by James Zerndt
Publisher: Create Space, March 27, 2013
Available in: Print & ebook, 329 pages
I was in my late twenties when I was first introduced to novels featuring the interplay between two or more cultures. It was the late eighties and one of my Literature and Creative Writing professors (Lawson Inada, later Poet Laureate for Oregon) assigned us a book by an Amer-Indian woman. Silko? I was entranced and began to seek them out and have continued to favor them ever since. Trust me when I say, James Zerndt compares favorably with some of the best I encountered with his The Korean Word for Butterfly. I am grateful to him for introducing me to the Korean/American relationship.
This story set in 2002 is not so long ago. Not even pre-Internet and yet the misunderstanding, biases, judgmental arrogance and confusion generated by the language barrier and the differences in how the two cultures view themselves and what gives meaning to their lives is as old as that between Israel and the Persians in the Biblical stories of Daniel and Esther.
By language barrier I mean also the non-verbal for bodies and faces are speaking a foreign language across the cultural divide.
I like the way Zerndt used inter-personal relationships among his primary and secondary characters to both show how these misunderstanding are created and how it will be at the inter-personal level not the international level that the relationships between nations and culture will be repaired. And to this point it really is a shame that Americans for the most part make little effort to prepare their young for this role by exposing them to foreign languages early as most all of the other cultures do.
By having his story revolve around a Korean school dedicated to teaching their children English and the Americans they bring over to teach, Zerndt was able to demonstrate all of this. But not in the dry way I just explained it. Rather with a story in which characters, so well drawn you come away feeling like you know them, live it in front of your eyes.
I've made it no secret here that I believe in the power of story to transform, to heal, to enlighten. I've witnessed it and lived it. I believe that my intense interest in this type of story when introduced to it by Professor Inada was because I was already sensing the shift deep in myself that would, just five years later, culminate with me breaking away from the fundamentalist sect I was raised in and continuing to seek them out and read them helped me reach a new equilibrium after that devastating experience. This is why I believe that storytellers like James Zerndt who help us learn how to communicate across cultural boundaries and even time are one of our most valuable resources.
From the Publishers:
Set against the backdrop of the 2002 World Cup and rising anti-American sentiment due to a deadly accident involving two young Korean girls and a U.S. tank, The Korean Word For Butterfly is told from three alternating points-of-view:Billie, the young wanna-be poet looking for adventure with her boyfriend who soon finds herself questioning her decision to travel so far from the comforts of American life;Moon, the ex K-pop band manager who now works at the English school struggling to maintain his sobriety in hopes of getting his family back;And Yun-ji , a secretary at the school whose new feelings of resentment toward Americans may lead her to do something she never would have imagined possible.The Korean Word For Butterfly is a story about the choices we make and why we make them.
What they are saying:
Jamie’s short story, “The Tree Poachers”, recently won WCCHA’s fiction award. Some of his short stories have also won Honorable Mention in both Playboy’s and The Atlantic Monthly’s Fiction Contests.
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