E.J. Koh’s style flirts with the boundary between stream of consciousness and internal monologue the same way her story flirts with hope and despair. She moves in between characters, and their stories, weaving together differences and similarities. Dedicated to “borders, real and imaginary,” Koh’s The Liberators grapples with a theme prominent in Korean and Korean American literature.
The book starts with a familiar tension for American and Korean audiences.
In 1980, a man is accused of being a communist spy and is taken in for questioning. His daughter, Insuk, must deal with the loss of her father, now fully an orphan. The story follows Insuk and her relationship with her husband Sungho, as well as his mother Huran. Eventually, Insuk’s son, Henry, is introduced into our cast of narrators, as well as Robert, Insuk’s lover. As the story develops, the multigenerational perspectives are interwoven with their country’s tumultuous relationship to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ.)
When I visited Korea this past June, Korean Armistice Day was being celebrated. Though I barely understood a word of what was being said on the television program, the sentiments were conveyed. My halmoni (grandmother) sang along to the national anthem, and pulled out a handkerchief listening to the stories of the veterans being honored. It struck me that majority of the crowd were of the older generation, while there were few people my age. There were some, mostly students or journalists it seemed, and a school girl choir performed. The lack of younger people piqued my interest. What are the views of younger Koreans? Do they care about the war, the border, and reunification?
In the U.S., the Korean War is rarely present within public consciousness, often overshadowed by the wars that came before and after. The Korean War rests in a strange place in American history, tucked between a “noble” World War II and an “ignoble” guerilla war. Do we, as Americans, care about how our influence tore a country a part? Do we grapple with that influence the way that Korean’s do?
The Liberators asks the audience to grapple with the wake of that history: the wake of the Korean War and the dictatorship that followed. The book is not quite post-dictatorship, but it deals with the impacts of both of those events within the lives of individual characters, each of whom is is directly tied to the aftermath of the civil war and the Red Scare, framed as South Korea outpaces its northern counterpart in technology and economy.
The final image is what struck me the most. Jenny, a North Korean escapee, in Insuk’s hanbok, bridging and healing a generational and national scar. When I first learned about flourishing fauna and flora along the DMZ, I was intrigued but not surprised. A wilderness strip unsullied by human hands; life burgeoning on a border that cost countless lives. What stayed with me, however, was the proposition. In the event of Korea’s reunification, the 400-square-mile strip would become a wildlife sanctuary. It would serve as a national place of beauty and a national reminder of what had once been. When Jenny is draped in that greenery of Insuk’s hanbok, she is draped in not only Insuk’s love and the choice to break a cycle of abuse, but also in the embrace of a family from the other side of the border. The final image brings the story together, brings the family together, brings their country together. The final image speaks to the hope that the book has established from the very beginning… that people can be kind, that people can change, that together we can mend a family, a country, a people.
E.J. Koh talks with Elliott Stevens about her debut novel on November 7 at 7 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Company. The author will also appear with writer Arlene Kim on Monday, November 20 at 7 p.m. at the Ravenna branch of Third Place Books.