Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2019 | 16 minutes (4,240 words)
On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went to a local convenience store in South Los Angeles to buy a bottle of orange juice. Owner Soon Ja Du accused the teenage girl of shoplifting, an altercation ensued, and in a split-second captured on video, Du shot Harlins in the back of the head. She died with two dollars in her hand. A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but against their recommendation, the judge sentenced the Korean-born woman to a $500 fine, probation, and community service.
Harlins’ murder, which occurred two weeks after the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, was a major contributing factor to the city’s 1992 uprising—LA’s deadliest year—which resulted in 63 deaths, thousands of injuries, and more than 800 million in material losses. By the end of the unrest, known as Saigu among Koreans, rioters had looted, set fire, and damaged more than 2,200 Korean-owned businesses.
Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, based on the murder of Harlins, is an empathetic and nuanced portrayal of two southern California families forever connected by violence and tragedy. Set in present-day Los Angeles, the novel is centered on Korean American Grace Park, a naïve and dutiful daughter who lives and works in the Valley with her secret-keeping parents, and Shawn Matthews, an African American ex-con whose sister was murdered by a Korean grocery store owner.
A new shocking crime sends the Parks and Matthews on a collision course to face their shared history against the backdrop of an already tense city on the cusp of more racial violence. Taut and razor-sharp, Your House Will Pay masterfully examines themes of racism, revenge, incarceration, grief, shame, injustice, and social movements. Read more…
Victoria Namkung | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,283 words)
From Cinderella’s glass slippers to Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, Summer Brennan deftly analyzes one of the world’s most provocative and sexualized fashion accessories in High Heel, part of the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury. Told in 150 vignettes that alternately entertain and educate, disturb and depress, the book ruminates on the ways in which society fetishizes, celebrates, and demonizes the high heel as well as the people, primarily women, who wear them.
She writes: “We’re still sorting out the relationship between glass ceilings and glass heels. For now, the idea of doing something ‘in high heels’ is a near-universally understood shorthand meaning both that the person doing it is female, and that in doing it, she faces additional, gendered challenges.” Whether you see high heels as empowering or a submission to patriarchal gender roles (or land somewhere in between), you’ll likely never look at a pair the same way again after reading High Heel.
Brennan, an award-winning investigative journalist and author of The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, has written for New York Magazine, The Paris Review, Scientific American, Pacific Standard, Buzzfeed, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. A longtime communications consultant at the United Nations, she’s worked on issues and projects ranging from the environment and nuclear weapons to gender equality and human rights. Read more…
Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (3,020 words)
Since the early 1950s, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, with the vast majority of them coming from orphanages in Asia, South America, and, more recently, Africa. South Koreans are the largest group of transracial adoptees in the U.S., and by some estimates, make up 10 percent of the nation’s Korean American population.
Nicole Chung, however, was born prematurely and placed for adoption by her Korean immigrant parents in Seattle, and raised in a sheltered Oregon town five hours outside of Portland. Adopted by religious and loving white parents, she grew up as an only child who always felt a bit out of place. The narrative she was always told — that her biological parents made the ultimate sacrifice to give her a better life — comforted Chung as a child, but as she came of age, experiencing racism and finding her own identity as an Asian American and a writer, she began to question the “prepackaged myth” of her adoption. After getting married and becoming pregnant with her first child, a daughter, she went in search of her lost roots.
All You Can Ever Know, her memoir of this search, confronts the ways in which traditional adoption narratives rarely tell the whole story and shows how idealistic and well-intentioned white adoptive parents are often wildly unprepared for raising children of color in a society that is nowhere near the post-racial future of many Americans’ imaginations. She writes: “It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaking the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love.” Read more…
Victoria Namkung | Longreads | July 2018 | 8 minutes (2,150 words)
R.O. Kwon’s debut novel, The Incendiaries, is a meditation on faith, extremism, and fractured identity. A poetic thriller, written in an inventive stream-of-consciousness style, with shifting narration between characters and spare yet haunting prose, the story is also partly inspired by Kwon’s own experiences separating from Christianity as a young woman.
At the fictional Edwards University, Will Kendall, a poor transfer student and former evangelical Christian, is desperate to believe in something new. He becomes obsessed — and falls in love — with the charming Phoebe Lin, a similarly godless Korean-American pianist who is plagued with guilt over her mother’s death. Phoebe, however, falls under the spell of John Leal, a gregarious cult leader. Leal’s mysterious Bible study group, Jejah, eventually descends into right-wing terrorist violence targeting abortion clinics. When Phoebe disappears after a fatal accident involving Jejah members, Will is desperate to find out what happened to her.
The Incendiaries reflects on how our backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs can lead us to justify all sorts of perilous actions, how quickly well-intentioned devotion can turn deadly, and how life-altering it can be to find or lose religion. Read more…