Reading Asian Women Writers: The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee

by | April 29, 2014
filed under Books, Feminism, Racism

Book cover for "The Bird" by Oh Jung-Hee

Invisibility is the theme for this month’s book. Invisible, because I am ashamed to admit that Korean female writers were invisible to me, and would have completely flown under my radar had it not been for a friend who studies Korean women’s literature; invisible because U-mi, the protagonist of The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee reminds me that the struggles of young women like her are, too often, invisible to everyone.

My friend suggested that The Bird is rather like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as it is told through the eyes of a child. Thumbing through the pages at first glance, it seemed like a quick read and therefore a quick review to put together for this column. However, the novel is far from simple.

The main character is U-mi, and the end of the novel she is just twelve and raising her brother U-il, a few years her junior, who lives with some developmental disabilities. Pretty much everything you want children to be protected from is depicted in their experiences: abandonment, neglect, abuse, malnutrition, violence – the book is not uplifting by any means, and is sure to devastate by the end.

In reading The Bird, I am reminded of how poverty and violence disproportionately affect women and children of colour.

Unfortunately, these struggles are largely invisible to the public eye until you see someone with a clipboard campaigning for initiatives like Because I Am a Girl, or remember that we see this very locally with the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in our country.

Women and children are allowed to slip from our view. Compare this narrative to other such similar ones with white protagonists like, say, Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which is told from Salmon’s point of view as a 14-year-old girl. The youth and beauty of 13-year-old Cecelia Lisbon in Jeffrey Eugenides’  The Virgin Suicides is similarly mourned by her neighbors after she commits suicide.

U-mi, by comparison, gets nothing and no one looking or mourning after her. U-mi’s story, even as it is fictional, had a relatively slim chance of catching my attention, while I found four copies of The Lovely Bones at the thrift store the last time I was there. Certain stories are just more ubiquitous, it seems – or others are just more invisible.

The stories of Cecelia Lisbon and Susie Salmon are also much more palatable and precious than U-mi’s story. Contrasting these stories of girls roughly the same age brought to mind a comment by bell hooks from last November. hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry had a conversation, hosted by The New School. hooks remarked at one point upon the portrayals of black children in pop culture:

“I just can’t take another image of an abused black child being represented as entertaining… I’m hurting because we can’t get past the construction of black children as little mini-adults whose innocence we don’t have to protect[…]”

hooks’ comments are evocative from literally the very first sentence of The Bird, when U-mi is smacked on the head by her grandmother. The first words we hear spoken to U-mi are, “You horrible girl!” Later on its, “‘Rotten girl!’ Factory Auntie’s furious voice struck the back of my head as she went out after me.”

It is painfully clear throughout the book that U-mi and U-il are not receiving the care they desperately need. U-mi is taking her brother to the doctor, making them dinner, and making sure they both do their homework. They live in a building full of grown adults aware of their situation, but the awareness of their neighbors stops short of the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.”

U-mi is very much a “little mini-adult,” and it took the shock at the end for even me to sit up and realize actually, this is not a normal situation for a child to be in.

Compare U-mi and U-il’s situation to the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, when Jem is seriously injured but with a ton of people looking to his welfare. At the end of The Bird, when things clearly start to unwind for U-il, his sister is too young and shocked to be able to cope, and no one else seems to notice what is happening to them. I admit that I could see a happy ending (relatively speaking) for Scout and Jem, but not for U-mi and U-il. In fact, I very much expect any books featuring children of racialized minorities to be sad or tragic in some way, as if I can’t imagine anything better for them.

The Bird is set in Korea in the 1920s, but before we brush that off as a time and place where children’s care and welfare ‘just wasn’t an issue’, I would draw your attention to a piece that was posted on Jezebel at the beginning of January in which Kim Kelley-Wagner, an American mother of two adopted girls from China, posted some of the incredibly hateful and mean things people have said to her or to her daughters about their adoption.

Comments included things like, “You’re lucky you got one of the pretty ones,” and, “Your mom is a real saint for wanting you.” I would guess by looking at these pictures that the girls are around or under 12 years old, like U-mi.

Even if The Bird is from a completely different time and place than this Jezebel piece, the treatment of these girls is hardly different, as U-mi’s experiences and presences are treated with a similar sense of invisibility in the novel. U-mi herself remarks at one point as she blends into the background, “I am the desk. I am that chair. I am that tree outside the window. I am nothing.”


For information on this series of book reviews, read Emily’s first review on Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms. Next, Emily is planning to read Joss and Gold by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Feel free to read it too so you can join in the discussion.

Oh Jung-hee” by LTI Korea –  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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