The Colors Trilogy
Created by: Kim Dong Hwa
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596434589 (Amazon)
A couple weeks ago it was Banned Books Week, a national celebration of those works that have been challenged by adults who believe in sequestering away literature that does not adequately line up with their particular ideological yardstick. It’s rare that these challenges are meant as outright bans. Rather than seek to remove a work completely from the range of literature available to a society, these challengers wish to keep the targeted books from the access of young readers—children whom they do not feel are ready to engage the maturity of the work within.
This kind of thing isn’t rare to our society. Our theaters restrict six-year-olds from seeing Rated-R films unaccompanied by an adult guardian. We, as a society, have chosen to prohibit junior highers from purchasing pornography. Websites that offer sexually explicit materials provide at least tacit barriers to prevent the young and the innocent from enjoying the adult fare within. That we even term such entertainments as “adult” gives evidence to the general consensus that there are things that are for children and things that are not.
Girl in a field of grasses and flowers? Ban it!
Still, when it comes to literature, we (as a society) tend to hold to a set of rules. We fear the removal of books for what that says about a “free” society. We’ve been nursed at the tit of Fahrenheit 451. We associate the ban of books with Nazis and totalitarians and fundamentalist religious weirdos. When we hear of libraries whose books have been challenged, our hackles raise and we express righteous indignation against the backwards moralist who would dare target a particular work—forgetting that we live peaceably day-in and day-out with the MPAA, an organization that with capricious arbitration polices the availability of the cinematic literature.
We should not be governed by fear. We should take every opportunity to approach the news of a “banned” book rationally. We should examine what banned means in the reported instance. We should inquire whether the issue is an outright ban (as in several cases involving “adult” comics in Canada and Australia) or if it’s merely a lone challenger to a school system’s library. Or maybe it’s even a simple issue of shelving a book like Blankets in the children’s section of a library. We need to consider the reason for the challenge. Was it for racially charged language, as in Huckleberry Finn's era-appropriate use of “nigger”? Was it for ideological differences, such as Athanasius’ conflagration of books that strayed from his view of orthodoxy? Or was it for what a society deems to be obscene content, as when Lady Chatterly’s Lover encountered abiding censorship across the English-speaking world? The nature of the charge, the environment in which the challenge was given, and the recommended sanction are essential in considering the legitimacy of our concern for the removal of books.
So it was with interest that I read that the second book on the ALA’s list of most challenged literature last year was Kim Dong Hwa’s Colors trilogy (made of The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven). The Korean series had been on my to-read queue for a bit over a year now, but new releases and returning to old favourites seemed to be forever pushing it back. When I saw that it had been so frequently challenged, I thought it would make a great second half of my Banned Books Week week of reviewing. And it would have been. Unfortunately,11You’ll understand here, I hope, that when I say “unfortunately,” I’m actually just lying to you. There was nothing unfortunate about reading/experiencing/being mauled by Chris Ware’s behemoth. Sorry, Dong Hwa. Sorry. Building Stories happened and there was no longer any reason to hope that I’d get around to the books in anything resembling a timely manner. Still, after Building Stories finally unsunk its tenterhooks from my span of attention, I had Kim’s trilogy waiting and though it’s no longer timely, I don’t care. I’ve thrown caution to the wind to bring you the PG-est book about teens discovering the sexiness of sex ever.
I’m with you Ehwa. That girl is the crazy sauce.
Which is, apparently the chief reason this series has been challenged over and over again. The teens being teens part, not the PG-ness of the books. It seems those who would challenge the book are happy to overlook how very little hard knowledge Kim’s trilogy could impart on those who don’t already know what he’s talking about.
Kim cloaks his coming-of-sexual-age story in Mother-Natural metaphor. Flowers and beetles and butterflies and summer breezes and fresh rains and chestnuts. These kinds of images dominate both the visual and textual space of Kim’s story. There is not a single discussion of the male-female dynamic (whether overtly sexual or merely in regard to the difference between the sexes) that doesn’t wade chest high in rather florid use of natural imagery. Everything is so very poetic—and therefore, so very obscured.
You know how in Austen Powers, Elizabeth Hurley holds halved melons in front of her chest? Or obscures her breasts by pouring from a pitcher of milk? It’s like that but less obvious. A chili pepper stands in for a little boy’s penis.22Okay, maybe not a whole lot less obvious. A lone persimmon seed plays the part of the little man in the boat. Gourd flowers represent a woman’s sexy feelings in the night. There’s all kinds of talk about blooming and blossoming and the rejuvenation of the spring rains. In one phantastic episode, a man skinny dips in a lushly reeded pond nestled sweetly between two softly rolling hills. In fact, while every chapter has its governing metaphor which gets played with throughout, chapters generally also have between one and five additional metaphors going on at the same time.
Kim’s book is all about avoidance.
I know some men who are like naked tiger lilies in their hearts too. But let’s not dwell on it.
