This Korean Woman Reads: Review Of “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” By C Pam Zhang

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song

“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.

Headlines: How Much of These Hills is Gold takes us back to the 1800s against the backdrop of the Gold Rush, yet the themes in this book transcend time. Written by a young Chinese-American writer, this story reminds us of how history is repeating itself for Asians facing hate in America. But in 2020, we have our own voice to tell the story.

Mood: Emboldened

Pair with: Your favourite ‘ugly delicious’ comfort food. Embrace what makes you think of home – it doesn’t have to be neat and pretty.

I found this book in an article introducing the Booker Prize longlist for 2020. Out of habit, I did a quick ‘are there any Asians here’ scan and found C Pam Zhang. Glad to find a title by an Asian female writer (who is actually writing about Asians) among the list, I was drawn to the premise of her book: the ‘re-imagining the Wild West with an Asian twist’.

The story starts with two girls on the day they are orphaned as they struggle to give their father a proper burial. Heavy stuff. Turning over the first few pages, I realised how much reading How Much of These Hills is Gold would stir up my ghosts of love and loss. The way she tells the story made me think of my ex lover. Zhang is Beijing born and so was he. Zhang’s words are bold, punchy and sparse but not unkind. Just like his were. Her writing made me hear his way of talking and his name for me: qin ai de (‘darling’ in Mandarin).

Zhang’s prose is like an athlete, lean and swift moving, giving away the highly disciplined training that led to its present form. She gives legs to emotions like ‘terror’ and ‘temper’ – driving her characters’ (in)actions, pulling her reader deep into a realm of empathy. 

Image via Amazon

It was difficult to deny that this was a magnificent debut novel worthy to be longlisted for such a prestigious prize as the Booker. But it was hard to fathom that someone so young could write so well (she’s in her 30s but younger than me therefore obviously so young). I had to pause my reading for a moment to quell my envy at Zhang’s brilliance.

Part two opens with a sentence that, for me, felt like the antithesis of Albert Camus’ opening in his classic L’Étranger – “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” By starting with the death of ‘the mother’, Camus writes of life in nihilism, which made me feel a strong unease. Contrast this with Zhang, who writes: Ma is their sun and she is their moon”.  Life is affirming and eternal through ‘the mother’ in this book, which is far less foreign to me.

As I read on to parts three and four, my initial envy had melted into reverence for Zhang. In fact by page 245, I even felt a sisterly grief for the author because she was a young woman who was already so intimate with the scattered spirit of the diaspora – the pain of our ‘inbetweenness’ – as seen in this passage:

Across the ocean the people will look like them, but they won’t know the shapes of these hills, or the soughing of grass, or the taste of muddy water – all these things that shape Lucy within as her eyes and nose shape her without.

I counted that this story asks ‘what makes home a home?’ no less than a half dozen times without making the question feel repetitive or frivolous. With each questioning, I shared Zhang’s yearning to truly know what home is. I, too, had a (long) journey in search of this, which I had come to peace with as simply ‘within’. 

Coming to the end of this book, I thought back to the author’s first words: This land is not your land. She has created a story where the spirits, the flora and fauna precede or coexist with the human form; and the West has proved unconquerable by greed. Could Asians living there see the land as she does? Now that would make the West truly wild.

Buy this book as a gift to: a) Americans who feel their homeland is politically unravelling, for this story is a history lesson to be heeded to; b) BIPOC writers, for this story sets the gold standard in how our authentic voice can be used; and c) your beloved still healing from the scars of grief and abandonment, for this story is a soothing healer waiting to be found.

Here’s to happy reading,

This Korean woman reads

You can follow Anna Song on Instagram by clicking on “This Korean Woman Reads”

Header image via Resonate

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