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Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan by Elizabeth Kim + Author Interview [in aOnline]

Ten Thousand SorrowsA Legacy of Survival

What began as a casual lunch in San Francisco with a then-business acquaintance ended in a cathartic literary accomplishment for journalist Elizabeth Kim. After exchanging life stories, agent Patti Breitman recognized a potentially bestselling memoir. She took the idea to Doubleday, secured a lucrative book deal – reportedly in the mid-six figures – and presented the contract to Kim. Surprised that anyone would want to read her story, Kim nevertheless spent the next year writing about her tragic, difficult life. The result is the critically acclaimed Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan.

The spare work is a tribute to human endurance. It opens with the young Kim in Korea bearing witness to the murder of her beloved mother by her own grandfather and uncle. Deemed an “honor killing,” Kim’s Omma pays the ultimate price for disgracing the family by giving birth to a honhyol, a mixed child out of wedlock – a nonperson. When Kim bursts out from her hiding place in sheer terror, her uncle grabs her and punishes her by taking a lit match to her genitals and buttocks. Instead of killing her, Kim is “saved” by her uncle’s wife, who abandons her in an orphanage run by western Christian missionaries. There she lives as a caged animal in a crib that is so small that she is not even able to stretch out her small limbs.

Six months later, Kim is adopted, sight unseen, by an older, childless Baptist fundamentalist couple in California. She is transported from Seoul by a kind man, the first person to show her any humanity since her mother, but then abandoned to a loud, strange couple who terrify her. The initial reaction is not unwarranted: Kim lives a life of constant physical and mental abuse. At 17, she is married off to a deacon in her adoptive parents’ church, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who begins the daily pattern of brutal beatings on their wedding night. Only after the birth of her daughter does Kim have the courage to finally leave – she did not want her child to witness the death of her mother. She begins life anew with her precious Leigh, eventually becoming a journalist, specializing in covering violent crimes. She lifts herself out of poverty, survives rape, and even makes a tentative peace with her obsession with suicide. Kim is, to use her own words, “a living testament to the magnificence of the human spirit.”

Did you use the name Kim as any part of your full name growing up? If not, when did you adopt it as your name? How did you come to choose that name?
The name Kim was on my naturalization papers because it was the most common one in the part of Korea I came from. I used my adoptive parents’ name when growing up, then my ex-husband’s name. A few years ago I decided – as I was trying to get back in touch with my heritage – to take back my original name as well.

What kind of relationship do you have now with your adoptive parents? What kind of relationship does your daughter Leigh have with them
I have a loving, albeit somewhat distant, relationship with them. I know that they did the best they could with the knowledge and skills they had. I’m taking care of them in their old age and seeing them as frail, needy people makes me feel more tender toward them and more forgiving of their foibles. My daughter’s relationship with them is much the same. We visit them together and make sure they’re well taken care of, but we don’t discuss deep, personal things with them.

I’ve read that you have moments where you think you “might lose your mind if [you] cannot have even a snippet of knowledge” about your identity. If you were to go back to Korea, do you think you would recognize your mother’s village from your memories? Have you returned to Korea? If not, do you have any intention of doing so?
I do intend to go back at some point, but I haven’t been able to yet. I don’t know what, if anything, is still there from my childhood. Certainly it will be a voyage of discovery. However, a friend of mine who did go to Korea to research things for me says the village is no longer there; it has been swallowed up by Seoul. …[click here for more]

Author interview: “A Legacy of Survival,” aOnline website, July 1, 2000

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000


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