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  • Written by Katherine Min
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  • Secondhand World
  • Written by Katherine Min
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Secondhand World

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Written by Katherine MinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Katherine Min

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On Sale: November 26, 2008
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49063-6
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Isadora Myung Hee Sohn—Isa—has just spent ninety-five days in a pediatric burn unit in Albany, New York, recovering from the fire that burned her house and killed her parents. Moving back in time, Secondhand World casts a devastating spell, revealing the circumstances that led to the fire.

Growing up the daughter of Korean-born parents, Isa is bullied by American classmates and barely noticed at home. Seeking the company of another outsider, Isa falls in love with Hero, an albino boy. But what starts out as a small teenage rebellion sets in motion a series of events and revelations Isa never could have foreseen.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days on a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State Medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 a.m.

It's very isolating to recover from a severe burn injury. The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus. While your skin tissue rages and dies, you try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts. Nursery rhymes are sometimes useful, as are television theme songs and knock-knock jokes.



Here's a riddle. A jumbo jet takes off from New York en route to Vancouver with 246 people on board. There's a massive snowstorm, visibility worsens, passengers pray and panic. The pilot loses control, and the plane ends up doing a nosedive on the border of the United States and Canada. The weather is so bad it takes the rescue helicopters two days to get to the remote crash site in the mountains. When they finally manage to land, amid the snow and the wreckage, they're confronted with a terrible dilemma. Since the plane crashed exactly on the boundary line separating the two countries, the recovering authorities don't know whether to bury the survivors in Canada or the United States.

It took me a while to get it. The trick is knowing where to focus. There's so much clamor and confusion—the plane, the storm, the panic—that you're easily thrown off. You end up overlooking what you should have noticed right away.

The fact is that survivors aren't buried. They keep walking around. They go through the varied motions of normalcy, trying to forget the screams, the shudder of the fuselage, the sound of crumpling metal. The frozen wait among the dead for rescue.


Celluloid

Many years before the fire that killed my parents, there was another fire. In Seoul, Korea, my mother had grown up among a harem of sisters, hoarded like treasure, quarantined like contagion, inside a high wall that contained the buildings and courtyards of the Chung family compound. My grandfather was a high-ranking government official who spent most of his time carousing with kesang girls and gambling at cards. My grandmother, herself the daughter of a high-ranking official, was terse and irritable, weighted by disappointment in birthing only girls.

One night when my mother was eleven, a treat was set up in the cramped building where the servants slept. It was the viewing of one of the first silent films from America, obtained somehow by my grandfather, along with an ancient projector that wheezed and smoked as it threw its jangled images upon the wall.

The room was hot and crowded, but my mother hardly noticed, so taken was she by the figures of the dancing women. They wore loose clothing that floated behind them as they danced, with emblematic jewelry, and makeup that emphasized their wide eyes and sensuous lips. Alabaster skin, marcelled hair piled high. My mother had never seen such women. Their serpentine sway—unaccompanied by music or sound of any kind, except the restless movement of the children and the hawking of the projector—was intricate, hypnotic. They were like Grecian goddesses come to life, like the sculpted caryatids my mother had once seen in a book in her father's library. She began to move along with them, in time to the unheard music. Her older sister Hae Ja pushed her away. "Hsst," she whispered, pinching her hard on the underside of the upper arm.

My mother huddled close to the projector. She watched as the strip of film wound around the metal spools in a tilting figure eight. Light from inside the machine streamed out toward the wall, thick with lolling dust. She looked up at the screen and then down to the projector again, trying to discover where they hid, these bright ladies, slender, swaying columns of pure grace. The old projector sputtered and paused and, before the audience had time to protest, the dancers disappeared in a spreading sepia bubble. Both film and projector burst into flames.

Children and servants began to scream as the room filled with smoke. My mother smelled something acrid and felt a strange prickling at the back of her neck. As the women had danced moments before, now the elderly ajumma who'd been attending the projector danced in spasmodic rhythm, a flume of fire blooming across her chest. The sensation at the back of my mother's neck became a searing pain. Her head was on fire and she fainted before she could push through, with the others, out of the room and into the dirt courtyard, where the adults ran with buckets of water.

An old servant saved her. He rushed inside the room and doused the fire nestled in her hair, carrying her out in his arms.

My grandmother, overwhelmed by daughters, disgraced by them, thought perhaps she would lose one that night, but my mother was not obliging. She survived with no major injury, just a spot, the size of a quarter, where her hair wouldn't grow, and a shiny purple scar, ropy and asymmetrical.


