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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #52 (December 21, 2004), page 20.

Against our expectations

Translations of Beauty

By Mia Yun

Atria Books, 2004

Hardcover, 338 pages, $23.00

By Josephine Bridges

Translations of Beauty opens with a dream of flying. "Of course," the narrator quips after she relates the wild and vivid adventure, "it turns out to be what Koreans call ‘a dog dream,’ because nothing like that happens when I go to Kennedy today." Mia Yun’s second novel contrasts what the narrator, her family, and the reader expect with what they get.

"Mostly and usually, babies are born one at a time to ensure that they get all the attention they deserve," deadpans Yunah, a twin. Yunah’s name means "the Sparkling One," and her sister Inah’s name means "the Patient One," based on the behavior of the newborns. But by the time the girls are four years old, their personalities have already changed. Observes Yunah, "Inah thinks out loud and I listen."

The twins are also physically dissimilar, due to the burn scars on Inah’s face, the result of a childhood accident. Yunah and the twins’ mother lead the reader to believe that Inah struggles because she is not beautiful, but the novel’s most welcome surprise is Inah’s remarkable insight that, "Not everything has to do with my face."

Translations of Beauty is primarily the story of the uneasy relationship between the two sisters, but "Koreans are nothing without family," and the family extends way beyond the twins. More often than not, these characters construct and explain lives that challenge our expectations. Aunt Minnie, a beautician with a big heart and a big mouth, finds an Italian boyfriend after her marriage to a black man ends in divorce. Jennifer, Cousin Ki-hong’s Korean wife, surprised that her newborn daughter looks "so Korean," tells Yunah, "You see white faces every day, day in, day out, at school and on TV, you start to think that you look like them, too."

And he may be "greedy and crass … but despite all the faults and bad taste, Uncle Shin is solid and reliable." The girls are ashamed of wishing their father were a little more like their uncle.

The girls’ father seems like the one person whom the family, and the reader, can count on. He slowly and painstakingly builds a Korean Zen garden in the backyard of the family’s sad little house in Flushing, New York. He understands what Inah really wants to know when she asks, "Daddy, is it true Americans eat steak every night for dinner?" and explains "how people are the same everywhere: how they get hungry just like us when they don’t eat; how they are sometimes happy, sometimes sad; how they fight, make up and fight again; and how they all want to be happy. Just like us." But this wise and patient man can’t live up to his family’s — or the reader’s — expectations, and he lets us all down in the book’s most unwelcome surprise.

Two narratives run parallel through Translations of Beauty. One describes the twins’ childhood and teenage years in Korea and America; the other relates Yunah’s visit with her sister in Italy, which is far from the Italy of our expectations: "The gray brick walls are listing, soft and swollen with rainwater and soggy paper boxes lie around with bloated cat food still in them." Nonetheless, it is here that the twins begin to find their way back to each other.

Mia Yun would be an admirable novelist if she were writing in her native tongue, but her accomplishment is more remarkable because she was born and raised in Korea. While she lives now in New York City, English is not her first language. The story told in Translations of Beauty lives up to our expectations; the beauty of the writing surpasses them.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books