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a step from heaven

22 march 2012

An Na's A Step from Heaven, the 2002 Printz Award winner, is a novel sparing of words and chary with exposition. Like many a novel forged in MFA programs, it is made up of small episodes. One imagines that the workshop process lends itself to this kind of composition. I can't see Gabriel García Márquez or Marcel Proust getting much done in a writer's workshop; there would hardly be time for the class to parse one sentence in a typical session. But it takes all kinds of texts to make a literature, and there's plenty of room for novels built out of suggestive, detachable sketches. A Step from Heaven is good of its kind, and what it lacks in large-scale structures it makes up for with persistent attention to the nature of cultural transition.

Among other things, A Step from Heaven is as good as any American novel at depicting what it's like to move from one language to another. The literature of the immigrant experience, particularly of Asian immigrants and even specifically of Korean immigrants, is vast and getting vaster. In such texts, one problem is always how to treat the watershed from completely Asian experience to hyphenated America. The authors of these books,are gorgeously fluent in idiomatic American English; how to represent their initial struggles with the language and culture? (As well as the profounder struggles of their never-to-be-fluent parents.)

Some Korean-American authors, opt for various strategies of detachment and distance. Chang-Rae Lee in particular (writing for adults) deploys an ironic postmodernism in his best-known novel, Native Speaker. An Na in A Step from Heaven chooses instead a modernist immersion reminiscent of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A Step from Heaven spans protagonist/narrator Park Young Ju's whole childhood, from her coming to consciousness in Korea to her preparing for college in California. The effects in the early chapters of A Step from Heaven are complex and memorable. Young Ju is first a child in her native language, then doubly a child in two languages, then increasingly at home in both, even as her facility with English far outstrips her parents'. The transition is beautifully paced and (at least to monolingual me) entirely convincing.

The overall story is familiar. The Park family has a hard time in America. Much of this is due to personal failings on the part of Young Ju's father, a violent alcoholic. But some is just part and parcel of coming to a place where they do things differently. Americans exhibit sloppy bonhomie and a certain lack of boundaries; the Parks by contrast appear hugely uptight. Misunderstandings abound; so do deliberate deceptions meant to save face and conceal shame. Things go from bad to worse, and we learn lessons about women's self-actualization, domestic violence, and the universal nature of patriarchy. None of the things we learn are trivial; we've just seen them before in many a novel about many a culture. (And in the manner of most Young Adult fiction, things work themselves out; they get worse before they get better, but get better, in the end, they must.)

The special virtues of A Step from Heaven are therefore in its small, telling details about a gifted, high-verbal girl who has to deal with intercultural nuances that escape both her Korean family and her American friends. It is the drama of hyperfluency – which is to say, it's pretty much every writer's personal drama.

An Na. A Step from Heaven. 2001. New York: Speak [Penguin], 2002.