Saturday, January 20, 2007

So Far From the Bamboo Grove: The Plot Thickens

Here's a tip: one way to annoy a blogger who blogs in support of intellectual freedom and expression is to threaten to threaten legal action when he publishes an opinion you don't agree with. (I'm not sure what legal action could possibly be taken. A repeal of the First Amendment perhaps? Good luck with that.)

That said, opinions are obviously running high on a recently challenged book, So Far From the Bamboo Grove, as evidenced by the comments to several recent posts. Supporters of the ban are arguing that the book, which is a memoir, is historically, factually inaccurate: that it misrepresents history in a fundamental way. Below, I'll let one of them speak for herself.

And, as always, if others disagree, we encourage them to chime in. Perhaps we can run another response.

To the Editor:

On Jan. 2, 2007, Dr. Perry Davis, the Superintendent of Dover-Sherborn Schools, overturned the Oct. 30, 2006 decision made by the Schools’ Book Review Committee not to use the book So Far From the Bamboo Grove written by Yoko Kawashima Watkins “as part of a grade 6 English Language Arts unit.” In rejecting the Committee’s conclusion, Dr. Davis cited the views of Carter Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History at Harvard, detailed in his December 16, 2006 Letter to the Editor of this newspaper. He identifies the problem this way: “[To] teach ‘So Far from the Bamboo Grove’ without providing historicization might be compared to teaching a sympathetic novel about the escape of a German official’s family from the Netherlands in 1945 without alluding to the nature of the Nazi occupation or the specter of Anne Frank.” He then recommends this correctve remedy: “There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example with Richard Kim’s classic Lost Names, an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.” I disagree.


Mrs. Watkins’s book is being challenged by a group of parents who believes that requiring young children to read a book detailing the sufferings of the daughter of a convicted war criminal due to her father’s notoriety is morally repugnant. Here, they argue Mrs. Watkins’s family is more “Joseph Mengele-like” than simply a “German official’s family.” They also challenge the book’s racist and sexually graphic content. Several private schools have agreed with this view and have removed the book from their required curriculum. In support of keeping Mrs. Watkins’s book, Prof. Eckert touts a laudable goal: “Teaching should encourage students to think ‘outside the box’ of American ethnocentricity and highlight human commonalities across cultural and historical divides.” As a parent of school-aged children, I wholeheartedly agree with this view. However, this book has a fatal flaw that will not be resolved through reading another book, as Prof. Eckert recommends, that provides counterbalancing historical context: Large portions of her “personal narrative of survival” that supply the emotional force behind this book are fabricated.

In the second part of the book, Mrs. Watkins and her older sister are described as orphans without any adult guardian to soften the horrors of dealing with the aftermath of a war. Her mother dies inexplicably, and young readers are led to believe that her demise is contributed by the deaths of Mrs. Watkins’s grandparents and the destruction of their fine home in Aomori. In short, young readers are led to believe Mrs. Watkins and her sister are destitute orphans. A copy of Mrs. Watkins’s Family Registry, which Mrs. Watkins herself provided, says that her mother is alive and well when it was certified on Aug. 8, 1952 by the Mayor of Kigukuri-machi. In fact, her grandmother in Aomori is alive and well, too. This Registry also proves that Mrs. Watkins had not one, but two sisters. It also states that with respect to Mrs. Watkins, “[d]egree of relationship was misregistered as a fourth daughter and due to the permission of Ajigasawa District Court, the relationship was changed from Fourth Daughter to Third Daughter.”

Granted, this book is historical fiction. Mrs. Watkins, however, has claimed for over twenty years to the children that this book is her story, her autobiography. Indeed, Prof. Eckert finds the book “based on the author’s life . . . compelling as a narrative of survival,” because children “can experience [Mrs. Watkins’s] ordeal and triumph as their own.” We cheat our children when we allow them to identify with someone who would fabricate the death of one’s own mother and grandmother to create a fictitious account of suffering. As the debacle surrounding the book A Million Little Pieces written by James Frey demonstrates, people will not tolerate fabricated accounts of one’s life portrayed as autobiography.

I doubt that Prof. Eckert can recommend another “classic” book that he would have our children read to provide “context and balance” in dealing with a book that fabricates the
death of one’s own mother and grandmother.


Yours truly,
Anna Y. Park
Seoul, Korea

20 Comments:

Blogger kyl said...

