Therese Park, thank you so much for your time and for participating in this
Book Spotlight feature on
When a Rooster Crows at Night.
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your family.
When a Rooster Crows at Night
is a young South Korean girl's coming-of-age novel, which also
depicts a nation's journey toward freedom. One night in June 1950, Jong-ah's
rooster crows for no apparent reason. In her horror, she discovers the next
morning that her mother has served up the bird as breakfast soup, for in
Korea, a rooster crowing at night is a bad omen. Later that day, the news of
North Korea's invasion of South Korea reaches her hometown Pusan.
The next day the South Korean army occupies her elementary school to
accommodate injured soldiers, and Jong-ah gets a glimpse of "war" for the
first time through the injured soldiers. A few days later, the city
officials force all town-folks to allow war-refugees into their dwellings.
As the story weaves through the narrator's comfortable home in Pusan to the
mountains shrouded in Buddhist mysticism and then to the island of Cheju,
where the girl becomes a temporary orphan, readers not only feel for the
people in a war-raging country but also hear a lively child's voice
capturing the humor and mystery of everyday.
When a Rooster Crows at Night
is a novel, but the project began as your memoir. What is the plot of the
novel and how did you come to the decision to fictionalize your childhood
experiences in Korea?
In the beginning, I jotted down whatever I could remember about the war--how
it affected our lives as children, what we saw and learned from others about
the war, and how the Americans helped. When I finished my first draft, it
was a large volume, but I wanted to write more about the atrocities
inflicted on "others." So many people abandoned their homes in North Korea
and came to the South; so many orphans were not only "saved" from dying but
also found their homes in America. Most of the events described in my novel
is based on my experience until Jong-ah becomes an orphan at the port heading to Cheju island. The plot is simple: a girl wakes up to war and learns what it
does to people; she sees how those around her adapt and cope with hardship
and learns to cope herself too. The main focus of the novel lies on a
child's growth and understanding of the world, however scary it might be.
But in a larger picture, there is a poor country that was crushed by horror
of the war but survives, and over a long period of time, progresses and
becomes a vibrant, strong nation that boasts its sky scrapers, its people's
diligence and skills, and its stable economy.
LH: For our readers who are somewhat unfamiliar with
the history of the Korean War, could you please briefly summarize the
setting of this book and the circumstances confronting Koreans in the
Korea was a hermit kingdom until 1882, when it opened the door to the
western world for the first time. Until then, most of the westerners,
especially Catholic bishops and priests (from Paris Foreign Mission
Society), were brutally murdered for teaching the Gospels. (To read about
this, please go to
WWW.theresepark.com and click on "Korean Catholic Church-Church of
Martyrs".) Korea was so behind civilization about that time (1882) that many
nations, including the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, China, and Japan, all
drooled over this small country clinging to big China, for it had rich
natural resources as well as physical beauty. In 1905, after Russo-Japanese
war, in which Japan defeated Russia, the Japanese army forced a "Protectorate
Treaty" onto the Korea' king (King Gojong). The kingdom (then called Chosen)
sent a messenger (Syngman Rhee who later became the first president of the
Republic of Korea) to America to plead with President Theodore Roosevelt to
protect us from the dangerous Japanese. (About this time Japan was expanding
its power toward the China, Manchuria, even Siberia.) President Theodore
Roosevelt ignored the Koreans' plea and made a secret deal with the Japanese
government: that if they (the Japanese) leave the Philippines alone, the
Americans would not interfere with whatever they try to accomplish in Korea
and Manchuria and beyond. The Japanese annexed Korea as its colony in 1910,
by killing the queen, poisoning King Gojong, and taking princes and
princesses as hostages to Japan. Until 1945, they ruled Koreans with iron
hands, during which, they used Korean males to fight for them and the girls,
young virgins, as military prostitutes. The Japanese operated about 4,000
military brothels all over Asia. (You can read a sample chapter of
A Gift of the Emperor from www.amazon.com or
www.theresepark.com.) When WWII ended, the world leaders decided that
Korea was "Free in due process", which means that they couldn't grant us
freedom because our country was too poor to stand on its own feet. Thus came
the division, Russians occupying the northern half and Americans the
southern half. But in reality, Korea was divided much earlier, during the
Japanese occupation. As many Korean activists escaped the cruelty of the
Japanese police and went to China and Russia for help, the Chinese and
Russian leaders became their surrogate parents. Kim Il-Sung (the father of
Kim Jong-Il, today's North Korea's premier) and many Korean activists were
trained in Russian or Chinese armies and later became the leaders of the
People's Republic of Korea. On the other hands, those who went to the United
States for help during the Japanese occupation, they thought democracy was
ideal for the new Republic of Korea.
