FEBRUARY 5, 2020
THE CONTRETEMPS OVER Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt revolves around a narrative of a publishing industry eager for blockbusters, white authors who inhabit the stories of marginalized people, and embarrassment when the multiple flaws and tone-deaf passages of the hyped-up book are exposed.
Amnesia about such fiascos is also common, which is why it is important to revisit an all-but-forgotten story about a would-be blockbuster from 20 years ago that had been billed as the “Korean Angela’s Ashes” — before it self-destructed. I was exposed involuntarily to the machinery that creates these publisher-to-Oprah pipeline books, because my own novel was likely sucked into the manufacturing of Ten Thousand Sorrows, a book that was unmasked to be so egregiously fake that the publisher quietly stopped publishing it in the United States (heavily revised paperback editions appeared in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand).
A woman calling herself “Elizabeth Kim” wrote this book at the behest of an agent she met at a Marin County dinner party for vegetarians. Even though she’d been a very young child when she was adopted by a white American couple, Kim managed to construct a memoir of a Korean childhood. The finished product, Ten Thousand Sorrows, blazed onto the literary scene in the premiere issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, with a big blurb from Arthur Golden, the author of Memoirs of a Geisha, and received a half-million-dollar advance. Then it all began to unravel.
There was no doubt that the author was Korean-born and adopted by a white family. But everything else about the story was taken on trust. In one particularly unbelievable scene, she wrote of watching her mother murdered by her evil grandfather and uncle in — according to the press release — an “honor killing” for having a mixed-race honhyul child. Kim recounts excruciating details of her grandfather stringing her mother up on a roofbeam of their humble Korean hut. “All I could see through the bamboo slats were her bare feet, dangling in midair,” she writes. “I watched those milk-white feet twitch.” After this horror, these same male relatives burn her private parts as she’s pinned down on her mother’s Buddhist altar. Not for nothing did a review in the San Francisco Chronicle call it “so thick with grief and violence that at moments, it’s almost unbearable to read.”
But readers with even rudimentary knowledge of Korean society also found it unbearable to read — because they could tell the book was full of fabrications. First, Korean houses, especially “huts,” don’t feature roofbeams you could hang someone from. Second, there’s not even a word for “honor killing,” something the author describes as “disturbingly common” in Korean culture. Third, her traumatic memories of being called honhyul — mixed blood — are extremely strange; this is a formal, almost clinical term, not at all pejorative. Much of her book centers on this poorly chosen word, which she claims she can never forget having heard almost every day while growing up in Korea.
Here is where I may have unwillingly entered the picture. I had used this word myself, erroneously, in my own unpublished novel about a Korean adoptee, Somebody’s Daughter, which my agent had submitted to Doubleday, to Kim’s editor, where Kim may also have worked as a freelance reader. When Kim’s book came out, bearing many similarities to my manuscript, including the odd word honhyul, I had to rub my eyes. This mistake was my own; I’m a child of Korean immigrants, and my parents were afraid of us kids picking up accents, so I only learned the language formally, at a Korean university as a Fulbright scholar on a research grant, and my guess at the word “mongrel” turned out to be quite amusing to my manuscript’s more informed readers — the equivalent of calling someone “biracial” as a slur. When others who had also seen my work-in-progress encouraged me to speak out, I wrote letters, including to O, not seeking compensation but merely protection of my personal intellectual property. But the editors refused to speak to me.
Korean studies professor Brian Myers, meanwhile, noticed that much of Ten Thousand Sorrows just didn’t add up, and he compiled a list with dozens of inaccuracies that he said he sent to the publisher. Book industry writer Hillel Italie at the AP wrote a piece called “Book Criticized for Factual Errors,” which rounded up these and others’ objections. Even the title, said by Kim to have been taken from a Buddhist proverb her mother loved — “Life was made up of ten thousand sorrows and ten thousand joys” — came under scrutiny, because, while this expression might appear in a Marin vegetarian-potluck as a westernized Zen catchphrase, it’s not Korean. Choe Sang-hun, the co-author of How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions, told me via email: “I don’t recall any proverb that contains 10,000 sorrows.” Ten thousand also colloquially indicates “a lot” — our American “millions.” Seoul-based journalist Charse Yun, who’d written an article on the debacle for KoreAm Magazine, told me that he remembers it as “explicitly Orientalist and immediately problematic. There’s no way she could have ‘known’ these ethnographic tidbits and ‘facts’ sprinkled in as a young child, but she makes it sound like she’s an anthropologist explaining Korean culture to the non-Korean reader.” Further, similar to accusations leveled against American Dirt, “The book caters to a reading audience that probably likes and or wants to read such distorted, two-dimensional depictions of other cultures, masking the sense of their society’s assumed superiority. Such a book just aims to cash in on reinforcing stereotypes.”
