Eugenia Kim's powerful second novel, THE KINSHIP OF SECRETS, is the story of a family torn apart by the Korean War. Inspired by a true story, Kim's narrative alternates between two sisters — Miran and Inja — and spans continents, decades and cultures. We are so excited to bring you the first two chapters of the book.
— Jung Yun, Fiction Editor
On a chilly summer night, a newsmonger trudged uphill to a residential enclave of Seoul, the last neighborhood on his route. By the dim light of his lantern swinging atop a bamboo pole, he checked his watch, clacked his wooden clappers three times, and, with the crystalline tones of his nighttime newscast, sang, “Attention, please, attention. Tuesday, 27 June, 3:30 a.m. The North Korean People’s Army retreats after our heroic counteroffensive in Uijongbu. Enemy tanks were destroyed, and our forces have mobilized to repulse the enemy all the way to the Yalu River. President Rhee urges the people of Korea to trust our military without being unsettled in the least, to carry on with their daily work and support military operations. Attention, please, attention.”
His call echoed against the bulky profile of a Western-style house where Inja, nearly 4 years old, lived with her maternal uncle, aunt, grandparents, as well as a cook and her teenaged daughter. Though it was the hour of dreams, Inja slept hard and still, her steady breaths matching those of her grandmother snuggled in the bedding beside her. The day before, Inja had accompanied Uncle downtown to read posted news bulletins, and his strained and rapid stride elevated her fear of things she didn’t understand — communists, invasion — and had exhausted her.
Inja’s dreams, both waking and sleeping, were often fanciful visions of her parents and her year-older sister in America. Having been left behind in Korea when she was a baby, Inja had no concrete memory of her family. They appeared to her as shadow people, their smiles as still as the few photographs they sent. To animate their grainy black-and-white features into an idea of mother, father and sister, her imagination blurred them into amorphous shapes — loving, said Uncle, and generous, as proven by the monthly packages they sent — ghost people to whom she was bound.
Yesterday, Uncle and Aunt argued fiercely about the merits or foolhardiness of leaving their home and fleeing south. Inja had thought the mystifying and controversial invasion could be an exciting change of routine, and though she had no say in the decision to stay or go, she longed for adventure. Already her shadow sister had journeyed halfway across the world, while she herself had gone nowhere.
A dry wind carried the newsmonger’s song into their yard on his return trip down the hill, and Inja woke. She heard a pop of electricity — Uncle turning on the light bulb dangling from the ceiling in his sitting room. Its blue glare streamed down the hallway, and his feet padded out to the porch. Her uncle was a calligrapher who created newspaper mastheads and banner headlines, so he had many contacts in the news business. Whirring crickets muffled Uncle’s queries to the man on the street. Inja opened her eyes wide as if it would help her to hear better. No strand of morning light yet touched the shutters. She slid out of the bedding, careful not to disturb Grandmother, crept into the long side room that was the hub of the house and peeked out the front door.
In the darkness, Uncle ran straight into her. “Umph! Yah, why are you up? Are you okay? Let’s see that nose.”
Startled tears sprang from her eyes, but she smiled and rubbed her nose to say she was unhurt. “What did the man say? Are we going on a trip?”
“Heedless ears make heedless thoughts,” said Uncle. He crouched to meet her eyes in the shadows cast by the bedroom light.
She stepped into his open arms and his ready hug. With such protection, invasion couldn’t possibly harm her. “Will we all go together?”
“I’ll talk it over with Harabeoji.” Since Uncle didn’t say no and discussions with Grandfather usually meant he’d made up his mind, she was certain they would go. A sliver of glee shivered down her back, and she hopped out of his hug. “I can pack all by myself. I can help with Halmeoni.” Inja could keep her tiny Grandmother’s cane ready when she wanted to stand or fetch her Bible, a clean pair of socks — whatever she needed.
“Don’t disturb her. You go back to sleep, and I’ll wake you if we decide to go. And if we do, it’s only for a short while.”
“Okay.” She returned to her room. Uncle was lax with discipline, but Inja had grown dutiful under the rough watch of her strict aunt and a stern command or two from her grandparents. Back in bed, with the pulse of Grandmother’s breath in her ear, she lay wide awake and listened to unintelligible talk between the men and soon a rising volume of complaints from Aunt. With such fights frequent in their house, Inja had learned to muffle the bitter tones and ugly words by diverting her attention to making lists, sometimes of what came in the last package from America, what clothes had been distributed, what candy had been devoured, what new words she’d learned from reading newspapers with Uncle, or the quirky things Yun — her nanny, who was Cook’s 13-year-old daughter — did that made her laugh. She created an imaginary list of what she would pack.
