“(Post-)Diaspora Home-searching in Shelter (2016)” by Jeff Chow

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Published in 2016, Jung Yun’s debut novel Shelter presents a gripping tale of suffocation and immobility within the illusion of familial comfort. The book starts off with Kyung, a thirty-six-year-old professor and his wife, Gillian, in the middle of a house deal. The meeting with the agent is cut short, however, when Kyung’s mother, Mae, appears in the backyard naked. The novel follows the aftermath of the violent incident that occurred to Kyung’s parents who now reside with their son. But though the story follows an almost conventional ‘homecoming’ narrative, Yun’s Shelter critically draws attention to not merely the homecoming of the parents, but also the haunting past, violence and the diaspora quest of finding a ‘home’.

Though race politics runs through the novel, a (post-)diaspora reading could also be adopted when considering the relationship between Kyung and his immigrant parents. The notion of ‘home’ in the novel is painfully and repeatedly broached, given Kyung’s repulsion and resentment towards his parents when he reflects,

“… he’s not a good son: he knows this already. But he’s the best possible version of the son they raised him to be. Present, but not adoring. Helpful, but not generous. Obligated and nothing more.”

Realising he is not his father’s ideal ‘good son’, Kyung finds a temporal shelter by forming a new family — here in Yun’s novel it functions as a site of redemption and reinvention. But now with his parents returned, Kyung’s own family is suddenly suspended — as he begins ‘to accept the possibility that his fortunes will never change… how he followed his father’s example, but produced such different results.’ But such suspension could be read as a diasporic inheritance — now that Kyung has to find ways to seek a new home like his parents once did.

“If an immigrant could come to this country and make something of himself, his son would surely continue that line of progress, multiplying the gains of one generation for the next. Kyung, however, hasn’t moved the line forward so much as back.”

Much like traditional familial literary tales, the plot of homecoming (like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Harold Pinter’s Homecoming and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections) reveals the anxiety veiled under the presumed familial comfort. The notion of ‘home’, as Yun writes, is not of its physical attributes but more a mental landscape. The very first scene of the novel foreshadows the uneasy quest of home-searching, and the anxiety continues to haunt the immigrant family. Although other reviews have commented that the narrative at times might feel a bit over the top, the narrative as a whole is propelled by a precise suffocation within the family.

The success of Yun’s novel is more due to its plot than the prose style in which she successfully draws a precise line in portraying the family as a site of reinvention or brutal devastation. And it is this excessive mental suffocation that becomes a vehicle for escape and refuge-seeking, pushing through each turn of the page.

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Processed with VSCOJeff Chow is a third-year student at the Department of English Language and Literature. When not reading, he is busy making puns. [Read all entries by or about Jeff.]

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