Eugenia Kim subtly explores tensions between cultures through familial relationships
Secrets ruin close relationships, is the standard dictum. And ja, it hardly needs a psychology degree to figure out that certain secrets would. Infidelity is a big one, whether sexual, emotional, or financial. Secrets from the past can also be devastating if they come to light (which they always do, eventually, even if it takes death to release them).
We’re so saturated by the idea of secrets as destructive that we might struggle to imagine a scenario in which they serve to deepen bonds of love between couples, or within families. We’re not talking about secrets shared, but secrets kept.
Eugenia Kim’s novel The Kinship of Secrets does, as the title suggests, presents such a scenario, and is convincing even though we might struggle to intellectually reconcile Kim’s story with our Western notions of trust and transparency. I kept returning to the ‘what if’. What if she found out what was kept from her? But in this case it would not be a matter of trust betrayed, but would add an uneccessary burden of guilt when compassion commands all efforts were made to ensure guilt over situations beyond individual control were minimised. Which is what happens when families are made to suffer under war and foreign occupation, and split across continents. Which includes an awfully large number of nations.
The one thread involves grandmother’s feet, which need to be soaked in hot water with a willow bark poultice every night. As the family flees Seoul during the North Korean invasion, the duty of doing so falls to Inja. Only later does Inja learn that grandmother’s toes were frostbitten from trudging through the snow every day for three months to deliver food to her daughter Najin when she was being held in detention by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea up to, and during, World War II. Inja is asked to keep this a secret from her mother, who managed to flee to America and her husband, as it would only add to the debilitating sense of guilt Najin already feels about not being able to take one of her two infant daughters to America. She took Miran, Inja’s older sister. And so The Kinship of Secrets weaves between Korea and America across the ‘50s to the ‘70s as we hear Inja’s story of growing up with her uncle in a orchestrated civil war-torn, opposed to Miran’s experience growing up as a first generation Korean in Washington DC.
There are other secrets, partly as a result of circumstances thrust upon the family due to decades of occupation and then, after a brief five years of peace, war. And partly due to what Kim seems to suggest is a Korean culture of homogeneity, as opposed to the occidental cult of individuality. There’s an underlying tension between cultural norms as the sisters grow up while sharing geographically estranged families. It is apparent in the American sister Miran’s relationship to her parents, and Inja’s to her mother’s brother, who takes care of her as a father for her first 15 years. Also in how Inja’s uncle chooses to view the responsibility of raising Inja as a gift of loving trust by his sister, whereas Najin thinks little of him, and assuages her guilt of abandonment with a continuous flow of aid and promises of a reunion. Beneath all of this is a deeper secret, the keeping of which a Western mind might consider a betrayal.
Miran and America receive a lot less page time than Inja and Korea, which gives some indication of where Kim’s sympathies lie.
At times the notation of domestic actions became tiresome and a more poetic means of communicating the intangible aspects of culture, of action and reaction, was desired. Particularly reaction. But, like the simple and deliberate ritual of a tea ceremony, the seemingly over-detailed descriptions become a poetry of their own. Without elaboration, yet deliberate, and ultimately, satisfying.