Christina Park explores Korean ancestry in first novel

In her first novel, The Houses We Build on Ashes, Christina Park tells the story of a Korean woman, Nara Lee, and the impact on her life of the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the Busan fire in 1953 and her move to Vancouver.

Montreal writer says immigrant stories need to be a greater part of Canadian literary landscape

Montreal writer Christina Park discusses her first novel, The Houses We Build on Ashes. (Frank Opolko/CBC )

Montreal writer Christina Park works in technology and finance, but grew up in a family of academics that included a prominent Korean novelist.

Now, the Vancouver native and second-generation Korean Canadian explores what her ancestry means in her first book, The Homes We Build on Ashes.

The novel is inspired by her own grandmother's story including how she lost her home in the great fire in Busan, Korea in 1953, a fire that destroyed the homes of at least 28,000 people.

The main character, Nara Lee, lives through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Second World War, the hardships of the Korean War as well as the Busan fire and then her life in Canada.

Park decided to tell the story from the perspective of one woman and the various homes she lived in and lost, including that home in Busan.

"I anchor those really big events in the homes in which she lives: her father's ancestral home, an insidious orphanage," Park told me.  

"She works as a slave labourer in a factory so for a while that is home, in a tent after the fire in Busan. Whether war or immigration, it's always about destruction and rebuilding."

Park believes immigrant stories need to be part of the Canadian literary landscape.

"I'll make a fairly sweeping generalization and it's probably a little bit unfair, but I'd say some Canadian readers tend to shy away from immigrant stories because they tend to be about struggle and invariably they do have elements of racism in them. So it really does talk a little bit about the darker side of Canada, and who likes that?" she said.

"If you think about it, Canada has very unique position in the world, we welcome cultures from all over the world our palate is quite diverse so why not our taste in literature as well."

The author would also like to change the way we regard Korean women who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese. 

One of the childhood friends of Nara became what's known as a 'comfort woman,' a term used to describe those who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army around the time of the Second World War.

"I personally find the term 'comfort women' quite objectionable," she said.

"It's almost offensive. It continues to baffle me why we still label these poor women from the perspective of the soldier. These were women and girls who were kidnapped or tricked and then coerced and forced into a militarized form of sexual slavery. The comfort part was to bring comfort to the soldiers.

"In fact what they went through was heinous and horrible. If I affect any kind of change I'd love to change the language around that and shift the perspective back to the women and give them the justice that they deserve."

Christina Park will be at Paragraphe Bookstore on Thursday, Oct. 22, for a book launch, and on Cinq à six this Saturday at 5 p.m. on CBC Radio One.

About the Author

Jeanette Kelly

Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.


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