Home Was Anywhere With Diesel Gas: Kim Han-min’s Kafe Limbo

Hey readers,

Sora painted an uncannily accurate picture of me, so I won’t add anything by way of introduction except that I don’t crash bicycles.

I merely fly over the handlebar.


I came across a graphic novel called 혜성을 닮은 방 or A Comet Study, also by Kim Han-min, a few years ago and quite enjoyed the detail-obsessed style of it.

comet 1

Mobile personal space over Seoul-esque landscape

His lines are very clean and each detail is unfailingly neat and deliberate, which is how I would describe the way he constructs his fictional worlds and the rules by which they operate. The world of A Comet Study is so complex that even as I think about it now (after three close reads of this three-volume graphic novel, because I am that kind of nerd), I can’t articulate what it is about, except that it involves at least three levels of consciousness, two of which I can sort of identify. The motivation that drives most plots and characters in the book is the need to understand one another and repair interpersonal relationships. For instance, Mui (무이) the main character has a falling out with his best friend who stops speaking altogether, and must travel to the Echobook Library to find the plant’s “echobook” (a book in which every internal monologue you’ve ever had is recorded) so he can figure out what the matter is. I realize now that I’ve identified the sappiest of all the plots and subplots, but I took away something very different each time I read it, and was moved every time.

The main focus of this posting, before I get distracted by another rabbit hole, is this:

kl cover

Kafe Limbo by Kim Han-min

Kafe Limbo explores the same themes that A Comet Study did–but in a more accessible way. Also a graphic novel, Kafe Limbo is about “limbos,” or “… those who don’t belong anywhere. Not only do they not belong, they don’t have the desire to belong.” The limbos live in a country called “82” where people are pressured to conform and the end goal of every being (the conformed, non-limbos are called “Roaches”) is to be married.


The meat-eaters

The limbos’ mission is to find their “mirrors” before the age of thirty-four. (What is a mirror, you say? “A mirror can be something that reveals my identity, or shows me the path I should choose, or tasks I should undertake. A mirror also reflects who I am. Is a mirror a person? Of course. And don’t forget! You can use a mirror only when it’s broken.”) That is apparently the age when everyone turns Roach by default. And in the meantime, the limbos must find a way to get out of 82. Finally, a graphic novel about liminoids who must choose between being normal and being happy even if it means geographical location change? But don’t commence eye roll sequence just yet.

verbal abuse

Verbal assault

Kim Han-min grew up in Denmark and Sri Lanka, developing a third culture man perspective which comes into play in Kafe Limbo. The limbos are torn between a desire to leave 82 and the desire to find their “mirrors” in 82. On the one hand, the limbos are encouraged to the leave the country that will eventually “kill” them, but on the other hand, they continue the search for non-Roach people to validate their existence.

kafe limbo

Limbos at the immigration office

The meticulous world-building, including the back stories of each of the six limbos, reflects Kim Han-min’s affection for his characters and the touching struggle to make sense of 82 society that borders on genuine affection/concern for those who populate 82. I will admit this book does oversimplify things on occasion, but it hit me a few days after reading the book that this book is not so much a commentary on 82 as how liminoids navigate through a country like 82.

kafe limbo child

“Alas, they were crushing the child with too great a force.”

And there’s a twist at the end that I found to be the most simple yet earnest depiction of interpersonal trust and understanding I’ve ever seen or heard.

Someone ought to translate this book for liminoids everywhere.

Bonus: Kim Han-min’s illustrated Hankyoreh column. And his children’s book called Tip Toe TapirCuteness.

“Kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” means I love you

After reading NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan’s review of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, I joined the slew of readers who called it “offensive”, “classless”, “ignorant” and “racist.” (Jenny’s more articulate critique was posted earlier as the inaugural post of this blog.) My exact comment was:

With her racist & punchy “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction,” Ms. Corrigan might wakeup tomorrow and realize that she’s become the Alexandra Wallace (of “ching chong ling long” fame) of book reviews.

Maybe a part of me was grasping at meme-straws, but I’ve given myself a few days to think about the review as well as my response to it. I still think the juxtaposition can be productive. First some similarities: Both Corrigan and Wallace showed misjudgment. Both were almost immediately denounced by Asians and non-Asians alike. Both probably regret what they said/wrote.

Though if you read through the comments on the NPR review, in the case of Corrigan, there’s a sense of “How could you, Corrigan?” or “How could you NPR?” We get the feeling that Corrigan’s offense cut deeper; because she’s a professor at Georgetown University and a reviewer for Fresh Air, she should have known better. When we called Corrigan’s comment racist, we did not mean the word in the same way we used it against Wallace’s more garden-variety epithet “ching chong ling long”  (or the way we might call Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh racist).

While I do not know Corrigan’s work well, I have faith as one liberal-minded person might have about another, that she is deeply saddened by the charge, and is probably asking  herself, even now, “What the hell happened?”

But another voice inside her (which best stay inside her, if she cares about PR), is probably saying, “Geez Louise, why are they so sensitive?” Continue reading

Mama mia, NPR!

It’s pretty clear that Maureen Corrigan is not a big fan of family narratives, or “sob sister melodramas,” as she calls Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해, trans. by Kim Chi-young), but her review on NPR’s Fresh Air, “‘Please Look After Mom': A Guilt Trip To The Big City” conflated her distaste for a type of narrative into a condescending, Orientalist, us vs. them dismissal of a culture she doesn’t seem to know much about. And that’s not to mention her simplistic reduction of a feeling of obligation towards one’s mother to a broad stereotype of “ethnicity” in her first sentence: “Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!”

Lest I seem too sentimental, antifeminist (stridently not), or hysterically nationalist in my objection to this review of a Korean author (although not a Korean citizen, and definitely with a big hyphen between the Korean and American parts), let me clarify that I have long harbored a skepticism of the American publishing industry’s love for “mom-daughter-sob sob-now I’ve found my roots and understand myself” especially of the ethnic variety. I was not surprised that this is the Korean novel that is getting so much advance praise and attention; it joins a long list of Asian American fiction that deals with similar themes, only now straight from the source and with a good translation!

The three most recently lauded translations of Korean fiction can be reduced to three categories: cold, dystopian Asian present (Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You with major bonus(!) for including shadowy North Korea which, incidentally, Corrigan also hated); revenge and food fantasies (Jo Kyung-Ran’s Tongue); and family drama centering on strong but devastating/ed mothers (this one). A million bonus points if the works can be compared to Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, or any other known Japanese author. (I should also note that all three works were translated by the same person, Kim Chi-young, who has done Korean literature a great service with her translations.)

Keeping my own skepticism in mind, and adding that I like all three authors I mention above but have my own reservations about this particular work (which I haven’t finished reading yet), here goes…

Continue reading