Read this on Korean media and I was shocked at the turn of events. It seems to me that people are not understanding the real issue here. This isn't about violence or Korean kids being bullied, etc.. This book is akin to a well-written, sypathetic story of an SS officer's daughter and her family fleeing Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland while horridly freed Jewish prisoners and angry Polish civilians are killing Nazi soldiers, Nazi administrators and their families. That should send chills up your spines of all you decent people out there! Manchuria where Yoko's father worked as a high official is where Japan's Unit 731 vivasected on men, women, pregnant women. It's also where Japan developed tested and developed bio weapons to be used on American west coast(as reported by nyt). Yoko's father was complicit (if not directly overseeing) taking away all the harvest of Korean farmers to be shipped to Japan, beheading Korean Christians who refused to bow to the Emperor of the "master race" or speak Korean or not adopt Japanese names etc., forcibly conscripting Koreans to work in death mining camps and factories in Japan, rounding up girls to be raped by the Japanese military, etc.. You can't just keep this about literature and bury our heads to the moral responsibilities we all have as decent human beings. Additionally, the historical "context" that's being thrown around is that modern Japan has taken a "conservative" turn some time ago and revisionism and even outright denial of Japanese war atrocities are openly and freely denied by academics and politicians. In fact, such academics and politicians enjoy immense popularity fueling a resurgence of old-time racism against Koreans and white-washing of Japan's wrongs while glorifying Imperial sentiments that saw Japan as being the "master race". In fact, Kofi Anan sent a UN humanitarian mission to Japan last year which concluded Japan still suffers from "deep and profound" racism! Can you imagine how convoluted and difficult Korea-Japan issues and history is??? There is no way that these historical and political issues can be dealt with in any "balanced" way in middle school. To add icing on the cake, this book is historically inaccurate and twists history in a very self-serving way so that a sympathetic tale could be spun. 1. There are more bamboo groves in Maine than Hamgyeong buk-do North Korea. 2. Korean communists party/army didn't exist until a few years after liberation 3. Vast majority of Japanese civilians repatrioted under heavy military protection since Japanese military didn't withdraw until US forces moved in. 4. Koreans were also killed by Japanese military during their withdrawal for celebrating or just out of retaliation. This should be a no-brainer decision for educated, intelligent people. Let them study this book in college. Making kids read this in JHS is an ignorant move.

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused...since when did it become "just" to to punish children for a father's crime? Why are the children to be held responsible for actions they did not commit? Where is the logic in that. The child narrator isn't committing any crime other than that of being born into what some would consider the wrong family, a bad family. Are you seriously suggesting that having the wrong parents--having the wrong genes should condemn you? make you guilty of crimes that you did not commit?

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Jindo forever said...

I honestly believe that children should not be punished by the crimes of their father, but this is way beyond that.
Not only she fabricated the whole orphan saga, she may be the one who cause suffering to Korean people in that time. I do have few Japanese friend I like, but I hate Japanese people and the government. Not because of who they are, but fact that they do not show remorse for what they done and what they are thinking.
Even till this days, the Korean Japanese all over Japan are still being bullied over by Japanese people, not to mention radiation patients who are Korean decendents from the Nuclear bombartment from 1945 is not being treated same as their counterparts Japanese patient. I honestly abhore at the intention of this writer who lie and insists that she is telling the truth.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some Korean ultra-nationalists and most Korean news media have been spreading fabricated information that the author is or could be the daughter of a war criminal, without any evidence.
They know already that they could not find any clue to support their insistance, but they never apologized. And the author never asked their apologies. Please be honest, before calling other a liar. They say only liars dig other's back. Calling other a liar cannot prove that you are honest.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that bothers me is the allegation that Yoko Watkins father was involved in Unit 731. As far as I could find, there is NO DEFINITIVE EVIDENCE anywhere to back up this claim. If someone has an incontrovertible proof (not merely an appeal to emotion or a claim based on hearsay, but a link to site that puts forward some hard evidence !), please pipe up. You would be doing everyone a favor. In the meantime, an allegation is just an allegation.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Bottom line is, the Japanese were responsible for the cruel deaths of Koreans throughout their regime, and Yoko tries to make it sound like the Koreans had no reason to retaliate. Yoko, in my opinion, is like the probable millions of other Japanese (including their PM Abe) who believe that Japan did not commit any crimes in its past 300 years...ignorant, and keeping in their minds that they are "superior"...

which we all know is bullshit

1:45 AM  
Anonymous melonbarmonster said...

You have to stupid and retarded to think that war crimes and atrocities committed by governments and nations are magically absolved after a generation. That's just plain stupid. Does the US trade deficit automatically disappear into thin air after a generation? Does moral disgust and condemnation become inappropriate bc first generation Nazis have died off? No it doesn't. Disgusting atrocities should be well remembered and condemned.

This book is moral sewage. It is akin to glorifying the survival narrative of a Nazi concentration camp officer, or the daughter of the KKK grand wizard.

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