Having my work possibly lifted, and having the well poisoned for my novel, was a bitter pill — after holding on to my work for months, Doubleday rejected it. However, I thought my problems were smoothed over when I received an offer for a two-book deal with another big publisher. This was on a Friday. On Monday, the offer was mysteriously rescinded, and no one told me why. I suspected it was because somebody was worried that my own work tracked too closely to the now-suspect Ten Thousand Sorrows.
My only real recourse was to do nothing. My agent agreed that squawking by a yet-unpublished author would be unproductive and that I just had to bury this novel in a drawer. Years later, however, an editor who remembered the book called my agent to ask why she couldn’t find it on Amazon. This editor was then able to buy my manuscript for the price of a used Toyota Corolla. My agent advised against it, finding the cheapness insulting, but I felt by then (five years after Sorrows was published) that it was time, and I am grateful my novel had this unexpected chance to see the light of day. Somebody’s Daughter — after being edited to make it less like Ten Thousand Sorrows — was published with Beacon Press’s Bluestreak imprint, devoted to fiction by women of color.
By then, the clarion call over the inauthenticity of a majority of the details in Ten Thousand Sorrows coalesced around the primary one: the “honor killing.” Charse Yun reported Doubleday’s statement, an astonishing walk-back: “We do now believe that there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killing in Korea.”
Defenders of appropriative literature often wonder why people claim to be “hurt” by mere words on the page. But consider that Doubleday three years later published James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, i.e., “the War and Peace of addiction,” according to the blurb by Pat Conroy. When it also became an Oprah pick, increased sales also meant increased scrutiny, and an investigation by The Smoking Gun revealed this memoir was also a pile of fake details — so fake that aggrieved readers took to the courts and forced Doubleday to address damages in an unprecedented move: offering refunds to readers who could prove they bought the book believing it was a memoir.
Compare this with the damage to Korean and Korean-American communities by the people who hyped Kim’s Orientalist narrative as a “true” story, in which Asian men come across as misogynist honor-killing fiends, where a barbaric Confucian culture leads to the murder of a sweet mother who just wanted to do right by her child, who toils alongside her in the rice paddies — in a season when rice is not grown in Korea. There is no evidence that Kim even remembers her actual birth mother, or her situation. As she says in her epigraph to the memoir, “There is no record of my mother’s brief life.” Translator and professor Heinz Insu Fenkl, who also wrote an autobiographical novel about growing up as a biracial child in Korea, told KoreAm that the book “comes across more as a fictional pastiche of a range of works than something actually recalled from experience.” What was sold to readers was witness; what they unknowingly consumed was fantasy — including my mistake of honhyul, which Ji-Yeon Yuh, a professor of Asian diaspora history at Northwestern, confirms “most certainly would not have been used in casual circulation in Korean rural farming villages of the 1950s” (KoreAm interview).
I still do not view Elizabeth Kim or Jeanine Cummins individually as bad actors. The Oprah train to fame and fortune pulls up, and they accept a ride: who can be blamed for that? This is also a gendered issue. In an NPR interview with journalist Maria Hinojosa on Latino USA, Cummins suggested she was so traumatized by the uproar that she was considering stopping writing. Frey, in contrast, has hardly slunk away; he’s the CEO of — fittingly — a writing factory that produces young adult novels, one of which was made into a feature film by DreamWorks. And, as a born-again novelist, Frey became a best seller.
