Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

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In Catherine Chung’s Forgotten Country, Janie, the eldest daughter of a Korean immigrant family and a graduate student in mathematics, has always carried the responsibility of appeasing and protecting her little sister Hannah, and has always felt she had to be “the one who had to fill the missing pieces.” On the very day of her sister’s birth, their grandmother tells young Janie that every generation of their family has lost a daughter and that it is her responsibility to keep her little sister safe. When her sister disappears just a few weeks before their father is diagnosed with cancer, Janie is called upon to set aside her studies to find her sister and convince her to return to the family before it is too late.

Janie, the eldest sister, the daughter who strives to please her parents, tries to always behave by a set of given rules of “gratitude, filial duty, and decency.” She is most lost when she must face that which does not conform to a formula or to a set of governing rules of behavior: everything human, like her little sister Hannah and her father’s cancer.

Against the odds of her father surviving his cancer, the family returns to Korea so he can undergo an experimental treatment that—were it to work—would be nothing shy of a miracle: “Miracles, Wikipedia said, were interruptions of the laws of nature that could only be explained by divine intervention.” Janie remains behind in America to find Hannah, tell her of their father’s illness, and bring her to Korea to join the rest of their family.

For Chung, folklore, family stories, and mathematical theorems are all vessels hand-picked for the emotional load they might bear. Like her protagonist, Chung herself is a former student of mathematics, and draws upon the language of mathematics to construct the powerful metaphors that occur throughout the novel: the theory of a knot incapable of unraveling, the theory of a fourth dimension where no two lines intersect one another, of an onion cut in so many little pieces it becomes larger than the sun.

Chung intersects the language of mathematics with the language of literature and storytelling in a unique and lyrical representation of the themes and theorems of human experience. Because the plot of the novel takes several turns that feel forced, the threads of these themes begin to feel like lines in a fourth dimension that fail to intersect one another. Janie wonders how her mother “could sustain such anxiety, how one body could hold it all. Then I realized it was a question of density.” This density is a quality all Chung’s characters share, and the same might be said of Chung’s novel as a whole. Every turn in the plot unveils another buried layer of suffering each family member has endured, alone in silence, resulting in a novel so incredibly dense with personal and political crises that it risks sensationalizing the portrayals of the characters’ experiences. Had some of the more minor plot points been left out, the narrative arc of Forgotten Countrywould have been just as clearly defined and as compelling for readers to follow, and without sacrificing any of the density or depth of character.

I’m drawn to novels written about and by mathematicians. As someone who studied calculus so enthusiastically in high school only to disappoint her parents (both scientists) by going on to study English in undergrad and graduate school, it makes perfect sense to me that mathematicians and writers need one another. Or where the math and English majors inhabit a singular form, like in the instance of mathematician-turned-writer Chung, that they rely on their seemingly conflicting perspectives to gain or build an understanding of the whole of human existence they seek to explore. Where mathematics might fall short, literature can step in and take the reins, or vice versa. Mathematics uses a language free of ambiguities or abstractions. It is a realm where a line can approach infinity without ever having the objective of reaching it, where there is room for “the tiniest insect [to have] as many points on its back as the entire universe.” Chung writes, “…when we talked about math, the words flowed, pure and easy. Here were rules we could both abide by, here was a language that was eloquent, and spoke to us about the world.” Chung draws upon the eloquence and reliability of mathematical theorems to juxtapose the unpredictability of life and illness, even amidst the firmest family ties.

The language of literature, unlike the language of mathematics, is wonderfully imperfect; human, wavering, often times arbitrary, and always vulnerable. In her resilient debut novel, Chung refuses to spare her characters or her readers these vulnerabilities.


Melissa Queen is currently a graduate student in creative writing at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in the poetry journal Foothill. More from this author →