The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Eugenia Kim
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Pub Date: August 4, 2009
The narrative is delicate and sensitive as the mannerisms and language of traditional, Korean propriety. And though the daughter of the calligrapher is born unnamed, her strength of character and unwavering discipline and grace evolves as naturally, artistically, and as raw as the process of calligraphy itself. It goes without saying that the art of Korean calligraphy is one engraved with history, tradition, years of committed training, depth of feeling, artistic pride, and fluidity.
Yes, the novel is about the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century, but it is more so about the resilience of Korean propriety, patriotism, duty, cultural tradition and history, faith, and the strong love between family, specifically, mother and daughter as shown in the characters of Najin and her Umma-nim.
There are competing values in the book: tradition vs. modernism; Korea vs. Japan; propriety of women vs. men; aristocracy vs. the underprivileged; Christianity vs. Confucianism; domestication vs. pursuit of higher education; and the list goes on.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the window it provided in disclosing traditional Korean propriety and the secret world of the Korean aristocracy as shown by the Emperor and its Korean royalty. Where westernized values often look down on subservience, conservative cultural practices, and even domestication, and self-discipline (viewed as a form of rigidity) –I, myself coming from an Asian background, understand their appeal and significance.
The traditional propriety found in Korean practice comes from an intentional honour and decorum, which I, from reading this novel, have come to truly appreciate. Others may scoff and march in bands of protest about the cries of “independence,” “liberation,” and “modernism,” but I find, as a native born into western culture, but raised in an Asian, ethnic cultural paradigm, I feel comfortable with the instinctual pull of sentimental tradition and its quiet, subdued, and subservient qualities.
The rich power found in self-control and discipline as propriety is something, I feel, the west actually lacks. What people with strong western beliefs can naturally condemn in the novel is actually what I become nostalgic for in reading it.
It’s an elegant, lyrical novel with characters who are well versed and practiced at concealing what is a deeply rooted passion for country, culture, history, tradition, and family.
A beautiful read. (And an equally beautiful cover design.)