But the Ten Thousand Sorrows fadeout and lack of paperback release was not the big news its publication had been; Doubleday did everything to avoid drawing attention to this debacle. A former editor at O at the time of Sorrows’s appearance was shocked to hear the book had had these problems at all. She told me that memoirs at the time were taken at face value, and that Ten Thousand Sorrows perfectly fit the magazine’s needs as a “woman’s story with a compelling narrative.”
But if the compelling stories are fake or inaccurate, we can’t say they are just whimsy or honest mistakes. The major audiences for American Dirt and Ten Thousand Sorrows are white women who are reading about brutalities (a child being crushed by a garbage truck in Cummins’s novel, rape and more rape in both works). They believe in the act of reading that they are learning about another culture, developing empathy and doing “something” about the border crisis or about Korean adoptions. But the opposite is happening. They are imbibing erroneous stereotypes about the people Cummins and Kim ironically state they are trying to “humanize.”
What the defenders of these books also often miss is that a six- or seven-figure advance to a writer who writes an inaccurate book about the border or Korea could also fund, say, 40 more accurate and knowledgeable writers at $25,000 each.
But I studied economics long enough to know this isn’t going to happen. “Money creates taste,” as the artist Jenny Holzer has said, and the forces that created American Dirt and its barbed-wire launch-party centerpieces are going to gravitate to a future work just like it. Narratives for middle-class white readers pay off big, and there’s nothing wrong with that, except writers of color are already often at too much of an economic disadvantage to access the structures that provide these million-dollar advances with the accompanying huge publicity budgets.
So what can be done to serve engaged white readers who want the “real” but can’t tell the difference?
The American Dirt case differs from Ten Thousand Sorrows because fiction has — and should have — a wider artistic license. I would not suggest the book should be “cancelled,” as Sorrows was, but I have a modest proposal: truth in labeling. Taking cues from the food industry, we should recognize that books that center on a general theme of injustice and race can fall into one of two metaphorical types: GMO and Organic.
Organics, like Mexican-American author Luis Alberto Urrea’s Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, are renderings of lived experience at the border (and apparently, Cummins has “sampled” vivid scenes from these books). The category of Organics would also cover novels that have an underlying social justice theme, that bear witness, that spur readers to action, and that, importantly, show awareness of their author’s position. Good storytellers of any ethnicity can bring forgotten and marginalized communities vividly to life. John Steinbeck lived and worked in the communities he chronicled, and his work shows it. Who can forget the beginning to The Grapes of Wrath, with the starving family watching food being destroyed?
Cummins’s and Kim’s work, on the other hand, exemplifies the genetically modified organism — that is to say, synthetic amalgamations of various pieces of existing literature. Cummins admits as much, in her author’s note. She takes a story line of “saintly mother in the Mexican border crisis” and fills out its DNA helix by splicing in others’ work as Kim might have done with mine. Similarly, it was the addiction community that first supported and then was disappointed by Frey’s work. These books are created and pushed for entertainment purposes, and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise, as was done with Cummins.
Having a bookstore “border wall” between Organic and GMO would allow consumers to purchase an entertaining, escapist book without the illusions that it was anything but an alternate universe. Esmeralda Bermudez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times who has been critical of the American Dirt for its inaccuracies, told NPR that it could indeed be “cheap entertainment, like a narco-thriller on Netflix.”
One of the most popular TV shows in South Korea right now is Crash Landing on You, a romance/thriller about a paraglider who accidentally gets blown into North Korea. Having been to North Korea myself, I was impressed with how accurate some of the details were. But at the same time, a scene of the two principals kissing at the Military Demarcation Line is the kind of goofy license allowed, even expected, in these kinds of “K-dramas.” Knowing the genre, no one would object that, in real life, the characters would immediately be shot or blown up by mines.
Being publicly shamed and having her book out of print did not seem to hurt the career of Elizabeth Kim. She is a member of a speakers’ bureau where Ten Thousand Sorrows is now “a novel,” and an edition appeared in Korea, where its Korean translation tellingly eliminates the faux proverb; now, perhaps karmically echoing A Million Little Pieces, its decidedly un-Buddhist title is Ten Thousand Kinds of Sadness.