Bible picture book from Mother, my favorite of everything
Blue KEDS sneakers from Mother (I copied those letters from the blue rubber label at the heel)
Socks and clothes
She ran her hand over the pressed linen surface of her Bible storybook, always nearby, and fingered its borders tooled with gold swashes. As high and wide as her chest and as thick as three fingers, it required both arms to carry it. If she took the book, little else would fit into a small bundle for their journey, so she sat against the wall and thought about all the things from the American packages she’d have to leave behind, all gifts from her mother and father and sister. These items lay on a corner shelf nearby, and as the room grayed with dawn, their silhouettes made it easier for her to inventory.
Pink rubber ball
Small doll with yellow hair and moving arms and legs
American flag on a chopstick-sized stick
A miniature spoon with words etched in its bowl
Shiny wrappers from candy and gum
A brooch made of pompoms, shaped like a poodle (a strange American dog)
Card of hairpins with a picture of a pretty girl with brown curls
Coloring book, all done, and six crayons (Yun was better at staying inside the lines)
Woolen scarf with mittens knitted onto the ends (no one liked it because it was red)
Cross-legged on the floor, she opened the Bible book to feel the glossy leaves of its illustrations. It was too dark to see, but she’d studied them for so many hours, she could guess what image was beneath her fingers by the bulk of pages in each hand. They were vivid and unforgettable, and from memorizing what her uncle said about the captions, she had learned what Fear looked like, and Greed, Sin, Pride and Envy. It did not have a picture of Communist Invasion, but she thought their forthcoming journey might mirror how the Chosen People had crossed the sea floor while God held the raging waters back.
Inja leaned against the wall and fell asleep to sounds of activity in the kitchen and in an outside shed, where an oxcart had been stored since the war with Japan before she was born.
And on the other side of the city, the newsmonger snuffed his lantern in the dim gray before sunrise, noting a strange red glow beneath darkening clouds on the horizon. He pocketed his clackers and frowned at the teletype saying that the gains he’d just reported were lost. He conferred with his editor, who relayed the rumor that President Rhee had fled Seoul by train overnight to Suwon. But the editor also said they would not alarm the populace with confusing news of battles — or presidential flight. The newsmonger rubbed his eyes and went home to soak his feet.
That Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., the muggy summer sun rose in a clear sky, geraniums emitted their bitter fragrance and bluets beckoned under bushes lining the lawns of quaint houses in the suburb of Takoma Park. Miran, age 4 1/2, and her mother pushed an old perambulator uphill, containing a package bound for relatives in Korea. Miran had been lucky with this package. Her mother doubted if their relatives would like the licorice in Good & Plenty (two for a nickel on sale at Safeway), and she’d given one of the boxes of candy to Miran. The child was jealous of the bright-colored gifts and even the old toys packed inside the cartons going to Korea. Once a month she helped her mother send another box or two overseas. Miran flattened grocery bags to wrap the cartons and ran strips of gummed tape over a wet sponge in a saucer. Her mother wrapped the packages with the bags, tape and twine, using Miran’s finger to help tie the knot.
Miran steadied the package angled in the stroller, and the candy box rattled pleasantly inside the pocket of her twill skirt. She sucked the pink-and-white sugar coating off each piece, and when her mother wasn’t paying attention, she spit out the pungent chewy center onto the grass median.
Miran accompanied her mother, Najin, to the post office to act as go-between at the mailman’s window. They had come to America two years ago and had planned to return last summer — so Najin hadn’t studied English quite as diligently as she might have — but Miran had contracted scarlet fever and was quarantined in the hospital for weeks. Then, last fall Najin had lost a baby. Miran didn’t understand what that meant, except an ambulance came for her mother. Miran had spent the night with the next-door neighbor and was babysat there a week of afternoons following nursery school and also evenings while her father visited the hospital.
She liked the neighbor, Mrs. Bushong, who talked with a twang: “a Virginia countrywoman,” her father had said. Mrs. Bushong fed Miran hot dogs and fried bologna sandwiches and showed her how to make Jell-O. She was allowed to play with Mrs. Bushong’s collection of salt and pepper shakers. Miran’s favorite was the black-and-white plastic toast in a silver toaster with a spring lever that really worked.
The other thing she knew about losing a baby was that her father had taken the sofa cushions outside to hose them down, and after they’d dried, he covered the blotchy stains with a purple-and-green crocheted afghan.
She’d been allowed a single visit to her mother at the hospital, and its arid hallways of polished linoleum and nurses in squeaky shoes brought back memories of being sick herself, and of waking at odd hours to always find her mother on the chair beside her bed in the isolation ward. When Miran had visited her mother at the hospital, Najin looked pale and smelled funny, but she’d given her a lollipop. Leaving the hospital, Miran asked her father what did it mean to lose a baby; was it like leaving her sister in Korea? He said nothing and took her to the water fountain to wash her sticky fingers with his handkerchief, and she wondered if he was sick, too, since he coughed and his eyes were wet.