LH: Children in our society today are bombarded by
images of war in our world by our media, but nine-year-old Jong-ah had to
confront these images face to face. What message do you hope to spread
When a Rooster Crows at Night?
What would you hope that readers take away from the experience of reading
No one is actually protected by what we call "disasters" and "tragedies".
Who could avoid torrential storms or earthquakes? Who could be immune to
deadly diseases we often hear about on the news? By reading
When a Rooster Crows at Night
one would be grateful for what he/she has and become compassionate
toward those who deal with evil of violence every day.
LH: What part does faith and spirituality play in
I tried to separate faith and spirituality from religion. Jong-ah doesn't
like reciting long, man-made prayers. Still, she prays on the bus heading to
the orphanage in her own words. She prays when she heard about her
grandfather's death, too. We humans are naturally gifted with knowledge of
God and with urge to pray when all life-securities are threatened. When her
backpack was stolen, and she missed home so much, she courageously leaves the
orphanage, in vague hope that she could find her home in Pusan. I didn't
want to spell it out, but I wanted to show that even a child could sense
God's powerful hands extended toward those "in trouble" to help, to guide,
to protect, and to love.
LH: Congratulations on this, your second novel. Do you
have any future plans for additional novels? Also, could you describe your
first book, Gift of the Emperor?
I want to write about the prisoners of the Korean War. More than 7000
Americans soldiers and civilians were taken as prisoners by the North
Koreans in the early stage of the Korean War. Whether it's going to be a
book or just some articles, I don't know. I want to write about the Death
March, a 9-day forced march in 30 degree below freezing temperature on a
110-mile stretched along the rugged mountain terrain. About 500 soldiers and
45 civilians died in 6 months following the march, with the complication of
pneumonia, exhaustion, and dysentery, not including the 98 soldiers and
civilians shot to death on the road for not walking fast enough.
About my first book
A Gift of the Emperor
the following is the book description from Reading Group Choices for 1998:
"This poignant fictional account of real-life atrocities inflicted upon
approximately 200,000 Asian women during World War II is narrated by
Soon-ah, a Korean schoolgirl. Soon-ah's world is shattered when she is
kidnapped from her village and shipped to a "house of relaxation" in the
South Pacific. Here, she is forced into prostitution as a "comfort woman" to
the Japanese military. Soon-ah's story provides compelling testimony to the
strength of the human spirit, the power of love over hate, and the ultimate
triumph of hope over despair."
Recommended by: Rita Nakashima Brock
"[Park's] intelligent, nuanced and humane work paints a vivid portrait of
human courage, hope, love, and survival under conditions most of us cannot
even imagine. We cannot read her words without being made more compassionate
and committed to peace."
LH: Thank you so much for participating in this
interview and sharing the gift of your writing through
When a Rooster Crows at Night.
Are there any closing thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Thank you very much for inviting me to comment on my book. I want to mention
that American soldiers fought very courageously in our country. Without
their sacrifices, we would have fallen into the communists' hands, like
Vietnam did in 1975. There were a few tragic incidents during
the Korean War, where so many innocent civilians were slaughtered, but in a
war-raging country where there was no boundary between the communists and
non-communists, what were you supposed to do when the communists were taking
over so fast? The soldiers protected the rest of the country from turning
into the communists' assembly ground by destroying a village or two. All I
can say is that the Americans saved out country from the communists hands
and we are grateful.
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