TSS – A big disappointment

I’ve mentioned a couple of times the Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa and usually along with a mention of how much I was enjoying it.  Unfortunately, since I’ve finished the third one in the series I’ve become completely disillusioned with the coming of age story about a young girl,  Ehwa, a hundred years ago or so.  What’s interesting is that I only started feeling this way after I found out that the author is a man.

Forgive me for my uncertainty – Kim is a name that, at least in the US, can be female or male, and the author photograph is a little ambiguous.  So while there were some things about the manwha (Korean comic) that bothered me, the fact that they were coming from the perspective of a woman and it took place in a time where focusing on your marriage prospects was really what you had to look forward to, let me give The Color of Earth a favorable review.  I still don’t necessarily fault the trilogy for the focus on marriage – that probably was the focus of young girls during this time period.  However, now that I know the author is a man, I’m much more uncertain about the way he portrayed the female characters in the Color Trilogy and disagree completely that he writes beautifully from the perspective of a woman.

Eventually,  the little things that bothered me in the first book got worse and worse.  What seemed charming in The Color of Earth, like the overly poetic language, seemed overdone and unrealistic.  But most of all, there were parts that were downright offensive, that no amount of historical setting could correct.  If I sat down with Kim Dong Hwa and told him my concerns, if he defended himself with the setting and difference in time period and culture, I would remind him that even if your setting isn’t modern, your readers are.   There are certain things that are inappropriate, and honestly were probably inappropriate by any standard, not just modern ones.  Also, there should be consistency.  I don’t understand how Ehwa and her mother could be so forward thinking in many ways and yet so backwards in others.  Ehwa seems to understand sex and certainly how her body works, but then is mysteriously naive at other times.

Was this comic realistic?  No, I don’t think so.  It seemed like the author was confused about whether he wanted to be faithful to the time period or if he wanted the setting simply for aesthetic purposes.  And let’s take a break to talk about aesthetics: the Color Trilogy is beautiful and well drawn.

What really intrigues me about this whole experience is the fact that I wasn’t upset by these aspects when I thought they came from a woman.  Why?  Should I have been?  Was there less offensive language and situations in The Color of Earth, so maybe I only noticed it more after I realized the gender of the author?  If the author was a woman, would that make any of what was so disappointing about the Color Trilogy less disappointing? I don’t know.  It’s impossible to say, but I know that I won’t be recommending these books anymore.  There’s just a lot here that I wouldn’t want younger girls reading.  I know that there are a lot of people out there who enjoyed these books, so give them a try and form your own opinion, but I’m going to be returning these to the library without looking back.


16 thoughts on “TSS – A big disappointment

  1. Interesting. I never knew (or thought I knew) the gender of the author, but when I read through the first 10 pages or so, I got the impression that it was a man writing. Particularly when the little kids were having the peeing contest or whatever it was. Those first 10 pages turned me off so much that I actually never bothered to read the rest of the book. From what you’re saying here, I guess I’m glad I didn’t…

  2. I think if the story had been written by a woman, there’s always the possibility that she was writing things that were true to her experience. Women can still be offensive and sexist, but in some ways I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when telling female stories because there is no singular “Female Experience” that we all share. When a man is telling a woman’s story, however, some of that leeway evaporates because “possible variations in experience” then falls into “unfortunate implications” as a best case scenario.

  3. While I appreciate your candor here, Lu, the change of heart you talk about brought about by learning the author’s gender makes it seem like you might have a double standard in place for male and female writers. Is that actually true? Or what you meant to imply? That’s your business entirely, of course, but interesting stuff to hear about nonetheless!

    1. Richard: The problem I have is that I don’t know. I would have to go back and reread The Color of Earth to see if I still had the problems I encountered in the last two books of the trilogy, with the knowledge that the author is male. I think I still would have had problems with certain aspects (ex: forgiving two men for making jokes about raping a woman) even if the author was a woman. It’s just interesting the way our perceptions change when we learn one thing or another about the author. In the case of this trilogy, it was a serious change, but I can’t tell if it is based only on the gender of the author or based on the content of the second two books.

  4. Love the new blog design!

    Hmmm . . . That’s an interesting thought about male v. female authors and offensive depictions of women. Honestly, I think I take slightly less offense at misogyny if it’s coming from a woman too. I already hate Twilight but if it had been written by a man, I’d be absolutely livid! But I know it’s a double standard and I really can’t explain it.

    1. EL Fay: The problem I have with this is that I’m not sure if it was an issue with the last two books or a problem that was present all along and something I would have ignored. That’s a good point about Twilight!

  5. I enjoyed The Color of Earth when I read it but never made it through The Color of Water. Something offended me but I don’t remember the specifics. Now I’ll have to take another look.

    1. Gavin: I think The Color of Earth must just have been better, but if you think about it, Ehwa was younger and more innocent and therefore her story was more innocent.

  6. I think “Kim” might be his last name, actually? Even if it is read that way, to me “Hwa” is also ambigiuous (I don’t know too much about Korean names).

    I also think it is a lot harder for men to convincingly portray female characters than it is for women writers to portray male characters.

    Sometimes, in a series, what may seem interesting and charming at first can begin to grate and also seem wrong. Perhaps it’s a matter of the reader “awakening” to the true tone of the story?

  7. I found this discussion to be really interesting! I am awfully aware that many people think the same way as you, that knowing the gender of the author changes everything, especially for us girls. (I think guys are far less sensitive to be offended.) I’m not saying it’s not happening to me at all, but I am so aware of it that I constantly remind myself not to lash that double standard. One very obvious example is rape in fiction. When written by a woman, it’s totally fine and realistic. But when written by a man it’s misogyny and self-indulgence. Uum.. (of course there would be heated debates about the way it is written that matters etc.)

    1. Mee: I try really hard to not let it bother me, and I don’t know that it usually does. That’s why I wonder if this was really more an issue with the books themselves that would have impacted me whether the author was a woman or a man.

  8. The problem is that men and women live different experiences. When a woman writes misogynistic characters, I am probably more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she’s aligned herself against those characters, just because she’d be the object of their (fictional, I know, but it makes a difference) misogyny. When it’s a man writing it, he starts out on the powerful side of the gender divide, and I’m more likely to wonder if his male characters are stand-ins for him. It’s the same as being less confident of the authenticity of an Indian writer’s portrayal of India, as compared to an American’s. The experiences I assume on the part of the author make a difference to how I judge his or her writing. But like you, I can’t decide how I should feel about this, or whether I should change it in my own mind (somehow). Hrrrmmmmm.

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