BOOK CLUB – Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, a joint venture between me and Jen from Devourer of Books.  Today we are discussing Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung which was published by Riverhead Books.

About Forgotten Country:

Weaving Korean folklore and history within a modern narrative of immigration and identity, Catherine Chung delivers a fierce exploration of the inevitability of loss and the conflict between loyalty and freedom. Forgotten Country marks the debut of a graceful, astonishing new voice in fiction, one with a quiet ferocity that will break your heart.

Here are a few of the reviews from BOOK CLUB participants.

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page, and check back throughout the day as more questions are added to the post.

Let’s go!

  • What were your general impressions of the book?
  • Did you think about the title of the book at all? Did it shape your experience and thoughts while reading? How?
  • Forgotten Country is filled with stories and folklore. How were these stories significant in shaping the lives and experiences of Janie and Hannah. Which of the stories resonated most with you?
  • What kinds of questions did you have during your reading? Were they answered?
  • What was your reaction to the way Janie’s story unfolded alongside her family’s secrets? Were you surprised by some of her revelations? How did her family’s relationship to the past shape her decisions?
  • Did you get a sense of what the relationship would look like between Janie and her sister by the end of the novel? What was your understanding of their relationship by the end of the book, and how do you think they will move forward to their relationship?
  • All of the relationships in the novel were complex, much like the knot theory Janie describes, how do you see things changing in the aftermath of Janie’s father’s death?

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 BOOK CLUB Picking Bones From Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

15 review copies of Forgotten Country were provided by Riverhead Books in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you so much!

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  1. I liked this book very much, although it was a difficult read, emotionally. I think the title played well on the fact that the biggest rift between parents and daughters was that Janie and Hannah were steeped in American culture while their parents couldn’t (and didn’t necessarily want to) give up the Korean culture. However, the girls’ mother didn’t want to explain anything to them, either, which really frustrated me. It was really interesting how each girl reacted differently to the folklore they were given as a substitute for fact, and it reminded me a lot of THE WOMAN WARRIOR by Maxine Hong Kingston and how she was given folklore by her mother, too.

    The only thing I think could have made the book better would have been the further character development of Hannah. I felt like we were missing some crucial information about her psyche and why certain situations pushed her to make certain decisions.

    1. It definitely would have been interesting to get more of Hannah’s point of view, but I’m not sure it would have made the book better, we would no longer have had the question of what exactly made her leave, what trauma in her past she was running from. We didn’t get as full of a picture of Hannah as we could have, but that’s because we were so in Janie’s head, and she didn’t understand her sister either.

      1. I agree with that, too–the first person point of view would have made that difficult. That’s the way it happens in real life, too, which can lead to a world of misunderstanding. I guess I wish we could have been given a better understanding of Hannah through conversations between the sisters toward the end of the book? Maybe? But you’re right–that might have taken away from the story, too. Life doesn’t always give us tidy endings, and they definitely had a lot more to work through when the story ended.

    2. Oh wow! It reminded me of Woman Warrior at times as well! This one was an emotional read for me as well…part of the reason I’m so late finishing…I really had to push myself on this one.

  2. I love-love-loved this. I was actually surprised that the title didn’t come in more explicitly, I’m still not sure if the forgotten country mentioned was Korea, or their childhood, Janie certainly seems to have blocked/ignored/forgotten a number of things, which really frustrated Hannah.

    1. I didn’t even give the title a thought as I was reading it. I just assumed the Forgotten Country was Korea and that culture that they started their childhood in. You are right, it was never explicitly mentioned.

  3. To me, “forgotten country” meant different things to the sisters and the parents – which, like Heather mentions, is one of the points of contention in the novel. I cried when Hannah opened up to her sister at the end – it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but I can’t even imagine feeling like someone knew this horrible thing for so long and had never acknowledged it. Ok, I feel that’s a really vague answer but don’t want to spoil anything.

    I called my own sister immediately upon finishing this. It definitely opens your eyes.

    1. I think it is very telling of Chung’s skill as an author that she could bring in something that was so unexpected without it feeling just sort of tacked on and unrealistic. I very much bought into what Hannah had to say to Janie, and could see where there were echoes of it, before miscommunication caused Hannah to shut down and portion off that part of her life.

    2. Oh my goodness, that was the worst misunderstanding of the whole book and it broke my heart for both of them. I feel awful that Hannah had to go through that, and I feel awful that Janie had no idea what she was telling her sister NOT to tell their parents. That must have made Hannah feel like her sister didn’t care about her at all, and when Janie found out what really happened, it must have rained down ten thousand pounds of guilt on her. Ugh. That whole situation and their father’s cancer were the two things that made this book so difficult for me to read.

