It was such a wonderful experience to co-write a book with my talented daughter, Elisabeth Sophia Lee.
By Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
“There is no greater agony, than bearing an untold story inside you” – Maya Angelou
Mother Daughter Speak: A Journey of Co-writing
The written word is a powerful source of change; it moves people, drawing them out of their familiar realities and bringing them into new ones, imagined and true. It lures us to question what we know and become open to formulating new ideas that challenge our world view. It is a tool that has continually captured my attention, and given me courage to think differently and have hope. At times, writing has saved me; characters offered me refuge, and their stories illuminated truths in my life that have endured overtime.
This is why I write. As painful and anxiety-inducing as this act can be, writing is something that I have always felt necessary to do. Years ago, when I decided to co-write a book with my daughter, I knew that I would be taking on a significant challenge. Co-writing in itself is difficult, but to do it with family is even harder. It is more personal, more emotional, and more likely to cause conflict. The aim for the book was to both represent my immigrant perspective, and my daughter’s as a child of an immigrant seeking to make sense of her Korean heritage. It became a cross-generational dialogue between me and my daughter on climate change, racism, faith, relationships and loss. I sought to share the perspectives of a mother and daughter on issues that are both intimate and social, to shed light on female perspectives from two different stages of life.
My immigrant story began on a cold January day when my mother, older sister, and I landed at the Toronto Pearson Airport in 1975. Understandably, I had no idea what was happening, and I certainly did not understand the life changing move that was about to come. However, there was one change that I noticed quickly; my nuclear family now only had each other. During my early life in Korea, I was never alone. There are about thirty cousins on each side of our family, so I fortunately was always able to play, eat, learn, and share with them. I look back at that time so fondly, and am so grateful that I had this time to be surrounded by so many of my loved ones as a young girl.
All of this changed when my father decided to immigrate to Canada. We moved to a country without our extended family or knowledge of the language. From then on, we had only each other.
It was lonely. Suddenly I went from being around everyone to being around no one. I was no longer able to enjoy time with my friends and the company of people I knew. Not only were those familiar faces extracted from my life, but familiar places as well. We now lived in a six-story apartment complex which was far from glamorous. The building had been run down over time, often times making my adjustment to this new life even harder. I remember that the elevator was something out of my nightmares, which frequently trapped me inside.
I can vividly recall a time when I was stuck in the elevator and sank to the floor and had a breakdown; the loss of extended family and feelings of loneliness had overwhelmed me. I felt estranged from the only family I had. Just as I was stuck in this confined space, I was also constrained in this new immigrant life. As a young girl, I longed for familiarity. I wanted to be surrounded by my family again, and have someone to save me from this painful boredom.
The complaints were ceaseless; yet my mother seldom reacted to my grumblings; in fact, she rather liked being alone. One might imagine that the loneliness of my childhood would have deepened my bond to my mother. But for some reason, it never really grew. In hindsight, I am sure there are many factors involved, but in part, it had to do with the dichotomy of cultures and our very different ways of reckoning with such differences.
While I was slowly adopting to the white culture of Canada, my parents desperately clung onto their Korean culture and language. The Korean church offered weekly Korean language and culture school, which my parents faithfully took us to all throughout our elementary and middle school years. The church offered our family a piece of our Korean heritage that my mother desperately longed for. As I grew older and resisted much of my Korean heritage, a large cultural gap developed between my parents and me. At times, it was painfully difficult to communicate. My Korean language skills did not develop beyond the kindergarten level, and since my own mother was never able to really communicate in English, there were frequent breakdowns in communication and attempts of expression that were lost in translation.
I was too embarrassed by our improvised apartment furnishings to invite friends over. My bruised self-worth deterred me from fully enjoying my childhood—it felt as if there were so many superficial barriers keeping me from being happy. But ultimately, it was the distance between my me and my mother that chewed away at my potential for enjoyment. It was a distance and feeling that remained until she passed away. I wish the separation had never existed, and I often wonder whether it would have had we stayed in Korea.
Throughout my childhood, I would dream about starting my own family and wonder how things would turn out with my children. Would we have good relationships with one another, or would there inevitably be unbridgeable gaps between us carried on from my own parental alienation?
It takes a lot to rear children towards respecting and liking you, rather than simply rebelling against you. This is a big accomplishment—if you can ever get there. Now, as a mother of three children, I wonder at times if I am raising them in a way that is healthy, nurturing, and empowering. Doubt arises when something goes wrong with my children. I question whether I am a good mother or role model. I often imagine myself as my own mother, and look at myself from the position of an outsider, wondering if my children are embarrassed of me, like I was with my mother growing up.
Trying to maintain any role as a mother and scholar has come with plenty of challenges, but one of the many advantages of learning to harmonize this balance is the opportunity to collaborate with my daughter. The book we co-wrote, Mother Daughter Speak, explores some of our family dynamics and relationships. The book shares our sentiments relating to countless difficult issues we have faced in our lives. How do we sustain meaningful friendships, build strong marriages, reflect on our Christian faith, and work towards a just society? As we tackle these issues in our book, we recognize that building healthy families will strengthen our communities and our society. It is my belief that the network of the family sustains the backbone of thriving communities, and in order to build and sustain peaceful societies, we must begin practicing justice in our homes.
Mother Daughter Speak, explores some of the most important issues of our time: climate change, racism, faith, relationships, sexism, and social media. Mothers and daughters bear an extremely special relationship. Though tense at times, these relationships can hold the promise of becoming healthy, empowering, and nurturing.
My hope is that this book will speak to a wide audience, having the ability to connect women from diverse life stages and generational divides. It is a journey that connects the matured and the young, and has allowed me personally to not only learn about my own daughter, but to learn from her. It was a project that, at times, I thought would never be completed. But with encouragement from each other, collaboration, dedication, and commitment to sharing our stories, we were able to finish our book, offering it as a source of encouragement, joy, and love to those in our community and beyond.
An Abridged Version
Grace Ji-Sun Kim obtained her M.Div. from Knox College (University of Toronto) and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion.
She is the author or editor of 16 books most recently, Intersectional Theology (Fortress Press) co-written with Susan Shaw, Healing Our Broken Humanity (IVP) co-written with Graham Hill, Embracing the Other (Eerdmans); Contemplations from the Heart; Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit(Palgrave); The Holy Spirit, Chi and the Other (Palgrave Macmillan); and The Grace of Sophia (Pilgrim Press).