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Memoir mirrors Korea's torment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

Several years ago, Korean-born author Jid Lee was watching The Oprah Winfrey Show when she had an epiphany. On air was an interview with African-American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who remarked that she began to write because she feared that if she didn't she would die. Lee realised that the same cathartic process had compelled her to write a multi-generational memoir that weaves her family's tortured history with that of modern-day Korea.

Lee's book, To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea, is set against the devastation and suffering that Korea endured under Japanese colonial rule, the Korean war and a succession of US-supported military dictators. Lee's family, a microcosm of Korean society, struggled to make ends meet in the aftermath of the Korean war and the division of her motherland. Her father, a US-educated professor and political activist at a South Korean university, was imprisoned and tortured for his socialist leanings by Park Chung-hee's regime. Her mother's siblings, who chose to live in North Korea, disappeared forever.

Lee, who immigrated to the US 30 years ago, is a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. She spent 16 summers toiling over her memoir because, as she puts it, 'nothing is as frustrating as a story that is untold and unheard'. But her book is also an unabashed act of social and political activism, which sums up her life's mission in the US: 'Trying to persuade my American audience to see what I see.'

Lee views America as the villain in the Korean war. The three-year North-South conflict, she believes, not only helped crush a movement for democratic reform in the South but devastated millions of families like hers. Born in 1955, two years after the war ended, Lee grew up in the 'safest, cosiest areas' in the southern city of Daegu. But her family life was hellish. Her persecuted father didn't earn much and a family scandal was a source of enduring shame for the Lees.

As a child, Lee listened to her parents recount stories of suffering - and heroism. In one account, her mother cooked a meal for North Korean stragglers on the run from US forces. 'She said to herself, 'they were from North Korea but they were Koreans - they were my people and they were starving'.'

Virtue and morality are strong themes in Lee's memoir. But she is less admiring of Korea's patriarchal structure. Defiant and outspoken, Lee was often thrashed by her brothers and at least twice by her father. Her mother slapped her - as a reminder that her place was in the kitchen. Lee skilfully portrays her struggles to achieve recognition and equality. The title of Lee's memoir refers to a family myth told by her grandmother. As the tale goes, one of Lee's ancestors sacrificed herself to a tiger to earn the goodwill of the gods for her descendants. Lee's grandmother encouraged her to 'be a fighter' like her family matriarch. But as Lee would discover, developing a warrior spirit was impossible without challenging the submissive role of Korean women.

Trapped within the mythical tiger, she wanted to slay it.

Lee excels in recounting the horrors of the Korean war. She yearns for reunification, but believes diplomacy alone won't win over the North. 'The balance lies somewhere between a hard line and hope, between rigour and compassion.'

But Koreans must also stop admiring authority figures, she says. 'Whether we admit it or not, we are used to worshipping strong leaders.'

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