Miran didn’t remember Korea, but she did remember getting lost on the ship crossing over. She had wandered the gray metal passageways for hours, looking for her father, who had berthed with the men. She’d heard her mother often tell that story to dinner guests about how worried they were and their joy at finding her. Najin was an animated and passionate storyteller, and prone to tears when talking about Miran’s sister and the relatives to whom they sent packages. To push around remains of uneaten food — kimchi stew or mushrooms — meant her mother would invoke this sister’s name: Finish eating — Inja would love every bite of this. When she spent the night at her friend Sarah Kim’s house, she heard a different refrain from Mrs. Kim if she abandoned her peas — that children were starving in China — which made equal sense to equating her leftovers with people so far away, the only way you could reach them was to dig a hole straight through the earth.
Miran held the heavy post office door open for her mother, and they rolled inside with scrapes and squeaks. Relieved there were no other customers who would coo over the “adorable Chinese girl” and pat her hair, she stepped with confidence to their favorite mailman. He knew their routine and wouldn’t need her help to explain what kind of service her mother wanted and how much insurance to buy.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cho and little Miss Cho. One for sea mail?” He weighed the package, accepted the customs declarations and insurance forms Najin had filled out in advance, and he pushed a bowl filled with peppermints closer to the edge of the counter for Miran. Their task was completed with no undue attention drawn to them, no incident of language or writing misunderstood, no need to explain they were from Korea, a peninsula between China and Japan, or that she was almost 5 years old and would attend kindergarten in September.
On their walk home, Najin admired the irises and blooming dogwoods in people’s gardens. “There are no flower gardens like this at home,” she said, “just vegetables and beans — things to eat.” She spoke to her daughter in Korean, and Miran answered in English.
The Good & Plenty box scraped against the cellophane-wrapped peppermint in Miran’s pocket. To please her mother and gain permission to eat the second candy, she said, “Look, Umma, dandelions. Should we pick some for Appa’s dinner?”
Najin smiled. “It’s too late now — they’re too tough, but we have squash flowers blooming in the backyard, and I’ll show you how to make soup. And yes, you may open the peppermint.”
Awed at her mother’s ability to read her mind, Miran worked her tongue around the sweet-sharp treat and swallowed happily. “Umma, that’s two candies today — it’s a red-letter day!”
“All that sugar means you’ll be skipping around the yard like a rabbit,” she said. “And what does it mean, a red-letter day? Like a valentine? Did you learn that at school?”
“From Mrs. Bushong. She said it’s for a holiday or birthday you write in your calendar in red ink to make it special. Will you put it in your notebook?” The only things her mom collected were American sayings — “colloquialisms,” said her father — in her diary, translating their funny literal meanings along with their implied meanings. Most were heard from their family friend Miss Edna Lone, an expressive woman whom they’d met on the Pacific crossing. A former missionary, she was fluent in Korean. She attended their church occasionally, came to dinner often and uttered such outlandish things as Katy, bar the door; dollars to donuts; happy as a clam; over my dead body; kit and caboodle; easy as pie; it’s a piece of cake; and many horse idioms: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth; straight from the horse’s mouth; hold your horses; if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Miran felt smart with her mom’s colloquialism collection, since she could explain the sayings she’d heard in school and at the grocery store. “It’s like when Miss Lone comes to dinner, it’s a red-letter day,” she said.
“I see. It’s a good saying but has an opposite meaning at home. To write someone’s name in red ink in the family register means they’ve died.”
They turned the corner toward home, quiet, and neared their small front yard edged with hedges. Najin said, “You mustn’t forget your language; we’ll go home soon — perhaps later this year.”
Miran ignored her; she’d heard this so often it had lost its meaning. It meant her mother was missing her family, primarily the baby — her little sister — left behind, but Miran was thinking about the baby they’d lost at the hospital and how the water had run as red as a valentine when her father had hosed off the brown stains on the sofa cushions.
On this companionable walk home in the bright morning, even while planning squash soup for Miran’s father, they couldn’t have known that at that moment at the Voice of America he was poring over the AP, UP and BCC teletypes. Calvin Cho worked as a translator and broadcaster at the VOA Korean Service during the week, in addition to his pastoral duties at the Korean church. As the teletypes ticked, Calvin juggled the shifting reports of attacks, counteroffensives, retreats, impasses — and worse, his own fears about his daughter living in Seoul with his in-laws. He hadn’t told Najin about the North Korean invasion earlier because he assumed the action would end up being another inconsequential skirmish. But now he feared the worst, God forbid, a communist aggression that could slide into a devastating nuclear world war. This news was too important and fraught with miscommunication for a telephone call; he would tell Najin about the invasion when he got home at dawn. She would be frantic with worry about Inja and her family in Seoul, and he would have to give her assurances that — except for his enduring faith in God’s mercy — he didn’t have.
Excerpted from The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim. Copyright © 2018 by Eugenia Kim. With permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.