Wordy Wednesday: The Last Exiles by Ann Shin
I grew up in a primarily white community with little diversity. Going to a Big Ten university, I got schooled on race, gender, and sexuality. But as a young adult, I still found all things Asian felt foreign to me.
Then I moved to Southern California, where I suddenly felt like the minority among people of color. Here it’s easier to find good pho, curry, or ramen than it is to find a good burger. My hairdresser is a grandmother who immigrated from Vietnam. The local libraries have not just a Spanish section, but a Mandarin section.
I began working at a tutoring center whose students hail from China. On my second day at work I came face to face with my innate bias: I realized the only memory hook I had saved away to recognize my student was that she was an Asian girl. Well, half the students in the place were Asian girls. More specifically, Chinese girls. (And the other half were Chinese boys.) I had to do better, and I did do better.
A continent that was once uniformly foreign to me became differentiated and familiar as I met individuals from its various countries and learned about distinct cultural characteristics. The books I read also educated me: Pachinko by Min Jee Lee, Dear Girls by Ali Wong, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, and more recently The Last Exiles by Ann Shin.
The Last Exiles stars Suja and Jin, North Korean university students of contrasting backgrounds. Suja comes from wealth and plans to be a photojournalist like her father. Jin is a scholarship student whose family lives in rural poverty. Jin is accused of a crime that sends him to prison for life. When Suja hears of Jin’s escape she runs away to find him. While they are sure of their love for each other, neither knows whether the risks that they take will lead them to each other once again.
I read The Last Exiles quickly because so much of it was hard to read. As in, the characters endure horrific hardship as they flee North Korea. But when it was all over, I was left with the feeling, Wow that was intense.
This is one of those rare books that I think will make a better movie than book. I could picture it as I read it, and some of the scenes seemed very Hollywood rather than literary. I yearned for more character development and was overwhelmed by the plot’s quick (and somewhat unrealistic) timeline.
The Last Exiles gave me a small window into what immigration looks like between countries in Asia, how tenuous the line between refugee and trafficked human is, as well as what life in North Korea is like for men and for women, for the wealthy and the poor. Sometimes the best way to learn these things is through a gripping story in which you have no idea how it will end.
Today’s words come from The Last Exiles by Ann Shin. With each word I provide the sentence in which I found it, its Oxford definition, and a sentence of my own using the word. Enjoy!
“While his father ground himself down with penurious aims, Jin rebelled against that closefisted impulse and spun the energy outward, attacking everything with a fierce ambition” (15).
extremely poor; poverty-stricken.
Even as a child she was money-focused: she knew from an early age that the penurious life was not for her, and as she grew older she did whatever it took to ensure she lived with the financial means to buoy herself above the rest of society.
“The chief editor, Mr. Moon, was up at the flats, red-faced and spluttering, yelling at the editors who stood around him, desultory, penitent; cigarette smoke coiled over their heads in a cloud of discontent” (9-10).
Adjective: lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm.
(of conversation or speech) going constantly from one subject to another in a halfhearted way; unfocused.
occurring randomly or occasionally.
With a desultory shrug of the shoulders, the teen replied, “I’ll clean my room later,” and returned to his video game, oblivious to his mother’s quiet fury.