The 1980s were a contentious time in Korea. Following the 1979 assassination of dictator, Park Chung-hee, protests began springing up all over the country after one of his generals seized power. Many of the nation’s citizens wanted a democratization of the country, but those in charge wanted to maintain the authoritarian status quo. In 1980, one of the attempts at change, the Kwangju Uprising, was brutally crushed with an estimated death toll of over 600 people. Throughout the decade, many more protests were met with harsh force. I actually moved to Korea for two years in the late 80s and I remember watching student protests on television all the time. I was only in third grade and I still recall adults around me speaking with hushed trepidation about the state of national politics. It was a scary time.
So it’s with this context in mind that I read Jimin Han’s stirring, A Small Revolution. It’s a timely novel that perfectly balances a personal story with the grander historical backdrop of Korean history. A disturbed Korean-American student, Lloyd, takes the main character, Yoona, and three of her friends hostage in their dormitory. He demands the release of their friend, Jaesung, from a North Korean prison, as well as a meeting with the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea.
As Lloyd feverishly rants on about his demands, Yoona’s memories flood back to her. Part of what makes the story so compelling is the way it’s told in fragments, Yoona connecting her bitter past with a conflicted present. The layers begin to strip away and weave a thread with her abusive father and the political suppression in Korea. The prose is elegant, incisive, and moving:
“There are many paths to revolution.”
Yoona’s revolution is intertwined with the romance of a mutual friend, Jaesung. Jaesung is an optimist, supportive, encouraging, and everything her triumvirate of cruelty (Lloyd, her father, and the Korean government) are not. Their bonding is beautifully written and most of that past is told from a second person perspective. In some ways, the book is a letter of emancipation to Jaesung, a way of negotiating a compromise with her regrets. It also makes the narrative feel so much more personal for readers navigating through the complex geopolitics of their relationship.
“You were tender in contrast. I never saw you rage out of control about anything. Like the tip of your shortened finger, your fury was born missing. And you were always giving money away, even though I found out eventually you hardly had any yourself.”
As more layers are uncovered, Lloyd’s demands don’t just seem preposterous, but insidious. The fantasy he pedals take on deadly implications with the hostages. The looming threat of violence explodes just as Yoona tries to make sense of it. But they are fractures that necessitate change, and the emotional epicenter quakes tremors of uncertainty, propelled by a guilt which she reveals to herself in her unspoken thoughts to Jaesung.
“I didn’t know how much you’d understand about my family. And I couldn’t tell you, not when you thought I was like you. You would never have let your father beat your mother. You would have thrown yourself between them. I never did that. Why didn’t I do that? Instead, I pleaded from a distance.”
It’s from that “distance” that even subtle exchanges are imbued with more meaning. But, as Han points out, it also betrays the insufficiency of language to convey even the most basic feelings:
“‘Making love’ is a strange euphemism. It’s more like showing love. It’s like words can say only so much.”
As Lloyd’s mad act get worse, another type of revolution occurs within Yoona. And it’s this cycle that makes the story both so violently elegant and lucidly haunting. There are no easy answers and “unmyeong,” or fate, provides little solace. A Small Revolution is anything but small, a stirring rebellion of the spirit, a story that carries wondrous nuance in the way it carves away at expectations while constructing together something bold in the face of adversity.
“Before us is a wall of soldiers. They’re in black uniforms, so I know they’re soldiers. They raise their guns. I see them clearly. Suddenly too clearly. The tear gas matters not at all. I don’t know how I know with so many people in front of me. You’re nowhere in sight, and I know this is the moment we all die.”
But even death can’t stop the march of progress. No matter the shotguns of abuse or the bullets of tyranny. It’s the courage of voices like Yoona, and Jimin Han, that force change. I couldn’t stop reading A Small Revolution once I began. It stirred a revolution inside of me and is one of those books that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.
A Small Revolution by Jimin Han will release in May from Little A Books.