When I was fifteen, my parents returned to South Korea and left me behind with my brother in America. My mother started writing me letters in Korean, a language I could not fully understand at the time. Over a decade after she wrote me, I translated her letters into English. In one letter, she writes: “Times like these, read a bunch of good books. Things you don’t know, things you can’t experience, all of it lies inside of books.” She defines for me a way to nurture a sense of humanity. I couldn’t have known how her words would teach me. My mother asks me, not to run away or close myself, but to go toward the things I don’t know and the things I can’t experience. She asks me to read. In forty-nine letters, she asks me in Korean, in her own way, to understand her and forgive her.
I am honored by the 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award for distinguishing a book about a Korean and Korean American family, separated and reunited through generations of untranslatable loss—from the Kantō Massacre of 1923 to the Jeju Uprising or Jeju Island Massacre of 1948 and the tragic deaths of my mother’s parents in Daejeon. Amid a growing number of books within Korean and Korean American literature, my experience is a small part of the greater understanding of the Korean American experience, which cannot be represented by a singular narrative. What does stand out about the Korean American experience is its diversity. There is still work to be done in surfacing the tensions across the Korean peninsula and here in America. But when I told the story of our family, it was no longer just ours to carry. For the first time, I felt it was not so heavy.
I am indebted to those who protect our relationship to books and safeguard our sense of humanity, who capture what defines our interconnectedness as human beings. This work belongs to bookstores, booksellers, publishers, representatives, distributors, editors, authors, publicists, librarians, reviewers, producers, coordinators, teachers, and friends and families, representing a unique sensitivity and awe for words and their power. I am grateful for such work that serves to strengthen our communities through language. I hope we can someday meet each other in person or once more on the page.