      1. I have four sisters and now that we’re all adults I find it interesting the way each of us remembers things about our childhood. This was such a horrible situation and all I could keep thinking was Janie was just a child too. I kept hoping in some way both Hannah and Janie could realize that and start forgiving.

        1. Yes, I wonder if Hannah always expected that Janie really knew what happened, or if that was something which developed over time, once she was used to thinking about her sister as an adult. It could have been either way, really, the childish notion that your older sibling understands everything, or the adult ability to forget the limited comprehension that sheltered children can have.

          1. I sorta felt like Janie did know…but she realized when Hannah told her that she had just pushed it out of her mind…like the family did with other hurts…just make them disapper…When Hannah tells Janie, it seemed to me part of the trauma for Janie (besides the obvious) was realizing that she had subconsciously taken on that cultural blindfold.

    3. When the boys came to visit and were left alone with the girls, I was very worried about what might happen just because they were so aggressive. And then when Janie left Hannah alone I had a really bad feeling about that. It was the first place that my mind went when Janie was looking for Hanna, but I guess because Hannah never really acted out, I kind of forgot about it. I do wonder at Hannah’s feeling abandoned when Janie went to college and not before then. She worshipped her so much, and that is the first time that Janie noticed that she pulled away and became her own person. It makes me wonder at what Hannah was able to hold in because she loved her sister so much, but had to come to terms with when she felt that Janie had abandoned her.

      1. I also had an awful feeling when those boys came, and felt that it had something to do with what all went wrong for Hannah. The interesting moment in relation to that was the cousin’s interaction with Janie when she gets to Korea. It was like he wanted to talk to her about it but didn’t know how.
        The moment when Janie finds out what Hannah has been holding in, and how she abandoned her without meaning to, was inexplicably sad. I agree that having Hannah’s POV would have reduced a great deal of the sort of unraveling of tangled threads for both Janie and us as readers.

      2. I guess I expect the worse bc the moment they entered the house, I knew. Evil little boys in a house with only girls within a culture where girls are seen as pawns to be owned, used and to serve men…oh yeah, I knew where she was gonna go. But when she didn’t say anything about it immediately, I kinda got confused. There were several holes in the novel for me…this was one of them.

  4. I really did love this book. It was so not what I was expecting and so much more than I was expecting. I think the thing that struck me most. (Maybe because something similar is happening to a friend) was the Chung presented the relentless day to day awfulness of dealing with a loved one dying. And I loved the way the family just came together, the whole extended family was there for all of it, not shying away.

    I’ve been thinking how our culture tends to no delve to deep into the dying process and here were these people wading right into the middle of it, warts and all.

  5. Did anyone else wish we got more of the Uncle’s story? I really wanted to know what happened to him.

    1. You know, I would have love more of his story and I thought more was coming. I felt like the author kind of hinted at it, when it’s mentioned that the parents would feel bad later for what they had done to him. That scene when he is trying to defend being a soldier, and what it means to have to carry out orders was heartbreaking. It was obvious that he has feelings around what he had done.

      1. the history and the folklore were a few of my favorite things…and I loved hearing about the parents, grandparents, uncle, etc. when they were younger…how their families had developed even before the girls’ lives began.

        1. Right after reading this I was bothered by the story lines that weren’t completely fleshed out but the more I thought about it the more I appreciated it. It wasn’t all wrapped up in a bow, there are so many stories in our like we don’t ever find out about. And I agree with Karen it did add to the general melancholia of the story,

          1. I felt there were too many things unexplained…some of the threads were big ones for me…

    2. Yeah, not that you mention it, I did want to know more. I think that is the one part of the story that was really left unanswered and really kept me wondering.

      1. I also wanted to know more about him. I waited and waited for some kind of clue but was left disappointed. Especially since he was so outgoing and fun for Janie as a child and now barely spoke to them at all. I really wanted her to connect with him as an adult, she really could have used more support.

