Penguin Random House
Once in a while, in the torpid weeks of late summer, a new writer appears whose voice has so much zest and authority, they pre-emptively steal some of the spotlight from the big Fall books. Skinship, a just-published short story collection by Yoon Choi, is in that magical category of debuts. Reading Choi’s stories reminds me of how I felt when I first read the works of other singular sensations like Kevin Wilson or Karen Russell, writers who do things with language and storytelling that no one else has quite done before.
Skinship consists of eight pretty long short stories, most of them exploring the Korean immigrant experience in America. I know: immigration is hardly a fresh subject and it’s especially popular in memoirs and fiction these days. But, it’s Choi’s approach, the way her stories unexpectedly splinter out from a single life to touch upon decades of family history shaped by immigration that make them something special.
Take the story, “First Language,” whose mild title doesn’t prepare you for the slew of disturbing details to come. The story opens with a husband and wife driving through the Lincoln Tunnel, from New York to New Jersey. Our narrator, the wife, is named Sae-ri and she opens by telling us: “I cannot guess what my husband is thinking as we drive back to Second Chance Ranch one Friday in October.”
As we learn, there’s an entire life’s worth of backstory vacuum-packed into that sentence: a semi-secret out-of-wedlock birth, emigration from Korea for an arranged marriage in America, and the perceived need for the kind of “second chances” offered at that ranch. If Sae-ri can’t “guess what [her] husband is thinking,” he’d surely slam his foot on the brake if he knew what was going on in her mind.
That condition of opacity marks most of Choi’s marriages, as well as other relationships here. Despite the affection many of her characters share, most are unable or unwilling to fully translate their private lives to each other. In the poignant story, “The Art of Losing,” that condition of opacity is literal: An elderly man struggles with early Alzheimer’s. Here he is, trying to process his blithely oblivious wife’s actions:
“He followed her into the kitchen, where she acquired keys, phone, and bag. It came to him, what she was doing. She was leaving. This made him anxious. He realized that with her gone, he would be obligated to himself. To remember to eat. To remember that he had eaten. … To zip his fly. To occupy the present moment. Suddenly, he hated her. … He hated her right down to the wayfaring look of [her] shoes.
In other stories, like “A Map of the Simplified World” mutual incomprehension is tinged with comedy. The story unfolds through the perspective of Ji-won, who’s in third grade in Queens, one of the most diverse places in America. Ji-won’s well-meaning white teacher has a thing about maps, using them to honor the origins of her immigrant students. But, on the playground a rougher-though-less-strained celebration of diversity reigns. Ji-won says:
At recess, on the blacktop, everyone forgot all about the world map and called each other zips, schmoes, whiteys, chinks, kebabs, bananas, brownies, towelheads. No one thing was worse than another.
All these stories are standouts, but the title story “Skinship” is in a class of its own. Our narrator is a 13-year-old Korean girl named So-hyun who describes how one morning, she and her brother skip school. What we quickly learn is that they’re not cutting, but fleeing with their mother to an aunt’s house in Virginia, because their father is abusive. So-hyun’s language is a vivid-yet-restrained master class in the art of show don’t tell. During one of her father’s rages, for instance, So-hyun describes her mother as “just the motionless hem of a skirt.”
When the trio arrives in Virginia, So-hyun meets her aunt, uncle and cousin, Susie, who’s her age and coolly telegraphs the message that she and her family aren’t welcome. So-hyun comes to realize that her mother has traded one form of servitude for another:
If my aunt hadn’t returned in time to start dinner, our mother would pad into the kitchen. … If laundry had been left in the washer, our mother would move it to the dryer. … I would try not to look too often at her face –was she happy? unhappy? — knowing that this might embarrass her. Instead, I would watch her hands, which were also able to convey a certain mood. A kind of deadpan expertise. A lack of expectations. Fold and stack, fold and stack. Susie’s neon crop tops. Our uncle’s pouched cotton briefs.
You may think you know where this story is going, but you’d be wrong. Choi is the kind of writer whose work creates situations and emotions so complex, we don’t even have the words for them, at least not in English. In this extraordinary collection, Choi nudges us readers into widening our vocabularies.