Translations of Beauty

A Novel

About The Book

Translations of Beauty maps the tender yet tumultuous relationship of twin sisters Inah and Yunah, from their early years in South Korea to their coming-of-age in Queens, New York. At the heart of the narrative -- told from Yunah's intimate, engaging point of view -- is an unforgettable event from their childhood: an accident that disfigured Inah for life, and the overwhelming sadness and guilt Yunah feels at having been spared. Now that Inah and Yunah are adults, each in search of her own identity while trying to remain true to traditional family values, they must find a way to negotiate their past and become the people they dare -- and dream -- to be.
Emotionally charged and thought-provoking, Translations of Beauty is an insightful saga of the immigrant experience that will resonate with all readers.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Mostly and usually, babies are born one at a time to ensure
that they get all the attention they deserve. But Mom
dreams of a glossy full moon over a mountain peak splitting
in two, and soon afterward Inah and I arrive in this world
together as "winter twins." Already a year old by the way
Koreans count age. We come in a hurry, barely ten minutes
apart under the flood of cold, green fluorescent light in an
overheated room at a university hospital in Seoul. Red and
wrinkled and tightfisted and kicking feet, each no bigger
than a hammerhead, and issuing the shrill cries of a squealing
crow. Indistinguishable other than the greenish Mongolian
spots we carry on our bottoms, which will fade in time.
It's January 1973, but still 1972 by the lunar calendar, the
Year of the Rat. Wet snow falls all night.

We are the first children and will be the only children
born to our parents. Mom is a twenty-five-year-old novice
teacher at a primary school. Pretty mostly from her youth
and her open moon face blessed with beautiful, pale, dewy
skin. Daddy is forty-four, considered too old to be a first
time father or, for that matter, even a second-time father.
He weeps as he holds his newborn twins in his arms. He
can't help himself.

Afterward, every Saturday, Daddy hurries home for the
weekend from his teaching job in the eastern city of
Choonchon, Spring Stream, and spends hours sitting next
to us twins, transfixed, never tiring of looking at us, lying
side by side, babbling and dribbling, sleeping and dreaming,
he's sure, the same dreams. Noticing things like new feathery
hair sprouting all over our warm heads. Our faces filling
out from Mom's breast milk. His dark lips open, and smiles
leak out. He talks in whispers to us twin girls. He tells us
how we will always have each other as a companion on the
road of life. How lucky we are.

Time flies, leaving us with no apparent memories. A year
passes. Then two, three. We know these stories because they
are told to us later. In careless repetition by tired Grandma
at our bedtime. We are now four years old. Wispy little
things. With spindly legs and arms. People in our old
neighborhood at the foot of Nam San, South Mountain,
where traditional, tile-roofed Korean houses run shoulder-to-
shoulder along the narrow alleys crisscrossing each other
in a seemingly endless gridlock, now refer to our old Japanese
house as "the twins'" instead of "the Japanese house."
On the street, strangers, whom Grandma never fails to meet
when she goes out with us in tow, stop and marvel and say
we look as if stamped from the same mold. Laughing, they
pat us on the head and ask Grandma how she could tell us
apart. Every time, Grandma imperiously declares to the
curious and always rapt audience, "You wouldn't guess it,
but they are different." Pointing to me, she claims I am the
quiet one of the two, a watcher, and then, pointing to Inah,
she says, proudly, "She is the spirited one."

rIt's true. Already such a self-absorbed and self-involved
thing, Inah is feistier and more vociferous. She leads, and I
follow. Inah thinks out loud and I listen. Inah will try everything
a little harder. She even talks faster, as if in a race.
Almost in a stutter. In her slightly high-pitched tone. Impatiently
repeating words. Stumbling and tripping over them
because her mind races faster than she could string them up
together and give them voice. Waving her arms. Anxious to
keep the attention from slipping away. Her bright, sparkling
eyes become two black rambling seas of emotion. It's as if
she knows and is in a hurry to grab what fun, love and attention
she can.

Shoving past Grandma, Inah runs after Mommy across the
courtyard. Her feet are barely inside her silver, fur-trimmed
shoes, and on top of her head, from the elastic bands holding
her feather-brown hair in two rabbit ears, the plastic
cherry-colored beads jump and go click-clack like abacus
beads, and the balloon sleeves of her jacket (iridescent green
on one side and iridescent blue on the other; the colors of
peacock feathers) go swish, swish making the sound of wind
in the trees.

All the way out to the damp alley, where winter mornings
always smell like soot, Inah hangs on to Mommy's coat
sleeve until Grandma grabs her, firmly planting her by her
side.

"Say good-bye quick to your mother and get inside,"
Grandma says, all bundled up like a snowman. "It's cold."
Inah pushes off the scratchy sleeve of Grandma's gray
wool sweater that smells like salted oily fish and turns up
her bun face to Mommy and asks if she's coming home
early. Mommy assures her that she is. What time? Inah
asks. At four o'clock maybe? Maybe. Promise? Mommy
hooks her baby finger to Inah's, but Inah still looks unsatisfied.

"Bye, Mommy," Inah says finally, looking dejected.

"Bye," Mommy says, pretending not to notice the tears
brimming in Inah's eyes. She pats us on the head, first Inah
and then me. Resigned, Inah watches Mommy walk down
the narrow alley in her long tea-colored winter coat as the
sound of her shoe heels, soft clucking tongues, drift away
like melodies of a slow song. Then, just as Mommy reaches
the end of the alley, Inah, stretching all of her wispy four-year-
old frame, belches out one more time, "Bye, Mommy!"

