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Roundtable: The Color of Earth

Katherine Dacey

Last month, First Second released The Color of Earth, a critically acclaimed manhwa by artist Kim Dong Hwa. The story focuses on Ehwa, a young girl on the brink of adolescence, and her mother. The two live in a rural village in pre-war Korea, where Ehwa’s mother, a widow, runs a small tavern. The Color of Earth documents their changing relationship as Ehwa begins to mature, fall in love, and understand her mother’s sometimes precarious, sometime lonely position as a single woman. Though the book isn’t being marketed to teenage readers here in the US, the book occupies a similar place in Korean culture as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or My Antonia does in American, as a coming-of-story that speaks to both adults and younger readers. We assembled a team of librarians — Robin Brenner, Eva Volin, Snow Wildsmith, and Esther Keller — to discuss the book, its readership, and its treatment of budding adolescent sexuality.

The Color of Earth
By Kim Dong Hwa
No rating (Recommended for 14+)
First Second, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-59643-458-5
320 pp., $16.95

colorofearth Roundtable: The Color of Earth Kate: Most of the manhwa that’s been licensed for the US market seems to have been chosen for the obvious similarities between its tone, style, and subject and that of popular manga series like S.A. and The Wallflower. But Color of Earth is a departure: the artwork has a kind of studied naviete, and the story focuses on two rural women living in a traditional, patriarchal society. How did Color of Earth challenge (or affirm) your notion of what manhwa is? How do you think American teenagers will react to it?

Robin: When I saw the cover of Color of Earth, I knew I was in for something a bit different — it reminded me of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossom in that the art and design signaled that this was not your usual manhwa. I was not surprised that it existed, in the sense that I’m aware that there are many more types of manhwa (and manga, for that matter) that are not yet translated and published here in the States, but I was pleased to see First Second bring out a different sort of story. 

As for how teenagers will react to it — I really cannot predict that. There’s a part of me that thinks the girls (and I think it will be mainly girls who pick it up) who will enjoy it will likely be the more curious, contemplative type rather than those looking for the next romantic comedy. It may gain an audience as teens start passing it around, as they are wont to do. I think initially it will have to catch one avid reader’s attention, and that girl will likely not be the usual manga reader. I cannot decide how the teens will react to the euphemistic aspects of the story in discussing sexual awakening and the roles of women in relationships. I could see them getting impatient with the floral comparisons and gentle pace, and I could also see them giggling about parts of the story without really taking the time to really read it. I admit I was a bit turned off by the subservient, passive roles presented, even though Ehwa herself is spunkier, I fear this may be about her being worn down by her situation. It’s not unrealistic, and certainly is period, but I’m not sure it will make me enjoy the story. I also found I was more critical of the story once I realized the author was a man — that is not a logical reaction, perhaps, but it made me wonder how much of the story is an ideal of what women were or are rather than true to their actual thoughts and actions.

On a totally different note, I will report that I was reading this volume in my favorite local Japanese/Korean restaurant, and the waitress was very impressed that I was reading it as she recognized the creator (although not the title.) She was intrigued that I had it in English, and I told her more was coming out. So, that was cool!

I have ordered it, and I am curious to hear reactions from readers.

Kate: I had the same reaction when I learned the author was a man. Traditional societies are often very segregated, with men and women having their own distinct cultures, and I wasn’t convinced that Kim Dong Hwa could authentically invoke the female "sphere." Sometimes I think he succeeds; other times, I think that sentimental ideas about female purity compromise the story. In particular, I found the euphemistic way in which Ehwa’s mom discussed sexual matters just plain odd — you’d think a widow who ran an inn, fended off advances from male patrons, and ran her own household (right down to raising animals and growing food) would be frank with her teenage daughter. I also found Ehwa’s naivete unconvincing for similar reasons: would a rural girl really be that ignorant of sexual matters?

At the same time, I was bothered by the way in which Ehwa’s playmate Bongsoon was depicted. Bongsoon is a type that we all know from young adult literature: the bossy, sexually forward girl who has a bad reputation among her female peers for "putting out." As Kim draws her, Bongsoon has a piggy face and tiny, slanted eyes that make her look grotesque, especially when contrasted with the graceful way in which he draws Ehwa and her mother. I felt like the author was passing judgment on his own character, inviting us to view Bongsoon in an unfavorable light for being easy.