The Colors trilogy is the story of Ehwa’s awakening to her womanhood, specifically in its physical presence as a distinction between the male and female bodies. At the start of The Color of Earth, Ehwa is seven and first encounters penises when she sees some neighbourhood boys peeing off an embankment. This begins a series of conversations with her mother, a widowed innkeeper with a reputation for being the town tart (even though she’s entirely monogamous for the space of the trilogy). Through these dialogues and over the course of the next decade, Ehwa’s mother gradually unveils both the physical and emotional use for Ewha’s womanhood. But never directly. Her mother speaks in deep metaphor and it’s almost entirely up to a sexually precocious neighbourhood girl, Bongsoon, to introduce Ehwa to the actual physiology of her own parts and pieces.
I’m going to pretend I have no idea what you guys are talking about.
Actually, that might be true.
The mother/daughter relationship here is fascinating to consider as a template for child-rearing. This takes place probably33I believe this is right but it may also be set in the early 20th century. There is nothing overt within the text to give away its precise setting. at the end of the 19th century in Korea, so obviously there are going to be any number of cultural differences and things the contemporary Western reader will find primitive or distasteful (such as the clear patriarchy advocated in the mother’s advice). The mother is clearly in a position of authority over Ehwa, but simultaneously cultivates a friendship based on trust and love. Ehwa, for her part, trusts her mother much more readily than I think many contemporary children would rely on and confide in their own parents. At the same time, she can be canny and withdrawn—especially if she has been embarrassed by her actions (such as when tricked into revealing her crushes on two local boys). I’m pretty sure that the care invested in the relationship between Ehwa and her mother was my favourite part of the books.
Not being a fan of poetry in its textual form, I came to find that visual poetry doesn’t strike me so deeply either and much of the probable delight of Kim’s series was lost on me. Certainly many of the images were carefully considered and, taken on their own, I found myself admiring their beauty. I simply (and I feel somewhat the Philistine for admitting this) often grew bored in their preponderance. I wanted to get back to the dialogue and all its glittering metaphorical excess.
Poor dumb fireman.
As to the sexuality in these books (from which most of its challenges are reported to have grown), it’s pretty tame. The MPAA is pretty arbitrary in its rating system, but if this was a movie in the pre-PG13 ‘80s, it would almost certainly merit a PG rating. Today, it’d probably sit pretty at a PG13. This is just about the most explicit image in the book. And regardless, Kim’s story of this girl (based apparently on his mom’s or grandmother’s own life story) is never titillating.44I suppose it might prompt girls to figure out where their persimmon seed is, but C’mon, it’s not like those exist anyway…
Did these books merit their challenges? Probably not. I suppose if they were shelved in the children’s section next to Bone and Tintin and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, that would have been an awkward taxonomy. But these would be perfectly at home in Young Adults or, as my library shelves them, in Teen. It’s not as if the broad approach in Kim’s book will have teenage boys furiously googling “persimmon seed girls -fruit” while their parents are at Bible Study.
I remembered a while back reading some of the entries in a Manga Movable Feast that concerned Kim’s books. They were largely negative and felt Kim’s focus on Ehwa’s sexual awakening and the way it is portrayed to be generally sexist and promoting of male fantasy. I approached the books believing I’d be reading a particularly chauvinist work as well as something scandalous enough to be The Second Most Challenged Book of 2011. It felt bizarre to have such a vastly different reading experience on both counts.
While I can see someone being perturbed by Kim’s single-minded focus on conversations that chart solely the tack of Ehwa’s evolution from girl to woman, really, I don’t think any reader should come away from the story imagining that’s all Kim believes there was to Ehwa’s life. More, it’s just that’s the story he was telling. Likewise some people might be bothered by Oishinbo's deliberate and unswerving attention to talking only about food All The Time, but that’s the story Kariya and Hanasaki are telling so get off their backs already. I think to be disappointed that Kim doesn’t spend more time developing the rest of Ehwa’s life and interests is less to be unhappy with this particular book and more to be unhappy with the particular subgenre this book occupies. Which is fair. I just want us to be clear about what bothers us.
In any case, I recommend reading some of the criticism of this book and taking in a number of perspectives. While I believe that many of Michelle and Melinda’s complaints listed in the article linked above (and in their other writings on the books) are based on probably rushed readings of the text55In the hyperbolically titled “The Color of Hate” Melinda ridicules a page in which Ehwa’s mother waxes metaphorical while wondering when a wandering butterfly might alight on her daughter for rest, saying that the page is about “attracting
penises butterflies penises.” The thing is though: the books never use butterflies as anything other than metaphors for men and the joy romantic relationships with those men might bring. There are other metaphors for the phallus, for sure, but that Melinda misreads here made me distrust her narrative. Especially when one is already unhappy with a story, it’s easy to force uncharitable readings on a text. I do it and you do it—and I believe this is what happened here., they do still have a number of interesting criticisms to contribute.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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