  6. Unfortunately, I’m still working my way through this one after a lovely few weeks of a sinus infection and flu. I had hoped to have it finished by today, but no go. I am really loving it so far, but it is very intense and emotional. I can see by a few comments though that things might finally get sorted at the end, hopefully anyway! I think I’m going to hunker down in my chair and finish it then check back after so I can actually add something constructive to the discussion 🙂

  7. One of my housemates and very good friends in college was Korean. She had emigrated with her family to the US at the age of 12, I think in the mid 70s. Reading this book made me feel so sad and horrible, that perhaps there were things that her family left behind (for good or bad) in Korea that I never knew about. All I remember her ever talking about was that they were so undernourished when they came to the US that the food here was completely overwhelming (and she hated the stretch marks on her body that came from the ballooning of weight once she started to really eat). But the positive side of her story, and what makes me ache for Janie and her family, is that my friend emigrated to Queen’s NY where they lived and worked in a huge Korean community. Her mother actually never learned to speak English because she didn’t have to. Her dad was successful and happy working in the Fashion District in Manhattan, primarily with other Koreans. And the kids managed to straddle the worlds, going to high school and then college with people from all over. I think that the isolation that Janie’s family faced was devastating to all of them, but in different ways. I have another closer friend who moved her from the Netherlands at the same age; they lived in Northern CA and only knew one other family from Holland there. She had a really difficult time adjusting, and her family always felt isolated and different.
    Such a beautifully written book, I’ve really been looking forward to the discussion. Will check in later!

    1. I felt so sad for Janie’s parents and the isolation they must have felt. When they finally go home and there are all those connections it just made it even more poignant.

      The whole story line of Janie’s bulling broke my heart. I cringed when her friends turned on her and how she was also so isolated.

  8. Forgotten Country is filled with stories and folklore. How were these stories significant in shaping the lives and experiences of Janie and Hannah. Which of the stories resonated most with you?

    I was just reading through some things that I had marked, and I found the part on p. 99, where Janie relates two stories their mother had told them: the seal woman, who married the husband who had stolen her skin and then left him when she found out, and the heavenly maiden who married a man who’d stolen her clothes; she also leaves when she discovers them. Then she writes:
    “Growing up, Hannah and I had played at being seal-women. We’d played at heavenly maidens. We’d played at abandoning each other, over and over again.”
    Such a foreshadowing…
    The other story that really got to me was the story of the bird Hannah’s professor finds, and how it cures itself of the deadly fungus disease, through self mutilation:
    “Later she learned that if the bird had neglected to tear out a single feather, or left a single claw, the disease would have returned. But each rotten part of itself grew back new, and the bird lived and recovered, and flew away.”
    and her mother’s unbelievable response is:
    “I’m glad you are here. And I am glad you have learned how difficult it is to survive.”
    What an incredible, disturbing metaphor, and how telling the response!

  9. Oooooh, I would have loved reading this book, The Forgotten Country. Didn’t realize the club is ongoing, all the time, every month. Thank you for my past invitation.

  10. I finally finished this late last night, unable to put it down until the end. I have to admit that I really did not like Hannah at all. I thought she was spoiled, irresponsible and selfish. While I really did like the book, I still had a hard time with it. I felt Janie was forced to be someone she wasn’t and was waiting for her to snap. I appreciated all the back story as well, but sometimes I wished there wasn’t so much because I really wanted to get to the present. I understand this is a completely different culture than my own, so it was hard for me to sit back and watch the family (especially Komo!) walking all over everyone. That being said, I did really enjoy the book and was glad to see their was some kind of connection between the sisters even though things didn’t tie up as nicely as I would have hoped. But that’s just me, sometimes I need those nice little bows at the end to move on from a particularly sad story. Thank you for the opportunity to read this along with you.

    1. I seriously could not figure out why somebody didn’t just slap Komo and get it over with…obviously another huge cultural difference 😉

  11. Obviously, I’m very late posting/reviewing Forgotten Country…it was an emotional read for me…a tough one to finish. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but the entire story is so heartwrenching…I think it’s supposed to be though…bc Janie and Hannah’s family reality is reality for a lot of families…and many times things never get completely worked out. Possibly my biggest complaint for the author is the back story holes…while I’m ok not knowing everything, I did feel like she left some big holes open…it’s hard to step over holes that big.
    It’s funny to me that I never really thought about the title :/ Now that I’ve finished the book and have been reflecting on what I read, I think the title refers to whichever country you want it to…the parts from each place they wished to forget and the parts from each place that they wished to embrace…and how difficult those decisions are…and especially the idea that a person may have to lose part of herself and the past she wants to hold onto in order to step forward into the future. I think that’s exactly what Janie and Hannah have to do now. The entire story to me is about just that…working your way through becoming who you are…with the past, present and future all rolled up into one.
    My review is posted on my blog today