It’s a shame that the theme of female chastity is so prevalent in the text, as I think Kim does a beautiful job of depicting Ehwa’s first crushes. As Greg McElhatton pointed out in his review, Ehwa has very little interaction with the monk or the rich school boy; her "relationships" with both are primarily in her head, as she’s barely exchanged more than a few sentences with either one. Whether teens will appreciate the subtlety of Kim’s storytelling is hard to gauge. I found these scenes effective because I remember what it was like to experience those first pangs of infatuation; someone just beginning to experience these kind of feelings, however, might not have the emotional distance to understand what Kim is trying to do.


Eva:
I came to this book already inclined to like it:

a) I like manhwa. I’ve been lucky in that almost all of the licensed manhwa I’ve read has been really good, so I had every reason to believe this book would be good, too.

b) It’s published by First Second. Almost everything I’ve read published by First Second is something I feel comfortable recommending to other readers. The have a great track record for choosing books that are satisfying to read plot-wise and to look at art-wise.

c) The promotional material that came with my copy compared this book to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I was that curious, contemplative teen that Robin talks about above. I loathed the majority of the teen literature available (this was back when there was pretty much only Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, and Lois Duncan to choose from). The last thing I wanted to read about were girls going through the same things I was going through. Instead I read books taking place in different eras or countries, using literature as a window, rather than a mirror. And one of my favorite books during that period was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The main character, Francie, was just like me, only completely different. I felt that same connection with Ehwa.

Like Betty Smith’s book, The Color of Earth is also about a curious, contemplative girl who learns about the world around her over a span of years. When the book begins Ehwa is just a little girl beginning to ask questions about her body, her family. She doesn’t have a father and her mother doesn’t sleep around (despite what the gossips say), so there is every reason to believe Ehwa is as innocent as she is presented. (It’s one thing to understand the mechanics of livestock begetting livestock, but not putting the puzzle together to get humans begetting humans when there is nothing in one’s immediate sphere that illustrates it was not hard for me to buy.) And as a coming of age tale, Ehwa’s story hinges on her innocence and her growing realization of how relationships work between friends and lovers.

Also like Betty Smith’s book, The Color of Earthis a historical novel. It was clear from the introduction that the book does not take place during modern times, so I would have been surprised and somewhat disappointed to find it full of liberated female characters. Ehwa does have spunk. She asks questions and makes logical connections between what people say versus what they do. Growing up in a patriarchal society, Ehwa recognizes that her mother has found a way for them to survive without the help of a man. She also begins to recognize which societal rules her mother breaks while still being able to live in their village unmolested, physically or socially. The public prudishness/private bawdiness of the girls didn’t surprise me either (I went to a Catholic school where this was commonplace). It seemed in keeping with the setting of the book.

What impressed me most was how real and familiar Ehwa’s coming of age felt as I read. I asked many of the same questions about boys, girls, men and women when I was a child. Thinking about my embarrassing moments from back then still make my cheeks flame red. All of my adolescent crushes had everything to do with what I imagined the boy was like and very little to do with the person he actually was. All of my infatuations took place in my head; all of my friendships took place in the real world. Rarely did the two meet up in life.  Ehwa’s mother’s reactions to Ehwa’s situations also felt real. She explained things as best she could using words and images she felt her daughter would best understand. Readers, including teens, won’t have any trouble understanding her euphemisms. They’ve been reading sexual euphemisms their whole lives (there were a few euphemisms for menstruation in the book The Ballad of Lucy Whipple that I read with my fourth-grade niece last night). 

To answer your last question, Kate, I don’t think this is a book written with teens as the intended audience.  Neither, as far as I know, was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. So while I think this is a great book for curious, contemplative teens, I won’t be surprised at all if, as Robin says, it doesn’t fly off the shelves of a teen collection. I nominated this title for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection list.  I’m wondering now if I should have nominated it for an Alex Award instead. Since this book is only one third of the story, I’ll have to read on and see if I made the right decision.

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Ehwa and her first crush, a young monk. Images copyright ©2009 First Second.


Kate:
You raise some great points, Eva!

I agree with you that it would have been out of character for either Ehwa or her mother to behave like "emancipated" women, given the story’s pre-war setting. Kim does an excellent job of showing the difficulties that Ehwa’s mother faces as a single woman running a business and raising a child, demonstrating how a woman in her position must defer to and flatter the men around her to survive. If anything, I found Ehwa’s mother a more sympathetic character than Ehwa — her loneliness and vulnerability are palpable in way that Ehwa’s curiousity about her developing body is not. Of course, that could also be a function of how old I am; I’m about the same age as Ehwa’s mother, give or take a few years, so it’s easier for me to identify with that character.

