Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur
So Young Koo
An interwoven quilt of myths, hallucinations, and personal tales, Angela Hur’s novel Folklorn (Erewhon, 2021) follows the physical and spiritual journey of her fictional character, Elsa Park. This is Hur’s second novel, coming fourteen years after her debut, The Queens of K-Town. Hur’s novels explore various Korean American experiences focusing specifically on her female characters’ homecoming and rediscovery of the things and people they have left behind. In Folklorn, Hur pays special attention to the transnational movement of people through immigration, expatriation, and adoptions, which reflect Hur’s own movement through the U.S., South Korea, and Sweden. Through the journey, readers learn of Elsa’s perceived inadequacy in her lack of Korean language abilities and the transnational adoption of Elsa’s burgeoning love interest, Oskar, whose story becomes part of Elsa’s. The disconnect represented by Elsa’s and Oskar’s experiences allows a commentary on diasporic identity formation. They feel that they are torn between two worlds, fully belonging to neither. As such, the intermingling of the setting and the characters is central to Hur’s novel.
Elsa’s story begins at the South Pole where national boundaries are blurred. The South Pole does not claim anyone as its native inhabitant, which makes it ideal for the kind of research physicists like Elsa conduct. Surrounded by the icy desert, people exist as visitors working together in a small station at the edge of the globe. However, the South Pole is not a place of post-national and post-racial bliss. A hyper-aware Elsa notes the cultural differences of the scientists at the South Pole. Americans are loud. Swedish people are standoffish. And Elsa, she is “the interloper.” She is “out of time and out of body—levitating with caffeine and boundless sunlight.” As Elsa tries to make sense of the people around her, she must grapple with her own identity and face the puzzle of her family history.
Folklorn focuses on the blurred boundaries of reality. Throughout the novel, Elsa is often accompanied by a “friend” who remains unnamed. When she is younger, everyone thinks of the friend as someone imaginary whom she will outgrow. Because the novel relies heavily on references to existing movies like Planet of the Apes and, especially, Korean folktales, it is unclear if the friend is real. Readers are left wondering if the friend is a symptom of mental illness, mere imagination, or a corporeal being, and Hur never fully answers this question. Elsa could have schizophrenia like her brother Chris who thinks of himself as the son of God, a brother to Christ. Or she may be suffering from “sinbyeong,” a spiritual disease that forces the sufferers to the life of Shaman—“mudang” as Koreans call it. Elsa must rely on stories from her mother that speak to a strong female lineage told through Korean folktales. When Elsa returns to California to attend her mother’s funeral, she herself cannot hold onto time. Elsa hopes that by eventually understanding folktales she can understand her mother better. Then, maybe, she can finally grow up.
A spa accident left her mother uncommunicative due to brain damage when Elsa was fourteen. When Elsa returns home, she feels that she is, again, a fourteen-year-old about to leave for boarding school to escape her problems, despite the passage of time and her accomplishments as a scientist. Her home life in California was volatile. Her violent father physically and mentally abused her mother and brother. Because her brother Chris was much older than Elsa, he took on much of the abuse, which propelled his plan to send Elsa off to a boarding school. He wanted her to escape the way he was not able to.
This set up a pattern of behavior that Elsa in the present relies on. She runs away from her problems, unwilling to make commitments. While her partner in the South Pole, Jesper, wants to solidify their romantic relationship, Elsa refuses an answer until her departure—her silence connotes her discomfort. She returns to Sweden to continue her postdoctoral research. In her apartment she finds “[m]y personal things are stored in the attic, and the lease is in my name, (but) I still feel like an interloper.” She adds, “Then again, I usually feel that way in Sweden.” Elsa is painfully aware of the feeling of foreignness. As she moves from the South Pole to Sweden to California, she never feels that she truly belongs. She exists temporarily in these places to finish her tasks, so she can move on to the next place.
The threads of Elsa’s story unravel and knot. Hur transforms familiar Korean folktales with a distinctly female eye. While the fairytales are compiled by “educated men,” Hur details that they have “descended from much older sources, many from much older sources, many of them women tellers, the majority illiterate. Such tales were born in the field, in the kitchens, around the hearth—embellished and personalized—passed across villages and down through generations.” Hur breaks up the text with her women-focused retellings as subsection titles: “Sister Shim Cheong” (based on the folktale, The Tale of Shim Cheong), “Sister Princess” (The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl), “Sister Nymph” (The Woodcutters and the Nymph), “Sister Fox” (The Fox Sister), “Sister Ancestress” (the history of Heo Hwang-ok), “Sister Shadow,” and “Princess Bari” (Sister Bari). The female characters’ struggle, pain, and triumph take center stage as they relate a tall tale of sisterhood and a distinct version of Korean-ness.
Hur’s novel is as intricate as it is messy. The author’s ambitious inclusion of various movies and tales convolutes the novel’s progress. Without prior knowledge of both American popular culture and Korean history, the novel is quite hard to decipher. However, the novel’s poetic language sweeps the reader up in its journey of self-discovery. As Hur remarks in her acknowledgements, this is “a different kind of genealogy book, with more myth and magic.”
SO YOUNG KOO is a PhD student in the Literature, Media, and Culture program at Florida State University. She has studied English at the University of Texas at Dallas (MA) and the University of Texas at Austin (BA). She focuses on Asian/Asian American literature and media, specifically on the transnational cross-pollination of literature and media in the cultural psyche.
ANGELA HUR received a BA in English Literature from Harvard and an MFA in Creative Writing from Notre Dame, where she won the Sparks Fellowship and the Sparks Prize, a post-graduate fellowship. Her debut The Queens of K-Town was published by MacAdam/Cage in 2007. It has been assigned in Korean-American literature classes at Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of British Columbia, and University of Seoul. Hur taught English Literature and Creative Writing at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in Seoul, Korea. She also taught for Writopia, a U.S. nonprofit providing creative writing workshops for children and teens. While living in Stockholm, Sweden, she worked as a staff editor for SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. She is currently living in Stockholm, with her husband and children.
Folklorn was chosen by Kelly Link for a Tin House novel mentorship through the Tin House Summer Workshop, where Hur also studied with Alexander Chee and Mat Johnson, and later with Peter Ho Davies at the Napa Valley Writers Conference.