Looking into the female heart
Debut novel inhabits women's interior worlds
Portrait of author Samuel Park in Chicago on Tuesday, August 16, 2011. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / October 7, 2011)
"My mother's a very charismatic and gifted storyteller, and she has a way of telling a story in such a way that it becomes imprinted in your mind," Park explained.
Those stories became the lifeblood of his debut novel, "This Burns My Heart," a page-turner of a book, a story of unfulfilled love in postwar South Korea. At its center, sustaining the narrative, is Soo-Ja, who dreamed as a young woman of moving to Seoul for diplomatic training but instead ends up in a loveless marriage with one man, and a victim of unrequited love with another. As an additional burden, further thwarting her efforts toward self-fulfillment, she is saddled with the in-laws from hell.
"This Burns My Heart" is informed by Park's keen understanding of how women, circumscribed by the restrictions of their time, expressed themselves the only way they could find: suffering. South Korea provides not only the backdrop of Soo-Ja's story, but also the context for Park's novel, which spans the decades after the Korean War to the beginning of the country's economic boom. In a sense, Soo-Ja's story parallels South Korea's development from a poor, struggling state to a gleaming Asian tiger.
Because "This Burns My Heart" provides such a rich sense of Korean culture and history, it is especially astonishing that Park never lived in South Korea. Born and raised by his parents in Brazil, Park was sent to live with his grandparents in California for high school until his parents arrived a year later. Fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and, of course, English, Park laughs at his limited Korean language skills.
To achieve the convincing veracity of the cultural details of this historical novel, Park committed himself to deep research. In an effort to create the feel of South Korea over a range of time, for instance, he examined clothing such as "hanbok," a Korean gown that may seem like a Japanese kimono but to a discerning eye clearly is different. He also watched low-budget, homemade movies of street scenes in Seoul.
"This Burns My Heart" nods to the 19th century novel, and as Park talked over chicken salad at the Arts Club of Chicago recently, he recalled that the rhythms and stories of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen were ingrained in his mind by his Stanford University professors who read passages with elegance and panache. Park remembers hanging out in the library, miles away from his mother and sisters, and reading Jane Austen, and the novels seemed similar to the stories he heard at home.
As an assistant professor of English at Columbia College Chicago, Park teaches everything from Shakespeare to 20th century literature. Living in Printers Row makes it easy to walk to work, and he is hard at work on his next novel. Surely, though, it will build on his extraordinary ability to inhabit the interior life of women, to create characters and reimagine their histories.
"Through fiction," Park said, "women can meet the past in a way that feels somewhat empowering. This book gave me a chance to revisit my mother's sacrifices and present them as noble and strong."
"This Burns My Heart"
By Samuel Park
Simon & Schuster, 310 pages, $25
A few words from the author on men writing about women
"Sometimes when male authors write women, they think it's all about the husband or the lover, and I think women actually save their most complicated feelings for other women. I grew up observing women; when I was little, I literally stood by the bathroom door watching my sister take out her contacts and talk about her day. …
"I've spent my entire life deeply embroiled in the fantasies, desires and frustrations of my mother and my two older sisters. Their lives were so fascinating — they would spend hours talking about a crush. Not by coincidence, after I left them to go to college, I spent all my time in the library reading Jane Austen."
— Samuel Park, via email