Younghill Kang (June 5, 1898 — December 2, 1972, Korean name 강용흘) was an important early Asian American writer. He is best known for his 1931 novel The Grass Roof (the first Korean American novel) and its sequel, the 1937 fictionalized memoir East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee. He has been called "the father of Korean American literature."
As a child in Korea, Kang was educated in both Confucian and Christian missionary schools. In 1921, he fled Korea because of his anti-Japanese, pro-independence activism; he went first to Canada, then to the United States. He studied at Boston University and received a graduate degree from Harvard University.
Kang at first wrote in Korean and Japanese, switching to English only in 1928 and under the tutelage of his American wife, Frances Keeley. He worked as an editor for the Encyclopædia Britannica and taught at New York University, where his colleague Thomas Wolfe read the opening chapters of his novel The Grass Roof and recommended it to Scribners publishing house. The book was admired by such other authors as Rebecca West and H. G. Wells, and was considered for a movie adaptation by Hollywood. The Grass Roof was well received in its time, since it seemed to confirm American disdain for Korea. East Goes West, however, criticized the United States and therefore was less popular until the multicultural movement gave it renewed attention.
In addition to The Grass Roof and East Goes West, Kang translated Korean literature into English and reviewed books for The New York Times. Kang also traveled in Europe for two years on a Guggenheim Fellowship, curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and worked as an Asian expert for the U.S. government in both U.S. Military Office of Publications and the Corps Office of Civil Information.
Kang received the Halperine Kaminsky Prize, the 1953 Louis S. Weiss Memorial Prize, and an honorary doctorate from Koryo University.
The Grass Roof
The Grass Roof uses the character of Chungpa Han to depict Kang's life in Korea and to explain his decision to leave. Han chooses to leave Korea rather than join the popular resistance movement fighting for independence from the Japanese; he has been influenced by Western literature and prefers the promises of individualism in the West to the mass movements and nationalism and emphasis on family connections that he sees in Korea, which he views as dying.
East Goes West
East Goes West continues the story of Han (standing in for Kang) and his life in the United States, where he notices how involved his fellow immigrants are in Korean independence and how much they hope to return to their native land. His distance from his fellow immigrants increases his sense of loneliness in his new country; Moreover, his hopes for a new life in the West are never realized, as his dreams exceed the reality of American opportunity at that time. He befriends two other Koreans—Jum and Kim—who are also interested in becoming truly American, but they too have never been able to enter fully into American society. He hopes that furthering his schooling will be the solution, but even a scholarship to college does not solve his problems. As the novel ends, Han has found most of his dreams dashed, except for the Buddhist hope of a life beyond this one.
(as of March 2008)
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