The Relatable Book

I finished my project on my grandpa and I finished The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and thought I would talk about both, since I felt like the two topics intertwine with each other. I have a lot to say about both subjects, so this post became an essay – which I’m really sorry about! I didn’t mean for the post to be so long. I know I’ve mentioned the topic of my grandpa a couple times but this will be the last time (I swear!) because all of this information was basically the culmination of my project.

This past week I finished my presentation that I did about the “Letters of Park Byoung Won” (my grandfather). The class I took was called “The History of Recorded Information”, which explores the history and transformation of information within society. So this includes documents and a wide variety of books. For our project, we were supposed to pick an artifact or a document and I chose to do my project about the written letter.

A few reasons I chose to do this project was because

  1. I got to learn more about my family history. Even though I was close with my grandfather, he passed away when I was really young, so I didn’t get to know him as a person
  2. I got to learn a bit about Korean history
  3. I was interested in the letter when it’s the only and main form of communication that you have.

My grandfather was born in the year 1912, in a town called Sinuiju (신의주), Korea. Sinuiju is now located in North Korea because the town is located at the very top of the country, right near the border of China. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my grandfather escaped (via walking) south with his oldest son (my uncle, who now lives in South Korea). His original plan was to come back for the rest of his family when the war ended but the war never ended, and so that was the last time he ever saw his family. His first wife also came from a rich family and her brother worked in the government, so they had some amount of safety even during the war.

Lots of Korean families became divided this way. If you stop a Korean grandma or grandpa on the streets in South Korea, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that they have or had family in North Korea. That may be an exaggeration but basically there are a lot of divided Korean families. In 2000, during the inter-Korea negotiations for a reunion, over 10,000 families finally discovered whether their family was even dead or alive. And I would be surprised if there were more people, who still don’t know the status of their family members on the other side of the divided line.

But my grandfather was privileged in some way because he got to send letters to them. The postal service doesn’t exist between North and South Korea. North Korea also operates on their own technology, so normal means of communication don’t exist (i.e. e-mail, Skype or telephone calls). What my uncle did was send letters to the United States to my grandfather, and my grandfather sent the letters over to North Korea (and vice versa).

And even though they weren’t allowed to write any sensitive information in the letters, I think that there is something really personal about the written letter when it’s the only thing you get to see from your family members. You can’t see their faces but you can at least see their handwriting. In one of the letters that my grandfather saved from his daughter, she says, “We read your letter together and cried because it was like seeing you again.”

It also made me appreciate the power of the written language. The Korean written language was created by King Sejong and his team in the 1400s. He created the Korean written language because he wanted to encourage widespread literacy (among other reasons). This is a translated quote,

“Being of foreign origin, Chinese characters are incapable of capturing uniquely Korean meanings. Therefore, many common people have no way to express their thoughts and feelings. Out of my sympathy for their difficulties, I have created a set of 28 letters. The letters are very easy to learn, and it is my fervent hope that they improve the quality of life of all people.”

And simple lines like, “When can we see each other again?” felt really sad and really depressing to think about. My grandfather passed away without ever getting to see his children and my uncle is a little over 80 years old now, with no chance of seeing his sisters or brothers again. Lots of Koreans will pass away without seeing their family members and soon there will be no one left. What does that mean when that happens?

I know that sometimes people don’t care much for their family and I understand. My own father is an alcoholic with a tendency to get violent and angry. I won’t get into too many details because the details are unpleasant but basically, it’s not fun dealing with an angry drunk person. My mom likes to complain about my character all the time and compares me to my sister almost every day. My parents fight nearly every day about the most silliest things. I come home from work and the first thing they do is either complain about me or fight with each other. We move homes at least every 2-4 years. We’ve always been poor. So yeah, not fun. At one point, everything felt so sucky that I was depressed for a period of time and went to therapy and sobbed every single session like my life was ending.

So basically, I understand when people say they hate their family.

But then I also understand what a big deal family is. My grandfather didn’t even get to fight with his children because he never got to see them. Even fighting with them is a privilege that some people don’t have. And even though life sucks and my parents suck, family is still really important to me.

And in this way, I really related to the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There are a lot of different themes that I can talk on and on about but basically this book was awesome (definitely 5 stars). Even though I can’t understand his Indian/Native American experiences, I understood what it’s like to make yourself feel vulnerable. Because that’s what he did when he decided to leave the reservation to go to a school with all white people. He’s poor. His family’s poor. Family is a big deal to him and his father is a drunk.

There are so many great passages but there was one moment when Junior was talking about his dad.

Yep, my daddy was an undependable drunk. But he’d never missed any of my organized games, concerts, plays or picnics. He may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could.

Junior has a really great view on life. He’s witty and observant. And despite the fact that obstacles are constantly thrown his way, he never loses his sense of humor and he never stops trying. Because it’s so easy to become depressed and to stop trying.

I read a lot of fantasy and one of the reasons I love fantasy so much is because you’re escaping real life for a moment. But sometimes I appreciate books based on real life experiences because they show you how other people approach life. And sometimes they approach life in a really awesome and beautiful way.

Here’s the summary of the book… which I’ll end with because this post is way too long. As always, thanks so much for reading!

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.