in the inquiry into the right to write.
When I attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley conference a few years ago, I met with Andrew Tonkovich of the Santa Monica Review to discuss my literary novel The Circle Line, which features a Korean/Caucasian protagonist. Editor Tonkovich informed me that I had no business writing from a non-white character’s point of view, that I was guilty of the worst kind of appropriation.
Listening to the editor’s harsh words, I half expected Dangun, the legendary founder of Korea, to descend from the heavens along with his ursine mother and cleave me in two. I slunk from the meeting wracked with writer’s remorse.
But I didn’t stop. I finished that novel and wrote another, Moonlight Dancer. Once again, Korean culture, not to mention a Korean shaman and ghost, figures prominently in the narrative.
I can’t explain it except to say I write about what speaks to me. Of course, I feel the scary enormity of this task. Do I dare? And how should I presume?
All I can say in my defense is that I work really, really hard. I’ve read research books, scoured historical sites, and traveled throughout Korea. I’ve logged more Korean cities than many Koreans of my acquaintance. I studied the language for years. Yes, language contains a treasure trove of culture clues.
And I’ve talked with experts. On one occasion, as I studied artifacts at The National Folk Museum in Jongno-gu (one of my favorite haunts), a docent approached me and walked me all over the museum, answering every question I posed. What a day that was!
So, we’re left with this question—Do I have the right to write—whatever or whomever I desire? Friend and fellow writer Meera Lester puts it this way, “I think what matters is that you approach your subject with passion and respect.”
I’d love to hear your opinion.
Is it possible there’s a fallacy of generalization at play? Can one writer or one character stand in for an entire culture? No one would question my right to write from a Dane’s point of view, yet everything I know about Danish history I learned from Hamlet.
If I had to define my own true culture? Northern Euro mongrel liberal non-smoker reader baker textile-lover no-cook mom.
I had a character like that once. She was tough to write.