Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience is already on my list of favourite reads for this year.
I know, I know, it’s only August, but I am certain already (because it literally made me laugh out loud several times and then it made me cry).
It was first produced here in Toronto in 2011 as part of the Fringe festival, and then it toured across Canada, being performed in nine cities, including four runs at Soulpepper Theatre Company which were sold out.
What struck me about the story was just how credible it felt. These characters could have been pulled straight out of the convenience store and stuck to the page.
““It is a Korean story; it is an immigrant story, sure—but at the core of it, it has to do with family and the differences in values of two generations that is a kind of universally appealing theme,” Ins Choi says. (Interview here.)
This quality is evident, too, in Subway Stations of the Cross, but more in terms of the illustrations than the text.
Guno Park’s drawings pf subway travellers are so realistic that on a reread of the book, I actually checked the drawings of the Toronto subway to see if he had caught me riding (no, he did not).
Nonetheless, the inspiration for Subway Stations of the Cross is indeed drawn directly from Toronto again, following the author’s encounter with a homeless man, on a park bench downtown.
“The man spoke about the Hebrew alphabet, European flags, Greek and Norse mythology, biblical UFO’s, Nimrod, giants, fallen angels, and the return of Christ. Initially dismissing him as a crazy man, I soon realized that he was an angel or a prophet of God.”
Traditionally, the stations of the cross are representations of the fourteen scenes in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, but obviously there is a play on ‘stations’ in this work. Faithful Christians have often sought ways to meditate upon these scenes in other places, and make literal or spiritual pilgrimages.
Both author and illustrator grew up at the same church, Toronto Korean Bethel Church. As such, it is not surprising that some of the content of the poems is overtly religious.
“A baby in a manger
Maybe a bit stranger
Maybe a baby in a manger in danger
For this baby in a manger
Will be of great danger
To those sitting on their hills
Eating their fills
With their Jacks and their Jills
Till they’re ill in their bellies and their tills fill with bills.
Because this baby in a manger
is a changer
He’s a rearranger…”
The text is such that it clearly has a more dramatic effect when performed, but even reading silently, one can get a feel for the delivery, with the line breaks and page layout. (There are some images from the show here, along with a video of the author discussing his early writing years, process and the inspiration for SSotC.) Sometimes this seems impossible, as with a set of four lines which repeats five times, but even then, juxtaposed with a particular image, there is another layer of interplay – between illustration and text – for readers to enjoy.
Beyond the openly religious pieces, many address human themes like forgiveness and loss, so the work will appeal to a wide variety of readers.
“…Cuz it’s for you
Forgiveness is for them
But forgiving is for you
From what you are to what you do
From forgiven to forgiving
Cuz it’s for you”
There are even some pop culture references, as in “1980s Sitcom Song”:
“Do you remember watching The Cosby Show
and feeling that moment when Rudy no longer was cute?” […]
“Did you see the one where Mr. T. did a cameo on Diff’rent Strokes?
He was so cool with his mohawk,
he was a man no one dared provoke.”
Throughout, there is a quiet and bold focus on community, even amongst those groups who might not identify as such (for instance, the TTC riders passing through – or boarding on or exiting at – Pape Station).
There is a sense that we are all in this together. The decision to present it as an accordian book perfectly reflects the sense of interconnectedness which simmers beneath the author’s pieces. (Relationships are key to the success of Kim’s Convenience, too.) You can also watch a short video which gives a sense of the book’s construction here.
Who gives a care
Solitaire ye the way of the Lord
Repair ye the way of the Lord”
The illustrations fill any gap which might exist as a result of transforming a spoken-word piece to a two-dimensional product. (You can catch a glimpse into the feel of the production in this video.)
It is simply a beautiful book. And apparently there are no plans at this time to reprint, so if you are keen, you should buy soon.