Two Names

After the accident my mother was declared unmarriageable and shipped off to a teachers college in Connecticut. She met my father the first week, at a party for Korean students in Hartford. Three months later she sent a picture home (my father in a trench coat over his best herringbone jacket), but my grandparents objected to the marriage. They had consulted an astrologer who claimed, given my parents' birth dates and the distance between the bottom of my father's nose and his top lip, that it was an inauspicious match.

They married anyway, and my mother dropped out of college to take dance lessons. In a photograph from those days she wore a black leotard with a pink tutu; she's bending down to tie the ribbons on her toe shoes, like a girl in a Degas painting.

She quit when she got pregnant. She told me this without resentment, but frequently enough so I understood that only maternal self-sacrifice had prevented her from a marvelous career. In playful moods, she would reenact the dance of the caryatid women as she remembered it, flowing like water, her arms a tossing sea, twisting and bending in a series of movements suggesting supplication, resistance, ardor, and grief.

Soon after I was born my parents had their first fight. My mother wanted to name me Isadora, after Isadora Duncan, the modern dancer. My father wanted to name me Myung Hee. I can imagine the way the discussion would go, my father's annoyance spiraling around my mother's cool determination, getting fettered in her obstinacy and confusing feminine allure.

"Isadora? Isadora?" I imagine my father saying, the word in his mouth like a bad taste. "What kind of Korean name is that?"

"No kind," my mother says, shrugging. "We're in America now."

"We're still Koreans," he says.

My mother doesn't answer. She smiles, beguiling him with her silence.

"I don't even know any Americans named Isadora," he grumbles.

"What Americans do you know?" my mother chides him. She pauses. "We could name her Ingrid," she says. "Or Ava. Or . . . Vivian."

"No, no," my father says, waving his hands in front of his face. "Please."

So I was named Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and called Isa by everyone but my father.


Apple Peel

My mother wore a wig to conceal her scar. It sat atop a Styrofoam head on her dresser, looking exactly like her real hair, thick and black, styled softly to just beneath the ears. To put it on she slipped both hands inside, fingers splayed as though she were winding yarn, and maneuvered it adroitly atop her head.

The procedure disturbed me, this half head of hair tugged on like a swim cap over my mother's own head, the naked Styrofoam left behind like a bald sentinel. I gouged a face in the Styrofoam with a ballpoint pen—nose like a lopsided L, kewpie lips, blank eyes the shape and size of pumpkin seeds.

My mother placed the wig atop my own head, where it sat like a long-haired lapdog. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was a strange-looking child, with a sallow complexion, my father's high forehead, and a large, crooked mouth. My mother laughed and called me "Beatle."



My mother. Her eyes, when she was happy, glanced across a room like sunlight, dark centers strewn with diamond facets. When she was unhappy, they seemed to retract beneath eyelids precisely outlined in liquid black, her look averted, cast down, all the giddy shine suddenly leached from the world.

For most of my life I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements. She peeled an apple by moving her thumb backward along the knife, her small hands seeming to float, to flutter, loosing the skin in one long ribbon, until it fell to the plate like a molted snakeskin. She raced down the aisles of the A & P, picking things up—red grapes, Camembert cheese, salmon steak—and tossing them in the grocery cart, as though she were on a TV game show. Tucking me in at night, she sang "Raindrops on Roses" or "Que Sera Sera," in perfect imitation of Doris Day. ". . . Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?" My mother would lean in, her breath hot in my ear. "Both, Isa," she would whisper. "You'll be both," and I'd feel a chill run through me at the maternal prophecy.


Nocturnal

If I watched my mother and was enthralled, I looked out for my father for different reasons. He was rarer in our house. For most of my childhood he would return to work after dinner, in pursuit of something called "tenure" that I did not understand but that seemed to hold talismanic power for both my parents. When he was home he was often irritable, snapping at me for biting my fingernails or spilling my milk. I tried not to attract his attention for this reason, though because he was mysterious, I was also drawn to him.

