Written by Shuvern Yeoh
The Calligrapher’s Daughter
Author: Eugenia Kim
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2009
“Without having to confine my dreams to the destiny outlined in one’s name and the expectations bestowed during one’s naming, I was left free to embrace the natural turns of my character and to determine my own future, drawing from the deepest well on unnamed possibilities.”
The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a stand-alone novel which depicts the life of a young girl in Japanese-occupied Korea. The book’s timeline spans over 30 years, featuring the main character Han Najin, as she is torn between the modern possibilities offered by living in an evolving society, and her traditional duties as a woman to her family.
Works of historical fiction without elements of thrillers or fantasy are usually not my cup of tea, but I found this book (which belonged to my mother) on the bookshelf in my hall years ago and thought I’d give it a try. I’ve only read this book twice: once when I was 15, and then now, when I am 18. When I first read it, I couldn’t truly appreciate it; with its descriptions of the main character’s domestic and oppressive life, it seemed mundane and rather dry. But after re-reading it, I was able to understand the mature themes within the book and understand Najin’s hardships, which come from living with a close-minded family. The book also gives insight into the many traditional customs and political chaos during the 20th century, which may bore most people. But I found it interesting as it added to my general knowledge about Asian heritage; Korean customs have many parallels to Chinese customs.
The story draws you in as you read it. It depicts the many ups and downs of life and how one may adapt to change, may it be good or bad. Although some of the challenges the heroine faces are much more drastic compared to those which most of us face, there are still things to learn from Najin’s story. For example, there is a significant part of the book where Najin’s plans of following her husband to America and to further her studies there are dashed, and she is forced to stay with her in-laws in their ramshackle house. There, she faces false accusations of infidelity from her father-in-law, is forced to act as a maid to an entitled mother of a new-born baby who boards with her in-laws, and feels the ache of longing to be with her husband. She may not be a superhero in a cape, but she may as well be! Her strength and endurance are forces to be reckoned with. She shares her private frustration and sorrow in her monologues, but she holds her tongue and does as she is told. She humbles herself and repents, owing her misfortunes to her arrogant assumptions and lack of faith in her religion. And even when Najin loses contact with her husband because of the war, she never once cheats on him, and she prays for his safe return. Like the saying goes: “Good things come to those who wait.” Indeed, her patience helped her weather the storm of the troubles she faced, and she is reunited with her husband at the end of the book.
On a brighter note, not all the changes Najin faces are bad. In the book, Najin is the first female in her family to have ever received an education. Her father, the yangban (Korean aristocratic) calligrapher Han, was reluctant to send her to school, as he believed a lady’s duty was to stay at home and tend to her family. His close-mindedness nearly cost Najin her education, but Najin’s mother, wanting the best for her daughter, persuaded her husband to allow her to attend school. This was extremely helpful to the family as Najin was able to become a teacher and earn income for the family during challenging times.
The setting of the book is a bleak backdrop with political chaos, starvation, imprisonment and cruelty. However, splashes of life and color are brought to the narrative by Kim’s description of how simple Korean fare is served, the glory of the Changdeok Palace where Najin serves as a companion to the Princess Deokhye, the rare celebration of Korean festivals, and even the calligraphy and woodwork Calligrapher Han occupies himself with. The proverbs recited by the characters along with the book’s lyrical narrative gives a poetic feel to the story.
This story may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s what some western tales lack – such as culture and deep familial bonds – which gives the Calligrapher’s Daughter its significance and sentimental value. This book is perfect to pick up during the long CNY holiday as it shows the importance of knowing one’s roots and reconnecting with family, as well as how we may adapt and endure the storms 2018 may bring.