At Manga Bookshelf’s Off the Shelf, Michelle Smith and I discuss Kim Dong Hwa’s Color trilogy (The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and he Color of Heaven) published in English by First Second. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion:
MELINDA: Let’s get right to the meat of things. There’s been a lot of discussion among critics about whether or not this series is inherently sexist. Michelle, I’d like to start with bringing up a statement you made in your recent review of The Color of Heaven:
“I know that the limited scope of life for a woman in this time and place is historically accurate, and that for a mother to say, “There is nothing better in life than getting married” reflects a period where marriage provided the ultimate in protection for a woman … To be honest, I think a large part of my ire is due to the fact that The Color Trilogy is written by a man. If a woman wrote these things, I’d still be annoyed, but coming from a male author I can’t help but read such statements as downright condescending. Try as I might to view these attitudes through a historical lens, I’m simply unable to get over my knee-jerk reaction.”
First of all, I wouldn’t characterize your reaction as knee-jerk at all. I think what you’re reacting to (and I mentioned this in comments, but I’ll reiterate it here) is not the story’s historical context, but the author’s own sexism which he reveals in the way he portrays the realities of the period. My immediate thought upon finishing the series was that I found it inexpressibly sad. Ehwa’s mother spends almost the entire series teaching her daughter about what a woman’s life is in their world and helping her learn how to endure a lifetime of waiting and heartache that can only be relieved by the companionship of a beloved man. And I suspect there is quite a bit of historical accuracy in this sense of utter helplessness and lack of worth placed on a single woman in that period.
But despite the bleakness of their circumstances, Kim portrays it all with a loving nostalgia. Even when expressing the sadness and longing felt by Ehwa and her mother as they wait for their men, he portrays it all as beautiful and even romantic. This isn’t matter of being true to the period. These are Kim’s own values being revealed here, and that’s what we’re reacting to. The same story could be told without that veil of fond nostalgia and it would read very, very differently. If this series had actually been written during that time period, that would be different matter as well, but Kim is a contemporary writer, and as such, he’s responsible to contemporary readers for the story he’s chosen to tell and how he tells it.
Read the full discussion here.