Nighttime was my father's dominion. I'd lie in bed and hear his slippered feet pass my door, pat-patting down the stairs. The door to the freezer would open and close, followed by the tinkling of ice in a glass, and I would picture my father sitting at our kitchen table in his pajamas, nursing a whiskey and water, attentive to the low hum of the refrigerator and the random headlights of passing cars. In the morning his glass would be sitting in the sink, empty except for an amber viscosity at the bottom, which I once swirled and sniffed and stuck my tongue into, recoiling at the burn. Sometimes a Korean magazine would be left on the table, its spine cracked open. My father's battered briefcase would be left on the floor, a yellow legal pad on top with strange characters marked in black—neither Korean nor English but numbers and Greek symbols in neat equations that ran the length of the paper.

These were my father's tracks, his spoor, which he left behind like some nocturnal animal. His insomnia, incurable and lifelong, reinforced the sense of his aloneness, his haunted exile from a world in repose.


Incomprehension

When my father spoke to me in Korean, it was harsh, a vocabulary of scolding, of rebuke. "Mae-majeulae?" Do you want a spanking? uttered with a flat palm raised. "Babo!" Stupid! as we went over math problems together, his middle knuckle boring into my head as if to drill an answer into my skull.

In neither Korean nor English was my father voluble. The language of science was his mother tongue, the silver-voiced siren call to mathematical formulation. It was a language I had no ear for, its jargon so much gobbledygook. My father would grow frustrated as he tried to explain to me the second law of thermodynamics, or the concept of cold fusion. "Look," he would say, his hands raised in a gesture that was half threat and half entreaty, "it's not hard." And I'd try to follow him, his English as barbed as concertina wire, the concepts entering my head and leaving it unprocessed, like baggage down a conveyor belt.

Similarly, he failed at teaching me Korean. I remember lessons at the kitchen table, with colored wooden blocks and bowls of fruit. "Sagwa-juseyo." I would hand him an apple. "Bae-juseyo." I would hand him a pear. I would repeat the phrases after him in a dull, uninflected voice, and he would grow impatient at my lack of competence. "No, no, no. Bbbb-ang!" He would make an explosive sound with his lips. "Not bang. Bbbb-ang means bread. Bang is room! How many times do I have to tell you?"

When I was in eighth grade, he shipped me off to the basement of the Korean church. A self-proclaimed atheist and crusader against blind believing, my father had to turn to God to teach me his native language.

On Thursday afternoons, Michael Lee and Danny Kim played paper football across their desks, while I gossiped with Jenny and Eun Gyeong Lee about trampy Su Ok Min and her Hell's Angels boyfriend.

"Did they really do it?" I asked once, only to be met with the cold, mascara-clotted eye of Jenny Lee.

"Whaddya think?" she replied disdainfully. "The guy rides a Harley."

"An-nyeong!" Pastor Park would welcome us each week, with a hopeful expression that quickly turned desperate. "Hanguk-mal halchul-arayo?" Do you know how to speak Korean? And we would refuse to look at him, rolling our eyes and snapping our gum, muttering, "Aaaa-niyo," sullenly under our breath. No.

After six weeks of this, Pastor Park abruptly ended classes. My father eventually gave up trying to teach me either of his two languages. It was my perception that he gave up on me altogether. I was too difficult, too rebellious, too unlike any Korean daughter he could possibly have imagined for himself. "Myung Hee-ya," he would say, "you should have been born a boy." And we would both think about Stephen and say nothing more, because it was true that I should have been, and because it was true that I was not.


From the Hardcover edition.
Katherine Min|Author Q&A

About Katherine Min

Katherine Min - Secondhand World

Photo © Joyce Ravid

Katherine Min was born in Champaign, Illinois, and was raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Schenectady, New York. She attended Amherst College and the Columbia School of Journalism. She worked as a journalist in Boston; Seoul, Korea; Virginia and New Hampshire. Min is currently a professor of creative writing at Plymouth State University. She lives in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Author Q&A

Q: Congratulations on your first book. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
A: I was, I’m afraid, an incorrigible liar when I was a child. The truth just didn’t hold appeal for me. And the lies I told were literally unbelievable, like that I was really Swedish but had had some sort of operation to disguise myself. From such ignoble beginnings, one has no choice but to become a fiction writer—or a felon, I suppose. I started writing stories when I was around six, and by the time I was twelve, when other girls dreamed of their wedding day or prom night, I dreamed of publishing a Borzoi book with Knopf. So, I’m living proof that some dreams do come true.

Q: Which authors are your biggest influences?
A: Two books that made deep impressions on me as a young writer were It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan, and Ghosts by Ursula Perrin. On my writing desk: The Great Gatsby, To the Lighthouse, Madame Bovary, Lolita, The Dubliners, Revolutionary Road. Contemporary authors I am consistently amazed by: Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides, J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Strout, James Salter, Chang-rae Lee, Graham Swift.

