Imagine having a shameful family history and carrying that burden well into adult life only to find out the shameful history was a sham that could be rectified. Would this discovery release your true unbridled self? Would it motivate you to seek out the truth to reclaim the honor that had been absent for over half a century?

Margaret Juhae Lee put her investigative skills to work and embarked on a journey to search for documents that would help reinstate her paternal grandfather, Lee Chul Ha, from being a shameful political prisoner and Communist to a loyal countryman and hero. In large part, she went on this mission to help heal intergenerational trauma in the family, starting with her dad, who had never known his father and had carried the shame of his father’s legacy for a large part of his life.

“The wound of growing up without a father. The wound of not knowing who his father was,” Lee writes. “The wound passed down to me.”

Her journey is told in her first book Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History. Though her research and investigation ended in 2000 when she went to Korea to search for her grandfather’s prison records, it took her over 20 years to finish writing this book simply because life got in the way. What motivated her to finish the book was to pass on the stories from her grandmother, whom she refers to as Halmoni, to her children.

“[The stories] embedded themselves into my body and became part of who I was—a granddaughter, a daughter, and finally a mother,” she writes. “I needed to release them from my body…My story is one I hope [my children] can let seep into [their] being. For my story is our story, and involves the reclamation of the lives forgotten, seemingly buried forever in our ancestral homeland.”

Through countless interviews, she unearthed truths about her extended family she never fathomed, and she unwittingly started a healing therapeutic process by coaxing her grandmother to talk about her painful experiences. Her dad gained pride in his family and as a result, in himself, as well. Through it all, she was able to roughly piece together three generations of family history.

“We don’t talk about painful things in our family. We swallow them whole and let them fester for generations,” Lee writes. “It’s a lesson I learned as a child without even knowing it. Swallow the fear, the terror, the pain — and hope that it is gone forever. Push it down until you can’t feel it anymore. That’s what Halmoni did to survive, and my father.”

Lastly, Lee came to understand herself and the feelings of emptiness and estrangement that had plagued most of her life. “Intergenerational trauma” was a terminology she was unfamiliar with before she started this project.

“What I’ve learned so far is that my grandfather’s erasure is part of my family’s legacy that has been passed down, through the generations and across continents, from my grandmother, to my father, to me,” she writes. “I sense that the forgetting of his life is connected to why I have never really felt at home anywhere…The only constant in my peripatetic adult life is an urge to move, to escape — to somewhere more promising, more exciting, more ‘better.’ To fill that empty space inside myself, the space that is filled by a sense of belonging in other people.”

This book covers a turbulent period in Korean history, and though Lee explains some of it, such as the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion and the Sino-Japanese War, she does not go much into the military dictatorship South Korea endured for decades after the Korean War and the student protest movement that followed, which might make some readers confused. Lee interweaves the past and present narratives in a nonlinear fashion, so readers should make good use of the timeline and family tree in the beginning of the book to keep track if needed.    

Starry Fields is a family labor of love, for it would not have been possible without translations from both her parents for Korean and classical Japanese texts. Her mother was also the translator for her interviews with her grandmother. This book is a triumphant family history with a mix of family drama, survival, mystery, and a journey of self-discovery. Readers will, at the very least, be interested in seeing what she uncovers, as well as reading about the chauvinistic experiences she has as an unmarried woman in Korea. 

Margaret Juhae Lee will be at Third Place Books in Ravenna at 6504 – 20th Ave. NE on Wed., April 17, 2024 at 7 p.m. for a discussion of her book led by local poet Arlene Kim. The event is free.    

Previous articleAnida Yoeu Ali reenacts mobility, the resilience of diaspora in new art
Next articleSE:UM fuses Korean folk and jazz, conveying emotion through nonghyeon