Earlier this year, I received an email from a Chinese Canadian author, May Q. Wong, inquiring about “a shipload of Koreans who sailed to Mexico to find a better life.” Clueless, I forwarded her request to a few of my scholar friends and colleagues … but ‘lo and behold, I actually had the answers (the fictionalized version, anyway) sitting on my shelves!
Black Flower, longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, is the latest novel to arrive Stateside from Young-ha Kim, one of Korea’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. Kim creates identities, relationships, conflicts, disappointments, and hopes, to reclaim a nearly lost moment in transnational immigration history.
You could read Black Flower as fascinating historical record: 1,033 Koreans left the port of Jemulpo (today’s Incheon) in 1905 on the Ilford, a British merchant ship, and arrived (after two deaths, one birth) in Mexico’s Yucatán as indentured laborers to be parceled out to henequen plantations. The Koreans believed they were escaping a homeland in the midst of shifting powers and Japanese colonization; instead, they were sold into slave-like servitude. Abandoned by their faltering government, the Koreans has no choice but to stay … and survive any way they could. Within the Koreans’ experience, Kim also bears witness to local Mexican history, including the abuses of colonial Christianity, the mistreatment of the indigenous Mayans, and the Mexican Revolution, which eventually (surprisingly!) involves a small band of Korean nationals.
You could also decide that Black Flower is – as the cover proclaims in small print – ”a novel,” and revel in the interrelated lives of the passengers. At the end of the grueling Ilford journey, the unintentioned immigrants emerge stripped of status, all equal slave-laborers in the eyes of their would-be masters. Kim breathes life into a diverse cast, including a set of star-crossed orphan and aristocrat lovers, a deserting officer who falls in love with the wrong boy, a priest who abandons his faith, a thief who becomes a voice of god, a last surviving son whose facility with languages grants him access to unquestioned debauchery. If you choose to go audible, Rupert Degas (who narrates many of Haruki Murakami‘s titles) is as clumsy with the Korean language as he is with the Japanese, but his vocal agility adds convincing, haunting layers to Kim’s prose.
In an interview accompanying the PR materials (with similar information included in the printed “Author’s Note” at title’s end), Kim explains that the genesis of Black Flower is rooted in a second-hand airplane conversation that seemed “too mythical,” and eventually led Kim to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán, then Tikal and Antigua in Guatemala, to research this “forgotten historical moment.” He named his resulting novel Black Flower because “[b]lack is a color created by combining all the other colors. Similarly, everything is mixed together in this novel – religion, race, status, and gender … But there is no such thing as a black flower; it exists only in the imagination. In the same way, the place that the characters in the novel hoped to go to is a utopia which does not really exist in reality.” With elliptical snapshots that move between place and perspectives, Kim navigates that proverbial fine line between truth and fiction; his Black Flower proves ever elusive and wholly intriguing.
Tidbits: For further reading, check out some of these links. Now I know why we were able to find decent Korean food in La Antigua Guatemala!
Published: 2003, 2012 (United States)