Q: Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, or Isa, is a compelling character—a young Korean American growing up in Schenectady, New York, striving to balance the demands and expectations of her traditional Korean immigrant parents with the pressures and influences of American suburbia. How much of this is based on your experiences as a Korean-American woman? Where did you find her voice?
A: The exterior of Isa’s life—growing up in suburban New York State with Korean parents—resembles the exterior of my own life. Certainly I drew on personal experiences in general ways, experiences with racism, cross-cultural conflict, self-hatred, etc. But Isa is very much her own woman, and her voice comes from some darker, more troubled place. I was originally interested in the idea that people tend to be most judgmental about human behavior when they are young and have the least amount of life experience. One of the testy facts of life is that the process of maturation is a growing away from certainty, toward a much grayer, more muddled, all-bets-are-off unknowing. It’s a comprehension of life that is much more complicated and uneasy, but also more generous, more forgiving. Unfortunately for Isa, the price she has to pay for such knowledge is quite high.

Q: Isa's relationship with “Hero,” a nearly blind Albino boy at her high school, has a profound influence on her. Why was their relationship so important to Isa?
A: One of the things I write about quite often is the Attraction to the Other. When I was young, I desperately wanted to be blond. Partially this was because blonds were the norm of beauty in this country then, but mostly, I think, it was because being blond was different from what I was. For Isa, a person of color in an overwhelmingly white school, Hero is a reciprocal image—literally a person of no color. He is exotic and, unlike Isa, seemingly comfortable with his difference. She is intrigued by his confidence, and by his luminous, otherworldly beauty. Of course, Isa and Hero are also very much alike; they’re both outsiders, both sheltered by their parents and marked by their looks as different from other people. They share a certain rebel stance. Together they transcend difference, paradoxically, by reveling in it; for them sex becomes a way to both “merge” with the Other, and to explore the particularities of Otherness.

Q: The Korean War hung over the generation who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s. How does it affect the Sohn family in Secondhand World?
A: The Korean War was the defining event for my parents’ generation. A third of my father’s high school class was killed; the country was divided and decimated. Imagine the Civil War if it had led to the formation of two separate, hostile nations. Almost everyone my parents’ age has a relative who was taken or happened to be in the North when the split was made, and many do not know to this day if these relatives are alive or dead. This is such an enormous tragedy. I wanted to explore the ways in which the history of our parents and our grandparents affects us, even when that history is not shared. It is always true that whatever experiences our parents have had will influence our own lives in ways we cannot know, but it is especially true with children of immigrants. Isa’s father has told no one about his sister’s real fate, not even his wife. He believes he can start a new life in America, that he can deny his past and its painful memories, but the fact is that you can’t really start over, ever, or not without cost.

Q: The Sohn household faces the challenge of immigrant parents with American-born children and the conflict between assimilation and the upholding of Korean culture. How does that play out in the family?
A: I have tremendous compassion for Isa’s parents. I can’t imagine moving to France, say, and bringing up my children to speak French and to live in French culture. It would seem unthinkable. But that’s what Isa’s parents did; they moved to America and had children who don’t speak Korean or act like Koreans. They themselves are trying to fit in to their adopted culture, and it’s continually exhausting. One of the things Asians in particular give up when they move here is the strong extended family network that supports their efforts as individuals. Isa’s mother has a hard time after Stephen’s death. Already isolated from the culture by difference, she is doubly isolated in grief. On her part, Isa just wants to be a normal All-American kid. Teenagers are often embarrassed by their parents, but children of immigrants are especially prone to feeling shamed by their parents’ accents and perceived foreignness. And sometimes immigrant parents have expectations for their children that carry over from the traditional values of their homeland. It’s a complicated bind that ties Isa and her parents more tightly; there is so much that is inexpressible across cultural and language barriers.

Q: What's next?
A: My next novel, The Suicide Sonata, weaves among three central characters: a Caucasian violinist with a fetish for Asian women, a Korean-American cellist who is obsessed with Alma Mahler, and a young Japanese-American stalker/would-be assassin. It’s different from anything I’ve ever written, and yet it also deals with the themes of the Attraction to the Other, the limits of intimacy, and self-hatred. I’m envisioning it as a black comedy, but who knows?


