Tae Kim Vivisects Korean American Life

Asian American novelists carry a heavy burden. They must lay out the messy, subtle and often awkward bi-cultural context of their characters’ lives while moving the action along at a pace that doesn’t bog down in more backstory than most readers care about.

If it happens to be a first novel, the burden is even heavier — so many moments from the author’s own life cry out to be explicated, at least obliquely.

I’m glad to say that author Tae Kim acquits himself admirably in his psycho-social thriller War with Pigeons (astorytelling 2011). He carries the Korean American novelist’s burden heroically while building page-turning momentum toward a neat climax. I lost some sleep to learn what really happened in the days leading up to the funeral that opens the novel.

Simon Lee is a member of the so-called knee-high generation — Korean Americans who were still kids when their families immigrated to the United States. They’re young enough to become thoroughly Americanized in speech and manners but their sensibilities are forged in the heat of a community struggling to build lives on the margins of American society.

Simon and close friend Peter excelled in school, entered Ivy League colleges, landed Wall Street jobs, respectively, as an investment banker and a lawyer. As they enter their mid-30s they’re among a wave of prosperous Korean American professionals expected to build enviable lives around pricey apartments, fine restaurants, boats, weekend homes on the Hudson, and occasional forays into Korean clubs to stay in touch with friends from youth. Simon and Peter never quite fit this mold. The funeral that opens the novel is for Simon who appears to have dug a knife into himself after using it to kill two others. The task has fallen on Peter to try to unravel Simon’s life so he can administer the estate and maybe find closure to a tragic romance that had been haunting him.

The novel’s sharpest blade, however, is the one Kim uses for ruthless vivisections of the motivations of the kinds of characters that fill Korean life in America — the church elder with a heart of fool’s gold, the miscreant son of a chaebol family, the club hostess with a soap-opera back story, the heroically self-sacrificing mother, the beautiful young woman who hogs love’s burden to the eternal detriment of herself and her beloved. Kim’s blade is not only sharp but two-edged, laying bare the big and small foibles of heroes and villains alike.

I like the way Kim weaves his action between mainstream life and Korean immigrant life. The center of gravity is clearly with the latter, but there are enough of the former to keep the novel’s actions from feeling ghettoized. It depicts the kind of bi-cultural ease that increasing numbers of Asian American professionals enjoy today, but it’s by no means universal. Their consciousness is often left out in the political competition between staying connected to one’s roots and embracing American life.

The novel’s main structural flaw is the striking similarity between Simon the subject and Peter the narrator. Some similarity is needed to allow Peter to understand and ultimately carry out Simon’s intentions, but at times I had to flip back a few pages to keep their respective lives from collapsing into each other. This applies to Helen and Catherine as well. Without giving away the ending, I think the two might have been profitably collapsed into one character with little effort and a nice gain in structural elegance and reader satisfaction.

A minor but annoying distraction is the grammatical errors and typos scattered throughout, a problem that could have been entirely eliminated by tighter proofing.

On a biographical note, Tae Kim was born in Incheon, Korea. His family immigrated to the United States in 1971 while Kim was a child. Kim received a BA in history from Haverford College and a law degree from New York University School of Law. He spent several years as a securitization attorney at the Wall Street firm of Brown & Wood (which later merged with the Chicago firm of Sidley & Austin. A number of years after Kim left that firm its offices were destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center — an event referred to in War with Pigeons.) Kim also spent some years as a senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service. He currently works at a New York City bank. He lives in Englewood, New Jersey with his wife and three children.

Our curiosity about a few additional points were satisfied by an email exchange:

Goldsea: Tell us a bit about your childhood and early life.
Tae Kim: I remember my early childhood being one of the most enjoyable times of my life. Though we were first generation immigrants, my parents worked very hard to provide for a good life and I don’t recall wanting for anything. In that sense, I’ve always considered myself privileged, especially when you see some of the financial hardships being faced by so many children growing up even today.

GS: Give us a brief picture of what it was like to begin a new life in the U.S.
TK: I came to the US at such a young age, that I personally don’t remember what my life was like when I lived in Korea. But somewhere along the way, through all the stories my relatives would tell me of what I was like as a toddler, I came to picture in my mind those things I may have left behind to start a life in the U.S. These images are the basis of the chapter entitled “One Small Step for a Woman,” particularly the section which reads “the mud-covered children that played wildly on the streets, the chicken that ran around in the concrete courtyard of the house enclosed by stone walls and wrought iron gates, the prehistorically large dragonflies that hovered in droves during the humid summers, the terrifying outdoor pit latrine, the step-down kitchen that contained large clay pots or jang-dok holding heated water, and the dog that wagged its tail nervously when the air-rifle was pointed at it, . . .”

GS: What were you like as a teen?
TK: Rather shy and I fell into that rather large category of teens who perceive themselves as being awkward. I was rather studious which further fostered the stereotypical image of the Asian geek – an image slightly mitigated through my participation in high school and college athletics.

GS: How did you become interested in writing a novel?
TK: I’ve always had a love for literature and it had been a lifelong dream of mine to write a novel.

GS: When did you start and finish writing War with Pigeons?
TK: I began writing the book in the middle of 2008 and finished early in 2010.

GS: What was the chief inspiration behind the novel?
TK: The chief inspiration for the novel was really the financial crisis of 2008 and my family. There is a short piece I wrote for which describes the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book.

GS: Had you written anything before this novel, either published or unpublished?
TK: Although I’ve had a number of financial methodological essays published, “War With Pigeons” is really my first literary effort.

GS: Are any other books planned or in progress?
TK: Oddly enough, yes. I’ve received some very encouraging feedback on this first book as well as some insightful criticism. In many ways “War With Pigeons” was a book I wrote for me. The next one will be the book that puts the readers first.