History and Longing: Black Flower by Kim Young-ha

  • onNovember 8, 2014
  • Vol.3 Spring 2009
  • byLouisa Ermelino
Black Flower
Tr. Charles La Shure

Kim Young-ha has built a reputation as a novelist who has captured the experience of the youth of Korea, the Internet generation, accomplished but disillusioned, living life in the fast track in Seoul. Accomplished and talented, published successfully in Europe, he has, in his novel Black Flower, come to fruition as a mature novelist. He has claimed in an interview that marriage has changed him by calming him down so that he can concentrate on narrative and story. If marriage gets the credit for producing a novel as magnificent as Black Flower, it should be a required state for all writers.

In Black Flower, Kim Young-ha takes a small moment of Korean history, when 1,033 Koreans embarked as contracted laborers in Mexico on April 4, 1905, and transforms this moment into a powerful, sweeping epic that resonates across continents and oceans, bridging East and West. At this time, Japan controlled Korea, and protected immigration to California and Hawaii for the Japanese. For others seeking an opportunity, to immigrate Mexico was offered, specifically the plantations of the Yucatan peninsula. The imperial government of Korea prohibited contract labor but East Asia was in turmoil and “…people flocked to Jemulpo Harbor. It was a crowd that included everyone from beggars to short-haired men, women in skirts and Korean jackets, and even runny-nosed children.”

The excitement of those who thought themselves lucky to get a place on the ship soon turned to the most abject misery. The journey is followed through the eyes of a collection of characters: Kim Ijeong, an orphan boy raised by a street peddler, Yi Jongdo of the imperial family with his wife, son and beautiful young daughter of marriageable age, Yi Yeonsu, Father Paul, a Korean priest abandoning the church, Choe Seongil, a ruthless and heartless thief, and Gwon Yongjun, the interpreter for the Continental Colonization Company who arranges the transportation of the laborers.

When Yi Jongdo’s efforts to establish his privilege early on (anyone who has ever worked another man knows that not all human beings are the same) are rebuffed by John Meyers, the company representative, it is a clear indication of what is to come for the aristocrats of the group forced to share quarters with vagrants, soldiers, shamans and eunuchs. With great skill and empathy, Kim depicts the conditions aboard ship: the deprivation, the machinations, the inner thoughts of the characters, and especially the love story of Ijeong, who makes his way into the good graces of the kitchen staff, attracting the romantic attentions of a Japanese cook, and Yeonsu, a young passionate girl who understands, unlike her parents, that things are changing and that the old world is gone forever.

The group arrives in Mexico to more travails, once selected for work on the haciendas that produce hemp from the henequen plant, the Koreans soon realize they have been duped and “anxiety gradually began to wander about between the tents.” They are underpaid, overworked, badly fed, whipped and beholden to cruel masters for the extent of their four year contract. In despair they realize they can never earn enough to leave this country of heat and dust. They work alongside the enslaved Mayans whose revolts led to massacres which decimated the population, necessitating the importation of labor.

Kim seamlessly weaves the history and the social structure of Mexico into the story of the Koreans, a story of exploitation and greed, while he also shows the resiliency and dignity of the Korean characters who adapt to the harsh conditions and cope as best they can. He pays special attention to the plight of the women, who must eventually work alongside the men in the fields and then perform all the domestic chores as well. He tells the story of our Lady of Guadaloupe and the Catholic religion in Mexico, the devastation of forced conversions, and fanatical religious fervor. His prose brings the story alive; the atmosphere from the bowels of the ship to the steaming plantations is palpable. The back stories of the characters are revealed as though peeling the skin of an onion as their lives intersect and happily the evil are punished although the just also suffer. There are mystical and poetic elements amid the facts of history, adding a layer of wonder to the narrative arc. The scope and breadth of Kim Young-ha’s talent is evident on every page of this breathtaking novel, which through the lives of people of all walks of life thrown together without distinction, he tackles the themes of democracy, war, nation building, power, religion, relationships, and love.This novel engages, informs, and in a paraphrase of Kafka, breaks the frozen sea within us.

The Koreans become involved in revolution and with Ijeong as a leader, a small band of fighters, for a brief time form a nation which they call New Korea, in Guatemala, in Tikal, among the jungle-obscured Mayan temples. The story culminates here. The young lovers at the center of the story have come together and been torn apart, life has gone on, and ultimately, Kim concludes the narrative, observing that the Mayan temples have been restored, tourists travel to see them and the Yucatan peninsula, some haciendas have become museums, but “…no traces were unearthed of the group of mercenaries who had passed through that place or the small miserable country they had founded.” 

Author's Profile

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy MyselfYour Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.