Excerpt from Secondhand World by Katherine Min, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Secondhand World

by Katherine Min

Secondhand World by Katherine Min X
Secondhand World by Katherine Min
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 288 pages
    Feb 2008, 288 pages

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Print Excerpt

Secondhand World

My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days on a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State Medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 a.m.

It's very isolating to recover from a severe burn injury. The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus. While your skin tissue rages and dies, you try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts. Nursery rhymes are sometimes useful, as are television theme songs and knock-knock jokes.

Here's a riddle. A jumbo jet takes off from New York en route to Vancouver with 246 people on board. There's a massive snowstorm, visibility worsens, passengers pray and panic. The pilot loses control, and the plane ends up doing a nosedive on the border of the United States and Canada. The weather is so bad it takes the rescue helicopters two days to get to the remote crash site in the mountains. When they finally manage to land, amid the snow and the wreckage, they're confronted with a terrible dilemma. Since the plane crashed exactly on the boundary line separating the two countries, the recovering authorities don't know whether to bury the survivors in Canada or the United States.

It took me a while to get it. The trick is knowing where to focus. There's so much clamor and confusion—the plane, the storm, the panic—that you're easily thrown off. You end up overlooking what you should have noticed right away.

The fact is that survivors aren't buried. They keep walking around. They go through the varied motions of normalcy, trying to forget the screams, the shudder of the fuselage, the sound of crumpling metal. The frozen wait among the dead for rescue.


Many years before the fire that killed my parents, there was another fire. In Seoul, Korea, my mother had grown up among a harem of sisters, hoarded like treasure, quarantined like contagion, inside a high wall that contained the buildings and courtyards of the Chung family compound. My grandfather was a high-ranking government official who spent most of his time carousing with kesang girls and gambling at cards. My grandmother, herself the daughter of a high-ranking official, was terse and irritable, weighted by disappointment in birthing only girls.

One night when my mother was eleven, a treat was set up in the cramped building where the servants slept. It was the viewing of one of the first silent films from America, obtained somehow by my grandfather, along with an ancient projector that wheezed and smoked as it threw its jangled images upon the wall.

The room was hot and crowded, but my mother hardly noticed, so taken was she by the figures of the dancing women. They wore loose clothing that floated behind them as they danced, with emblematic jewelry, and makeup that emphasized their wide eyes and sensuous lips. Alabaster skin, marcelled hair piled high. My mother had never seen such women. Their serpentine sway—unaccompanied by music or sound of any kind, except the restless movement of the children and the hawking of the projector—was intricate, hypnotic. They were like Grecian goddesses come to life, like the sculpted caryatids my mother had once seen in a book in her father's library. She began to move along with them, in time to the unheard music. Her older sister Hae Ja pushed her away. "Hsst," she whispered, pinching her hard on the underside of the upper arm.

My mother huddled close to the projector. She watched as the strip of film wound around the metal spools in a tilting figure eight. Light from inside the machine streamed out toward the wall, thick with lolling dust. She looked up at the screen and then down to the projector again, trying to discover where they hid, these bright ladies, slender, swaying columns of pure grace. The old projector sputtered and paused and, before the audience had time to protest, the dancers disappeared in a spreading sepia bubble. Both film and projector burst into flames.

Excerpted from Secondhand World by Katherine Min Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Min. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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