"Bye, Mommy!" I repeat after her, copying even her
slightly aggressive tone.

Mommy turns, smiles and waves back with her hand in a
black leather glove. And then she is gone, turning the corner.
Suddenly, the sunless alley, hemmed in on both sides by
the stone walls of the houses, feels empty and desolate.
Inah, sad-faced and looking puzzled, stares at the gray space
where Mommy has just disappeared. Then, even as she is
being pulled away by Grandma's cold and cracked hand,
Inah looks over her shoulder just one more time, wistful.

For the rest of the day, Inah waits, and I watch her wait.
When noon comes and passes and the sunlight that floods
the house in the morning pulls out, leaving the old, dank
Japanese house dark as a cave, time slows down, and the
afternoon drags on interminably long as uneven hours and
minutes accumulate and play tricks. Inah and I, confused
with our still hazy sense of time and not comprehending the
arbitrary nature of it, play, eat lunch and take a nap, and
constantly ask Grandma how many hours before Mommy
comes home and count and recount, folding and unfolding
our small fingers. We never get tired of this daily repetition
of waiting because of the sheer shiver of excitement that
punctuates the end of it.

Then finally comes Saturday, and Daddy, a college art
teacher, is back home for the weekend. How anxiously Inah
and I wait for Saturdays. Sharing that aching thrill, and
holding on to the memory of his warm voice and unique
smell, so familiar, so recent but nonetheless fading. With
none of the certainty that accompanies our daily waiting for
Mommy. But with the fierce affection we reserve only for
him. Every time he walks in through the door, Inah and I
simply soar and fly to heaven. Ecstatic and breathless and
momentarily shy and very much relieved, we rush and dive
into his wide-open arms.

The next morning, even before sleep falls from our
eyes, we rush to our parents' room to wake him up so
unceremoniously, pulling off the cover and shaking his
arms. Jostling each other, Inah and I beg him to get up and
play with us. Our hearts skip when he finally opens his
blurry eyes, looking a little confused and sorry at the
memory of sweet sleep, and massaging his sour morning
stomach through his loose pajama top. But he's ready to
oblige us twins, who are climbing onto his lap, competing
for his attention.

Soon, we get him on his hands and knees and climb up
to his back and go on a horse ride. Out of the room, across
the maroo, the slippery, varnished wooden floor, cold as ice
in the winter, and then down the dank hallway splashed
with morning sunlight. First in a halfhearted trot but soon
in a full gallop, he goes carrying Inah and me on his back as
we shout, "Iri-yah, ggil-ggil!" to get the Daddy-horse to
hurry up even more. After a while, Daddy-horse gets angry
and raises and tilts back his head and hisses and jumps up
and down (we can see his splayed hair on the crown ripple
like black waves), threatening to toss us up into the air.
Inah and I shriek and scream, scared out of our wits, desperately
clinging to his long, skinny back, wiggling and
rolling.

Then, reaching the other end of the hallway, at the foot
of the wooden staircase, Daddy-horse stops full and refuses
to move. But we shrilly order him to climb up the steps and
take us to the big, mildewy tatami-floored room upstairs,
his painting studio, shut up for the winter. He pulls up his
neck and cries for our mercy, but we shake our heads,
laughing and giggling. He turns and asks us how we would
like it if Daddy-horse grew wings on his shoulders and
became a flying horse and carried Inah and Yunah to the
sky over the river and mountains instead. No, no, no! We
will be too scared! Just take us upstairs, Daddy-horse, we
say. Crawling, he scales just a couple of steps before he collapses,
out of breath. We scramble off his back fast, and
bend down over Daddy-horse, sprawled on his back over
the steps with his eyes shut tight and his long arms dangling
at his sides. Terrified, we plead, "Apa! Apa!! Wake up!
Open your eyes!" But he doesn't wake up or open his eyes.
Inah places her sticky thumb and forefinger on one of them
and tries to pry the lid open, but it closes right back when
she lets it go.

Now convinced Daddy is really dead, Inah and I are
ready to burst out crying. That's when he suddenly springs
back to life. Opening his eyes wide, he bolts up, spreading
out his arms and roaring over us, "Woo-waah!!" Inah and I
jump up like two beans on a hot pan and run for our lives,
screaming and squealing. Grandma looks in, loudly clucking
her tongue, and says what a beautiful sight it is: an "old
man" about to turn fifty in just a couple of days, horsing
around with his two little girls. Fiercely protective of him,
Inah hates Grandma so for that brief second, but Daddy
just laughs.

By late afternoon on Sunday, though, Daddy is gone, and
Inah and I start waiting and counting out loud for the next
Saturday all over again. In our unerring conviction that the
future holds only more fun and excitement.

Copyright © 2004 by Mia Yun

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Mia Yun was born and raised in South Korea. She received her Master's Degree in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Her first novel, House of the Winds, received wide critical acclaim, and she has lectured extensively at literary events and universities. She has also worked as a reporter, translator, and freelance writer, and she is currently the Korea correspondent for the Evergreen Review. She lives in New York City. Visit her website at www.miayun.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 15, 2004)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416589594

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Raves and Reviews

"[A] bittersweet tale about the meaning of race, kinship, and success."
-- The New York Times

"[R]emarkable and playfully original."
-- Evergreen Review

"[B]eautiful."
-- Booklist

"[A]n atmospheric and powerful work."
-- KoreAm Journal

"It's time for Mia Yun's distinctive and enriching talent, rooted in a vision utterly new to our marveling eyes, to find the wider recognition it deserves."
-- Cynthia Ozick

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