The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #32 (August 18, 2009), page 13.
Miles from Nowhere a gripping portrayal of life as a runaway
Miles from Nowhere
By Nami Mun
Riverhead Books, 2009
Hardcover, 288 pages, $21.95
By Marie Lo
Miles From Nowhere, Nami Munís poignant debut novel, is a stark departure from many popular Asian-American novels. Rather than focus on the family drama of cultural difference and intergenerational conflict, it delves into the hidden lives of runaways and the precariousness of survival on the streets.
The novel follows Joon, a 13-year-old Korean-American runaway in New York City in the early 1980s. For Joon, living on the streets was an escape from the isolation and neglect of life at home. The stress of moving to a new country had driven a wedge between her parents, and her father left them for one of his many mistresses. In grief, her mother retreated into a catatonic and crazed silence. Left alone to fend for herself, Joon was essentially homeless without leaving home; running away became an opportunity to start anew.
To survive, Joon works as a hostess, an Avon lady, a nursing home aide, and at times, a prostitute. She finds a makeshift family on the streets, but like her own family, they flicker in and out of each othersí lives as they struggle with their demons. There is Knowledge, a philosophical and street-smart runaway who teaches Joon how to take care of herself; Wink, who sells himself to buy them hot chocolate; and Lana, a transgender hostess at Club Orchid. Joon falls for Blue Fly, a drug addict, and together they sink deeper into addiction.
Joon is a magnetic character who is tough, resourceful, quick-witted, and perceptive. But, for all her insightful observations, she remains most opaque to herself. As Joon struggles between pain-numbing drugs and fragile sobriety, she realizes that to overcome her addiction and start afresh, she must confront her past.
Miles from Nowhere is gritty and unflinching, and Munís writing is unsentimental yet poetic and precise. She is restrained in her description of the desperation and violence Joon encounters, but it is precisely the spareness of her prose that makes Joonís story so heartbreaking: "Iíd left a bed and a mother to sleep under storefront awnings right beside men who thought a homeless girl was a warm radiator they could put their hands to. Iíd slept in shelters, in abandoned buildings. Iíd been beaten. And at the start of every new day, I still believed I could choose my own beginning, one that was scrubbed clean of everything past."
Mun herself was a runaway, and like Joon, she also worked as a club hostess and an Avon lady. But unlike Joon, she left New York for the west coast when she was 15. Eventually she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and received an MFA from the University of Michigan. Along the way, she also worked as a street vendor, a photojournalist, a bartender, and a criminal investigator.
Despite some of the similarities between Mun and her character, the author is careful to note the novel is not autobiographical: "If I had to put it [to] numbers, Iíd say maybe one percent of the book is autobiographical. Yes, I left home at a young age, but I chose not to write about the actual events of my own life as a runaway. I kept those actual events in Ďreserveí of sorts and used my knowledge of them to strengthen the narrative artifice I was creating."
In telling the story of Joon, Munís story gives a voice to one of societyís most invisible and vulnerable groups ó children and youth without food, security, and shelter. Mun explains the impulse behind her writing: "I merely sat down and the stories came, and only when the initial surge of writing slowed, I stepped out of myself, entered the long dark tunnel of research, and came out the other end feeling as though it were my duty to try and tell the stories of roughly two million runaways in the U.S. alone. This number stunned me."
Not since Canadian writer Evelyn Lauís Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, has there been such a powerful portrait of living on the streets from an Asian North American perspective. However, Lauís work was published when she was just a teenager and reflects the youthful self-absorption of someone still looking for herself. Munís novel, in contrast, reflects the depth of a writer who has been miles from nowhere, and found her way back. Despite its bleak and dark subject, Miles from Nowhere shines with a generous humanity. Nami Mun is a refreshing new voice in Asian-American literature.