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"Told in achingly evocative prose that lingers in your consciousness. . . . Raw, emotionally urgent and peppered with acute detail." —Los Angeles Times“Engaging both history and the needs of the passionate self, Secondhand World reveals an exquisite and powerful imagination.” —The Providence Journal“Leaves the reader breathless with questions about one’s own capacity to forgive.” —Ms.“Katherine Min gives such celebrated writers as Louise Erdrich, Zadie Smith and Amy Tan a run for their money. Exquisitely written, wrenchingly imagined, Secondhand World will stand your hair on end.” —The Buffalo News
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"Told in achingly evocative prose that lingers in your consciousness. . . . Raw, emotionally urgent and peppered with acute detail."
Los Angeles Times

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enrich your discussion of Secondhand World—Katherine Min's haunting debut novel about a young Korean American woman and her struggle to find her place in the world.

About the Guide

Isadora Myung Hee Sohn—Isa—has just spent ninety-five days in a pediatric burn unit in Albany, New York, recovering from the fire that burned her house and killed her parents. Moving back in time, Secondhand World casts a devastating spell, revealing the circumstances that led to the fire.

Growing up the daughter of Korean-born parents, Isa is bullied by American classmates and barely noticed at home. Seeking the company of another outsider, Isa falls in love with Hero, an albino boy. But what starts out as a small teenage rebellion sets in motion a series of events and revelations Isa never could have foreseen.

About the Author

Katherine Min was born in Champaign, Illinois, and was raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Schenectady, New York. She attended Amherst College and the Columbia School of Journalism. She worked as a journalist in Boston; Seoul, Korea; Virginia and New Hampshire. Min is currently a professor of creative writing at Plymouth State University. She lives in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Discussion Guides

1. Secondhand World is marked by a series of tragedies. What are they? Do you think that one sets off the next? How so?

2. Isa feels different from both her peers and her family. What are the reasons for this? How does Isa's perception of herself manifest itself in her behavior?

3. In Korean culture, male babies are strongly favored. It is the eldest male who is supposed to grow up and take care of his parents; it is the male who will carry on the family name. Isa feels an enormous amount of guilt that she is alive while her brother Stephen is dead. Do the words and actions of her parents contribute to her feelings? What are some examples?

4. While Isa grows up in a suburban world that, on the surface, should be familiar to many readers, her childhood is punctuated by strangeness. What are some instances? Which aspects of her childhood seem foreign to you?

5. Isa's relationship with Hero, an albino, has a profound influence on her. Why is she attracted to him? Do you think that the have a healthy relationship? Why or why not?

6. Isa's relationship with Rachel and her family becomes central to her life. Why do you think this is the case? Why do you think Isa's parents are willing to let her spend so much time with this other family? Throughout Secondhand World, Isa pushes against the outer boundaries of intimacy, only to have it collapse entirely. This happens in Utah, when Hero, Rachel, and Isa share a bed. What are some other instances?

7. Throughout Secondhand World, Isa pushes against the outer boundaries of intimacy, only to have it collapse entirely. This happens in Utah, when Hero, Rachel, and Isa share a bed. What are some other instances?

8. Each of the characters in Secondhand World reacts to grief in different ways. What are their reactions? Does one way seem better than another to you? Why or why not? How does the Sohn family isolate themselves in their grief?

9. Why do you think Isa takes such pride in her fluency in English? How does this set her at odds with her parents, particularly her mother, who shows an increasing interest in literature and poetry throughout the novel? Why do you think Isa is so critical of William Moulten, her mother's poetry teacher?

10. Why do you think that Isa decides to expose her mother's affair to her father? Given the outcome of this disclosure, do you think that Isa did the right thing? Why or why not?

11. Discuss your reaction to the Sohn family. Are any of them sympathetic? Which character do you think is most responsible for the way things turn out?

12. Isa is unaware of much of her parents' personal history. For example, she doesn't know anything about her paternal aunt's abduction. How do you think that this affects her relationship with her father? In what ways might it have changed things between them?

13. Why do you think Katherine Min chose to call her novel Secondhand World? Whose world is being referred to in the title? Did the title affect your reading of the novel?

14. What do you think will happen to Isa after the novel's close? How optimistic are you for her future? Explain.

Suggested Readings

Blake Nelson, Girl; Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides; Mary Gaitskill, Veronica; Amanda Boyden, Pretty Little Dirty; Colleen Curran, Whores on the Hill; Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

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