Books and Movies Reviews

Clay Walls

Ronyoung Kim deplores that “A whole generation of Korean immigrants and their American-born children could have lived and died in the United States without [others’] knowing they had been here,” and says that “I could not let that happen” (Solberg 23). To that end, in 1987 she wrote Clay Walls in which she portrays an invisible minority group of Koreans who arrived in America from the early 1920s through the late 1940s. The plot follows the protagonist, Haesu, who descends from the Korean elite class called Yangban, as she has to make crossings, against her will, across two boundaries. First, she is forced out of the confines of her Yangban class through her family’s arranged marriage for her to Chun, a man from the Sangnom class–a class which usually works for the Yangban. Second, she has to cross geographical boundaries by leaving her own country, which was then under the increasingly oppressive Japanese occupation, and making an unwanted and unexpected exile in America. She and her husband have to leave Korea, because her husband is wanted by the Japanese police as a political agitator under ludicrous circumstances of mistaken identity. The novel closely follows Haesu who is forced to undergo many drastic changes: intellectual, psychological, linguistic and cultural. As she makes those crossings, she also moves from a sheltered life as a daughter of an aristocratic family to a wife of a lower class man whom she refuses to love, and eventually to an invisible woman sojourning in a foreign country where Koreans are considered less than human.
In this essay, I analyze a series of cultural encounters Haesu is subjected to both in Japanese-occupied Korea and in America, and see how the process of finding her own voice and identity as a Yangban evolves under those oppressive circumstances. I also discuss her attitudes toward gender, marriage, work, motherhood, and Japanese and American culture, and the impact of each of these roles and…