"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.
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.
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.
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.