The Queens of Ktown by Angela Mi Young Hur
Told from the vantage point of the main character Cora, at age 16 and in her late 20s, the themes of this story are familiar. Both a coming-of-age and search-for-identity story not unusual for children of immigrants, the story begins with Cora witnessing a suicide, and then the time shifts chapter to chapter, somewhat confusingly, to months leading up to that suicide, many years after, and shortly after. Intertwined with this structure is Cora’s family story of her mother gone to Seoul, allegedly to take care of her dying father, but in reality creating a marital separation. Cora’s father moves his two daughters to Brooklyn. Cora, already feeling disconnected with her KA identity and now apparently feeling abandoned, has reckless sex, rampant alcohol and drug use, and finds three new girlfriends that immerse her into the nightclub culture of Korea Town in New York City. The relationships and alliances of these friends shift, and Cora finds herself drawn, with disastrous results, to the girl who is the most recent immigrant, Soo Young, who speaks little English.
The beginning of the book is written sharply. It is intelligent with wit and refreshing insight into the Korean American youth 1.5-generation experience. The way the book is structured is challenging, as it wasn’t clear until the very end what the actual sequence of events was, leading to a sense of feeling lost that is reflective of the character’s predominant state of being. Moments of Korean history are inserted as well as certain cultural iconography, such as shamanism, and these feel less like they derive from the character as they have the sense of feeling pasted in. Hur’s skilled prose is remarkable, and many will feel an alliance to the nightlife culture and the identity struggles of this protagonist.