And while The Color of Earth might not be teen fare per se, it’s great to have something to offer young readers besides I.N.V.U. or President Dad. So many shojo (and, by extension, seong-jun) titles depict young teenage girls as very worldly (at least when it comes to boys), so it’s refreshing to see a girl whose first crushes are age-appropriate and realistic. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed this series as a teen, but that was the age when I read and loved Pearl S. Buck’s novels.

 
Snow: I come from a family that was very open about sexuality. It was okay to ask questions, it was okay to have books on the subject, it was okay to be a sexual being. But on the other hand, I was an almost unbelievably innocent little girl. It was like I couldn’t get the idea that all of the information about how babies were made was actually something that related to me and to those around me. Because I can remember what I was like, but also because I am now older and working with teens Ehwa’s age, while reading this I identified with both Ehwa and her mother. The euphemisms that her mother uses to describe body parts and sex are ones that would have been comforting to me as a little girl and as a young teen and while they are ones that I might not use as much now, I still think they worked for a character who wants to both give her daughter much needed information and allow her daughter to keep her childhood innocence as long as possible.
 
As far as whether or not Ehwa and her mother were "emancipated," her mother was running an inn by herself, which might not have been how she wanted to do it, but she was still making a decent living at it. She was able to use what were essentially good customer service skills to fend off customers’ advances without making them feel insulted so that they would not return. She was raising her daughter competently and lovingly, giving her the skills to be a strong, beautiful, independent woman. And, when the mother did finally find a man she liked, she made the decision to have a sexual relationship with him, even though they were not married. There was no guilt in how the mother felt about the picture man. She liked him, he liked her; they chose, as adults, to have a mutually pleasurable relationship. I think all of those factors make her a very good model for an emacipated woman. I didn’t feel that her mother was passive or subservient in any way. I’d bet that part of that was because of the small village where they lived. In a situation where everyone knows everyone else, it can sometimes be easier for people to accept that a woman could move beyond the traditions most women were bound by.

I definitely agree that this isn’t typical teen fare, but there are always atypical readers, which is why a book like this will find an audience. I’m sure some adult readers will be put off by the frank discussions of sexuality and occasional nudity if they think that those are inappropriate for teens to read about, but even with those elements, this is still an almost chaste story. Ehwa’s mother treats sexuality as a gift to be cherished and not given away to everyone in the world, but saved for those who are truly important to us.

 

I’m interested to see where Kim Dong Hwa will go with the story in the second volume, though. What will his characters do next? How will Ehwa’s life change as she gets older? Coming of age stories can be been-there-done-that, but I think that a story like this one, which shows both the differences and the similarities of people living in different countries and different times, will speak to teens who want something "foreign," but who will also appreciate the comfort of something familiar. Another book series that worked for me in this way, but from a male perspective, was Lat’s Kampung Boy and Town Boy, both also from First Second.

Esther: I really didn’t know what to expect when I started this story. My only expectation, like Eva said, is that the book was being put out by First Second and I don’t think I read anything by First Second that I didn’t like! I also tend to prefer manhwa over manga. 

I can’t say that The Color of Earth resonated with me very well. I found myself uncomfortable at parts — I think frank and open discussion about sexuality and the body rather than all the innuendos would have been easier on me than all the riddles that Ewha’s mother uses. On the other hand, I felt Ewha’s discovering of herself and of her sexuality was quite realistic, starting from a very young Ewha who first discovers boys and girls are built differently to the teenage Ewha whose body is starting to develop as are the feelings that go along with it.

I was taken with the beauty of the art. The beautiful scenes of fields and gardens had me pause and study those pages for details. I was also taken with the Monk’s story — not only is he falling in love, but that love causes an inner struggle with his own religion and path in life that he has chosen — or was it the life chosen for him. I couldn’t tell. That story, I think, would speak to a lot of teens.

I work primarily with middle school students and even my most sophisticated readers are too young for this title. Not because of content per say (that too), but because they haven’t reached that level of maturity to read this title without giggling over the parts.  But there are a couple of my regulars whom I can picture picking up this title or its sort in a few years — as they grow and mature some more.  I agree with Robin, that it’s hard to predict how this book will do with a teen audience. It’s one of those books librarians and other adults will have to put in the hands of the sophisticated teen reader. Even with all its humor, it’s not light reading. I think we also need to keep in mind that this title wasn’t written for teens. It has quite the nostalgic tone — almost as if someone is looking back into their youth — which makes it less appealing, in my opinion, to teens.

The Color of Earth is the first of a three-part series. The second volume, The Color of Water, will be released on June 9, 2009, and the third, The Color of Heaven, will be released on September 1, 2009.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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