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15 Hawai‘i Books to Read This Summer

Our annual quest to track down this year’s can’t-miss books from local authors and publishers.


(page 3 of 4)


Photo: Leslie Oyama 

In Brenda Kwon’s new book from Bamboo Ridge, The Sum of Breathing, Hawai‘i has found a poet on a spiritual journey. 


Brenda Kwon’s debut book, The Sum of Breathing, doesn’t fit into any box. Like Kwon, a literature and writing professor at Honolulu Community College and a yoga teacher (she also plays in a band), the book is a bit of an outsider, in the most wonderful way.


It’s at once about the Korean-American experience, the mother-daughter relationship, alienation and skepticism of men, blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, spoken word and poetry. The combination makes for a fascinating look at the journey from girlhood to womanhood, told through an intoxicating experiment in narrative structure.


“When you have artistic inclinations, you’re going to be an outsider,” Kwon says. “Feeling marginalized, wanting to belong, is part and parcel of what it means to be creative.”


Shifting between poems and stories, it’s sometimes hard to pin down who is really Kwon in this work. How much of this is Kwon’s imagination and how much of it is really her? As she explains, part of this effect is because she wrote the book (without intending it to be a book) over a period of 10 years or so. 


“I was writing about things I was trying to process, so it’s very autobiographical, while at the same time I’m letting characters become their own people,” Kwon says.


The recurrent themes become clear rather quickly: Kwon’s stories are about the women in her life, particularly her mother and grandmother. 


In “The Wake,” we’re introduced to Sara, whose halmeoni, or grandmother, is blind and living in a care home. Sara is soon confronted with death and her mother’s grief. What also strikes readers is the near absence of men in the story. We experience generations of women supporting one another as they face the hard reality of their own mortality.


“We’re from a family of women,” Kwon says. “Until one of my cousins had a son, it was always us girls. I just strongly identified with the female authority figures in my life.”


Kwon’s dad passed away when she was 17 years old, and she didn’t know either of her grandfathers. This absence of men shows up frequently in The Sum of Breathing, often as Kwon’s pining to know them. Take, for instance, the poem “Smile,” a meditation on a photograph in which her father had coaxed her into smiling. 


The Sum of Breathing 


The stranger who took the photograph saw “a father who loved his daughter so much that the point was less to smile than to simply testify we had spent one day together; a Sunday we mistook for countless among many, rather than rare among few,” Kwon writes.


Because the book was written in pieces over 10 years, Kwon says organizing the book made her realize that at the very heart of her work is her mother. “I have a piece called ‘Flight’ and there’s a line in there that says she’s the background rhythm to the words. That was really the case with putting the book together.”


In “Mul,” we’re introduced to Kwon’s admiration of her mother’s beauty and presence in the world. She’s so in awe of her mother that she takes up her mother’s love of ballet in an effort to gain some of her stature. 


“My mother was beautiful in a way I wasn’t,” Kwon writes. “In the pictures of her when she was in high school, her figure defies the wool of her school uniform, her stance a dead giveaway to the hours she spent dancing.”


Kwon says she wasn’t sure how her mom would react to the book, especially since so much of it is centered around her.


“She had come to my opening, and she called me that Monday to say she stayed up to 2 in the morning reading the book,” Kwon says. “She said, ‘I didn’t know you were paying that much attention to me,’ that I’d been watching her her whole life.”


Kwon says her book also invoked a painful discussion with her mom. “She told me it made her sad because it made her feel like she should have paid more attention to me,” Kwon says. “That was such a hard thing for me to hear. Anytime you’re close to someone, it’s not an easy relationship. There were times when I wish my mother had understood me more. She read the book and she walked away understanding, I think, for the first time what I’d been trying to tell her: We want our mother’s approval. We really do.”


As a Korean-American, Kwon’s work is also about cultural identification and the separateness she feels toward her ancestral land. Kwon took her first trip to Korea in 2001 and, four years later, received a Fulbright to teach at a Korean university. She learned quickly, she says, that she was an outsider.


“It was difficult for me, because I’m a woman and Koreans have very specific ideas about hierarchy and women. I sometimes offended people by the way I would walk or I didn’t have the right body language,” Kwon says. “It didn’t matter that I had Korean blood or that I knew stories about my grandfather fighting for independence.”


Organizing the pieces in The Sum of Breathing into a cohesive narrative presented its own challenge. Over and over again, Kwon says she was challenged by Bamboo Ridge editors Eric Chock and Darrell Lum to reorganize the book.


“Initially, I grouped it together according to genre. There was a spoken-word section, there was poetry, memoir, short stories, and they said, ‘No, we don’t like it. Try again,’” Kwon says. “Eventually I realized there’s such a thing as being close to your own work. They saw themes that were coming out that I didn’t realize were there.”


In the end, Kwon says she realized that The Sum of Breathing is a narrative about her own evolution. Eventually, her yoga training helped her create the book.


“It became very yogic, like a journey through the chakras. To me, it was about this movement of starting from the beginning, where you have this need for nurturing, to becoming your own person, and then what it means to go out and nurture,” Kwon says. 


What Will Brenda Kwon Read This Summer?

My Struggle, Book 3

By Karl Ove Knausgaard


The Grandmothers

By Doris Lessing


Birds of Paradise Lost

By Andrew Lam


Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

By Jill Leovy


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