I am going to cut to the chase on this review. Like the title suggests, there is a problem with the way that Asian literature is represented, or to be more precise its lack of representation, in the Western world. Many scholars and teachers have suggested to me over the years that Asian literature cannot be discussed because it is a work of translation, essentially suggesting that a translated work is tarnished or lesser than a text written in English (when the audience reading is made up of English speakers). Never mind the fact that in school I had to read works by Russian and French authors. When you say that one text in translation is worthy of discussion, but not others… you are telling me that some cultures and languages have greater value than others. Considering Australia’s geographical proximity to Asia and our culturally diverse population, I have never understood why Asian literature was never mentioned. I feel though that this is changing slowly. Firstly, the wide array of Asian/Australian Asian/American and Asian/Canadian literature is growing, which provides not only a much needed perspective on Asian immigration, but it also provides a gateway to other Asian texts. Secondly, I think (and hope) the world is translating more Asian literature into other Western languages. Accessibility is essential and I love seeing programs that support and fund translation (Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian is one such book). As much as I wished the seven years of Japanese I had in school from age 4 to 11 resulted in me being able to fluently speak and read Japanese, this was not the case. Lastly, I think (and also hope) that people’s attitudes to Asian literature are changing. Asian literature has had a long history before and after Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, yet many Westerners would probably struggle to name an Asian author from the 20th or 21st century. These changes are good things and I genuinely hope more literary acknowledgement can be given to Asian authors.
So with that said, let’s get to Choi’s novel. I bought this novel when I was travelling in Canada last year. I also managed to get myself a signed copy of the book too! The coming-of-age story focuses on a Korean-Canadian teenager called Mary (Yu-Rhee). Her parent’s own a variety store that sells everything from newspapers, condoms (for the local prostitutes), and milk. Choi delicately addresses the frustrations and issues of immigrant children coming to terms with their Western future and their Asian family roots. The author also addresses specifically the struggles of Asian immigrant children when it comes to family obligations, duty, and hard work. This is all tied up with the ‘good immigrant’ myth has been both a positive and negative title for Asians in the West. Choi discusses the lack of Asian literary representation in Canadian high schools and universities through her main protagonist, Mary. Mary, who is a budding writer/poet, is often conflicted as she tried to find examples of her Korean heritage in literature. She also struggles with connecting with these authors, as she did not learn how to read or write Korean. In the search for finding herself and who she is, Mary has to challenge the ideal of a ‘perfect Asian’ kid, balance respecting her parents and pursuing her dreams, and learning that the past sometimes repeats itself.
I was not sure what to expect when I opened up Choi’s novel. I was first drawn to it because of her descriptions of Toronto, a city I visited when I was in Canada, however, I was also excited to read a novel from an Asian(Korean)/Canadian perspective. I felt that Choi did an amazing job of balancing the pull Mary feels from Canada and Korea in her novel and cannot wait to see more from her.
Have you read Choi’s novel, “Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety”? What do you think about the representation of Asian literature in the West? Who is your favourite Asian author and Asian author should I read next? As always, share the reading love.