I wrote Rituals of Separation as a love song to my childhood in the country of South Korea, and as an exploration of issues of belonging and cultural identity. South Korean artist Minouk Lim once said, in reference to her art, “Today, under the changes caused by globalization, places are counted only as space; individuals are merely a resource or networking. Nietzsche was said to have wept as he embraced a downtrodden horse, but I want to weep, embracing places. Nevertheless, I also want to fight against the sense of powerlessness caused by melancholy, whether it is the feeling that overwhelmed Nietzsche, or any other kind. So I am inventing rituals for, and keeping records of, moments of separation.”
As I thought about the long period of grief I went through after my family left South Korea, I was struck by this idea of the “powerlessness caused by melancholy.” For many years I was stuck in grief and homesickness. Writing the book was, for me, a “ritual of separation,” to not only make a record of, but to acknowledge the lasting impact of that childhood and that country on me, to understand why that moment of separation, the day we left Korea, became such a pivotal before and after moment.
I also wrote Rituals of Separation to make a record of that time. To remember what happened in Korea at that pivotal juncture in my family’s history and the country’s history, when South Korea was still recovering from a horrific war that divided the nation into two, industrializing at a rapid pace, and seeing the burgeoning of a democracy movement that would eventually lead to the toppling of a long line of dictators. I wrote the book for the many people who, like me, have felt the deep loneliness of non-belonging, who understand that nostalgia for home doesn’t always manifest itself in a quaint feeling of longing, but can feel like an affliction. I wrote the book to find healing. As I say at the end of the first chapter, “After we left Korea, I balanced precariously between two lives, unsure how to go back and unable to move forward. I had to come to terms with all I had seen in those years. I had to look into the ways of the people and places that formed me and find myself, like a pebble sorted from rice. And I learned to pick up the pieces of an unrooted adulthood time and time again. For what is lost can’t always be recovered. Sometimes the only way to move on is to learn to let go, to be deeply grateful for what we had, to know we will never be the same for what we have seen. To learn that maybe, just maybe, our fractured parts do, after all, make a whole.