Much of Young-ha Kim’s Black Flower reads is if it is non-fiction, not a novel. It’s that authentic, that convincing an account of the 1033 Koreans who, in 1905, left from Jemulpo Harbor, in Korea, believing they were escaping the political upheaval at home and emigrating temporarily to Mexico to improve their lives. Their assumptions were pretty much the same as immigrants going to the United States to improve their lot. But they had been “sold” to the Mexican owners of large haciendas in Yucatán, under contract to work for four years abiding conditions that were akin to indentured servants, if not slaves. Moreover, none of them knew any Spanish. There were no other Koreans living in Mexico and no diplomatic relations between the two countries. Thus, virtually everything could go wrong—as it did—beginning with the voyage itself.
Easily a third of Kim’s novel is devoted to that difficult passage, in a slightly refurbished British cargo ship called Ilford, designed to hold a third of the number of passengers shoved into it. There were peasants, soldiers, city vagrants, a few aristocrats, and religious figures all misled by The Continental Colonization Company. The men far outnumbered the women. With virtually no worldview, the 1033 Koreans had little idea of what Mexico offered, though Kim nails their misconceptions in one telling sentence: “Mexico, a country with no winter, where there was much land and no people, thus making people as precious as gold, was the land of their dreams.”
The ship’s appalling conditions (for a voyage of more than a month) leveled the class system of its passengers almost immediately. No privacy, sea sickness, and diarrhea created a situation little different than slaves being shipped from Africa to the New World. “Every time an enormous wave crashed against the side of a ship, the passengers in the cargo hold beneath the waterline were tangled together with no regard for decorum, etiquette, or Confucian morality. Embarrassing scenes were continually played out where men and women, aristocrats and commoners were thrust into one corner with their bodies tossed against one another. Chamber pots were overturned or broken, and the vomit and excrement within spilled out on the floor. Curses and sighs, criticism and fistfights were everyday occurrences, and the vile stench did not fade. No one dreamed of such extravagant notions as laundry or bathing. The passengers’ only desire was that the boat would arrive quickly so they could stand on firm land.”
Kim’s focus is on a dozen or so passengers of all ranks and backgrounds. There’s an aristocratic, noble family of four: the father and mother and their teenage daughter and son. Even before the end of the voyage, the daughter, Yeonsu, has lost her virginity to a young man who has formerly lived on the streets. There’s one additional Korean on the ship with privileged status, since he knows a little Spanish and will become a translator once they reach Mexico. There’s a thief, a couple of soldiers, a shaman and even a Korean who’s a Catholic priest, but even that man, Father Paul, has no advantage over the others, since he doesn’t understand a world of Spanish. In one of the more moving incidents in Black Flower, during a revolt at one of the haciendas, Father Paul is brutally beaten the same as the men who instigated the uprising but even when he begins reciting the “Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed” in Latin, the hacendado—the owner of the hacienda—recognizing the Latin, believes that the man is possessed by Satan. So he’s beaten even harder.
Once the setting is Mexico, Black Flower, becomes a story of survival, under grueling and inhumane conditions, working in the fields, cutting henequen (a kind of hemp) for hours and hours every day. Living conditions are basic, the heat oppressive, food (mostly corn), and although the Koreans are scattered among twenty-two haciendas in Yucatan, “They had been thoroughly deceived by…the Continental Colonization Company. The promise that they would be able to work freely, earn lots of money, and go back home wealthy was just candy coating. This was the reality that all the weak people of Mexico faced; the hacienda system had been making serfs of the natives for hundreds of years. The Koreans were stuck there, cut off from communication or traffic, their eyes darting back and forth like frightened mice, desperately trying to think of a way out of a horrible situation.”
Worse, there is no Korea to return to were that even possible. Shortly after they left for Mexico, in November of 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan. Diplomatic authority was henceforth in the hands of the Japanese; the Korean Empire was reduced to a Japanese tributary. The Koreans do not learn about their homeland’s status for several years. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, officially ending the Korean Empire. By that time the Koreans in Mexico were aware of what had happened at home. So even after their contracts expired, “almost no one tried to return to Korea.”
The human stories of Black Flower, carefully weaving class and gender into half a dozen interesting sub-plots, shift to a military focus two-thirds of the way into what has until that time been a thoroughly engaging novel. Then the Mexican revolution hijacks the narrative of Kim’s Korean workers in Yucatán and the story feels less like a novel than history. I won’t tell you all of the things that happen to Kim’s central characters once the revolution breaks out other than to say that the author himself may have felt that his creativity was taken over by historical fact. I draw than conclusion because in the novel’s “Epilogue,” Kim tells us what happened to each and every one of these characters after a number of them migrated to Guatemala and, in 1916, attempted to create their own state called “New Korea.”
In an “Author’s Note” at the end of Black Flower, Young-ha Kim identifies the historical documents (newspapers published in San Francisco by Korean immigrants, journals of the original immigrants and their descendants, none of whom spoke Korean) he relied on to write his novel. Recreating their collective story was obviously a challenge, though the results (especially in Charles La Shure’s often wooden translation) are less than inspiring.
Young-ha Kim: Black Flower
Trans. by Charles La Shure
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.