The Personal Is Political in Every Revolution

Jimin Han’s A Small Revolution is a fraught, swift, and timely debut

These days, in America, the famous feminist rallying cry from the 1960s “the personal is political” applies universally. In South Korea in the 1980s, when the country was ruled by military dictatorship, the adage applied to many college students fighting for free expression and democracy in the years following the infamous Gwangju massacre, when hundreds of protesters were fired upon and killed. In Jimin Han’s debut A Small Revolution, the personal is political in every scene of this fraught and swift tale that is at once a hostage crisis, a campus love triangle, and a protest novel.

The book begins with the threat of a bang, in a dorm room in Pennsylvania in the fall of 1985 where Yoona and three of her friends are trapped by a gunman. The armed young man is Yoona’s disturbed friend Lloyd, with whom she became close on a summer trip abroad to South Korea. When the police arrive, Lloyd demands to meet President Reagan and the presidents of South and North Korea, ostensibly to request that they arrange the release of Yoona’s first love Jaesung. Yoona believes Jaesung died in a car accident in South Korea. Lloyd, who claims to have been there the night of the accident, believes that Jaesung has been kidnapped by North Korean spies. During this hostage standoff, Lloyd vacillates between states of coherent desperation and full-blown insanity, an ambiguity that raises questions about what really happened on the fateful night of Jaesung’s disappearance.

Narrated in second-person by Yoona to Jaesung, the novel alternates between the standoff in Pennsylvania and flashbacks in South Korea. Yoona, Jaesung, and Lloyd get involved in new pro-democracy protests in Seoul, where they find themselves learning what a real revolution feels like.

We can only brace ourselves as clouds of yellow smoke rise. I hold my hands over my face. The stench of rotten eggs. I bury my face in my shirt. I’m knocked aside. And suddenly there is space and everyone is running. I drop my hands and nearly lose my balance when someone knocks into me. And then it’s as if someone has thrown handfuls of sand lit on fire into my eyes. “Don’t rub them,” your voice comes through the screams now, and every which way people are running. I crouch, just want to crouch down and wipe my eyes until they stop burning. But rubbing them makes them hurt more.

And then a bigger panic sets in. I look but can’t see my hands. And then I feel your hand pull mine along and someone takes my other hand. Your voice calls to me and then Lloyd’s joins in. I’m dragged to one side and then another and then forward.

Yoona is pulled in opposite directions metaphysically: on one side, by her love for Jaesung, and the other, by the political rage represented by Lloyd. The portrayal of the revolution that led to South Korea officially becoming a liberal democracy by 1987 has very real stakes, stakes that make our recent protests against the current administration look quaint. In the following passage, the three college students speak about martyrdom as matter-of-factly as American college students might speak about safe spaces.

“It’s a protest for the world to see,” you said, and I could tell you admired them for it. I felt nervous. It was warm in the restaurant, but a coldness clawed at me.

“They actually think this crazy dictator who’s already killed thousands of his own people gives two shits about kids wrapping themselves in kerosene-soaked sheets, setting themselves on fire, and jumping out of buildings? He’s laughing at them. Fewer people to deal with.” Lloyd’s voice was grim.

“At least they died for something,” you said in a quiet voice, looking calmly at him.

After Jaesung’s disappearance, Lloyd and Yoona try to continue their friendship, but cracks begin to show as the former turns increasingly possessive and unstable. It becomes clearer, though not definitive that the three friends may have been in a love triangle all along with Lloyd and Jaesung competing for Yoona’s affections. Perhaps Lloyd had something to do with Jaesung’s death. The mystery surrounding the night of Jaesung’s disappearance remains by-and-large unsolved, right up until the highly dramatic conclusion. The reliance on unclarified ambiguities left this reader wishing for more pages that might’ve further developed what these characters represented politically. The specifics of South Korea’s historical journey from dictatorship to democracy is also left mostly off the page, as the author chooses to focus this slim novel on the personal ties between the main characters, leaving this reader scrambling to Wikipedia to fill in the historical gaps.

There have been some wonderful and timely protest novels recently. The Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa comes to mind. And in the current political climate in America, there promises to be many more. Han’s entry into this burgeoning genre is a worthy and cinematic debut.

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