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This reading group guide for Long for This Worldby Sonya Chungincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
After 52 years away from his homeland, Han Hyun-kyu is returning to Korea. As a boy, he was a stowaway on a ship, sailing to the mainland in search of an education and, eventually, a medical practice in America. Now, with his children grown and his wife increasingly indifferent, Han Hyun-kyu travels to visit his younger brother in South Korea. But his concerned hosts, Han Jae-kyu and his wife Han Jung-joo, aren’t sure when – or if – their houseguest will ever return home.
Han Hyun-kyu’s daughter, Jane, is also in a state of uncertainty. She has just returned from a grueling photojournalism assignment in Baghdad and recovering from a near-fatal bomb blast. Her brother Henry, recently out of rehab, takes Jane in, until they hear of their father’s abrupt trip to Korea. Jane decides to join her father, curious about the urges that propelled him back to the country of his birth. In this serene South Korean village, Jane slowly gets to know the rest of the Han family: her straight-laced uncle, her imperious aunt, and her disturbed cousin, Min-yung, who seeks an escape from her tenuous relationships and circumscribed life. Then Jane meets Chae Min-suk, her aunt’s younger brother and an artist, who helps Jane see herself in a new light. As two members of the Han family, Henry and Min-yung, succumb to quiet desperation on separate continents, the rest of the Hans must learn to cope with the distances – and jolts of intimacy – within their far-flung family.
1. Long for This World opens with a few lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone.” How does this poem reflect the tone and major themes of the novel?
2. Compare the two mother-daughter relationships in the novel: Lee Woo-in and Jane, and Han Jung-joo and Min-yung. Why do you think Jane calls her mother “Dr. Lee?” What distances lie between Han Jung-joo and her housebound daughter? What other depictions of motherhood did you notice in the book, and what do you think are some of the questions and issues about motherhood being raised in the story? 3. Two stories are repeated a few times over the course of the novel: Han Hyun-kyu’s stowaway escape to mainland Korea, and the day Jane abandoned Henry in the woods near their childhood home. How do these stories change with each new telling? What significance does each story have for its teller?
4. Discuss the formative steps in Jane’s career as a photographer. How does her art evolve over the course of the novel? What lessons of “love and lust” (70) does Jane learn from her mentor, Eloise Martine? What are Chae Min-suk’s insights into love and lust? (224) What emotions are revealed in Jane’s photography exhibit about the Hans, Accidental Family?
5. Consider Han Jae-kyu and Han Jung-joo’s new, Western-style house. How does the house represent the family’s status in their Korean village? What do the children’s reactions to the house – Min-yung, Hae-sik and Hae-joo, Ji-eun and Yoo-mee – reveal about the younger generation’s cultural experiences and perspectives?
6. Discuss the relationship between Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jung-joo. How do these in-laws regard each other? What inspires their moments of physical connection? There are other relationships non-blood family relations, like the relationship between Jane and Chae Min-suk. What themes of familiarity and discovery do these relationships convey?
7. Consider Cho Jin-sook’s role as a hired worker within the Han household. What does she witness within the family, and how does she react to the Hans’ family secrets? What do her and her husband’s outsider’s perspective add to the novel?
8. Compare the attitudes of the Korean-American Hans toward their heritage. Among Han Hyun-kyu, Lee Woo-in, Jane, and Henry, who seems closest to his or her roots? What do you think accounts for their varying degrees of connection to their heritage?
9. One of Sonya Chung’s particular gifts is illuminating the relationship between world affairs and personal experiences; she depicts whole worlds through the details of a carefully prepared meal and, through the lens of Jane’s work, she moves around the world—Iraq, Darfur, Syria. Discuss the effects of tragedy, both personal and global. How does Jane deal with each? Why do you think Chung set up this relationship between private life and the global stage?
10. “Some people are not long for this world. The rest of us survive. For whatever reason, we are still standing, the last ones.” (255) Which characters in the novel are not “long for this world?” What does the title of the book imply about tragedy and survival?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit Sonya Chung’s blog, http://sonyachung.com, to read the author’s short stories, find out what’s on her bookshelf, and browse her posts on reading and writing.
2. Photography and family are central to Long for This World. Ask each member of your book club to bring in a family photograph to share at your meeting. Have each member explain what he or she sees in his or her photograph: what emotions are visible in the photograph, and what might be invisible?
3. The descriptions of food in Long for This World are mouthwatering! Try your hand at some Korean recipes. Browse the recipes at http://koreanrecipes.org, and prepare a batch of kimchi, japchae, or other treats for your book club meeting.
4. Get inspired by the art and architecture that come to life in Long for This World. Check your local listings for an art or architecture exhibit in your area, particularly arts of unfamiliar cultures, and take your book club out for an afternoon of international art appreciation!
Sonya Chung’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, Cream City Review, and Sonora Review, among others. She is a recipient of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Literary Fellowship & Residency. Long For This World is her first novel.