19 Oct / The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim [in Christian Science Monitor]
Korean American experience resonates in The Prince of Mournful Thoughts
The longing for connection, for belonging, is woven throughout a dozen short stories in Caroline Kim’s superlative debut collection.
“There is so much I wish to make my daughter understand, but cannot,” an immigrant father muses about his pregnant daughter. “I am sure she feels much the same way.”
That disconnect between generations, between cultures, between histories, looms in Caroline Kim’s stupendous debut, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories.
Winner of the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, one of the nation’s preeminent awards for short fiction, Kim was chosen by lauded novelist and essayist Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night) with whom Kim shares a Korean American heritage.
“I wanted to read stories about what I felt was missing for myself: stories about Korea, what it was like in the past and during the war,” Kim said in an interview that accompanied the prize announcement. “I [also] yearned for stories where the POV came from a person like me: Korean, American, middle-aged, a mother, an immigrant, [and] an outsider.”
Almost two decades in the making – she says she wrote a story every few years – the result is a breathtaking literary accomplishment. A rarity among first, second, or even tenth collections, Kim maintains enviously superb quality throughout the dozen stories, in which she varies geographies (Korea, California, France), time periods (18th century to the future), and multiple generations.
The most emotionally resonant among the stories is perhaps “Picasso’s Blue Period,” featuring the immigrant Korean father longing for mutual understanding with his Westernized daughter who is about to make him a first-time grandfather. As he waits first in his daughter’s sleek California home and then at the hospital where the birth happens sooner than anticipated, the father recalls the family’s early immigration experiences and how, decades before, another pregnancy resulted in a drastically different outcome.
Pregnancy also dominates “Arirang,” in which a young wife in pre-war Korea knows that her only hope of being treated as more than an overworked servant by her in-laws is to produce a son. Meanwhile, the village is already aflame with the latest gossip about a beautiful young mother of four who is pregnant yet again, this time – despite fervent protestations – not by the husband who comes home only once a month.
Children can be both destroyers and saviors in Kim’s expansive universe: in “Not Usual for Korean,” a recently expelled college student must face his embittered immigrant parents who worked relentlessly to give their children every opportunity; in “Seoul,” a son, just 12, forced into onerous responsibility when his father goes missing, attempts every possibility during wartime devastation to save his weakened younger brother. Children create their own world in “Lucia, Russell, and Me,” in which a woman recalls her younger self, her first best friend, her first rebellions, in the apartment complex that was her first U.S. home when her family immigrated from Korea.
Mental health, a taboo topic in traditional Asian families, takes the narrative spotlight in multiple stories, including including “Mr. Oh,” about a middle-aged man facing unrelenting inexplicable pain that might have psychosomatic provenance; “Magdalena,” about a recently arrived immigrant family that chooses to abandon the young wife and mother rather than attempt to address her growing psychoses; and “Therapy Robot,” in which expensive, face-to-face counseling sessions are replaced by always-available, programmed-to-be-empathetic machines.
The title story, “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts,” assumes the voice of a court nobleman who recounts his years of serving Crown Prince Sado, once heir to the Yi Dynasty in mid-1700s Korea. “[I]nspired by a Toni Morrison quote encouraging writers to write the stories they wanted to read,” explains Kim in her ending author’s note, the rendering of Prince Sado’s tragic life is, for the most part, historically accurate, adapted with “some liberties”: intelligent and thoughtful as a child, Prince Sado’s fatal temper and murderous behavior worsened as his Emperor father distanced himself further from his dangerously unpredictable son, eventually leading to the son’s execution in his late 20s.
That ubiquitous, timeless longing for connection haunts Kim’s narratives throughout: Her characters, she reflects, “find themselves uprooted from where they began, looking for the place that will feel like home.” For Busan-born Kim – who immigrated to the United States at an early age and has lived on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in Texas – home is now northern California. Over decades, she’s honed her writing with both an MFA in poetry and a master’s degree in fiction. Her current pursuit of a graduate degree in counseling surely inspires insightful on-the-page conversations. Attuned to words both written and spoken, Kim composes with intelligence, clarity, and, occasionally, impeccably timed humor to introduce a memorable cast in flux – disappointed and determined, contemplative and challenged, searching and, for the lucky, finally found.