Wondra Chang, a retired family therapist and Korean immigrant, has proven at 75 that it’s never too late to write that long-envisaged novel or memoir. While achieving such an inspiring achievement herself, the San Antonio author did so much more.
Sonju (Madville Publishing, 2021, Dallas), Chang’s debut novel, was recently selected as one of the best independent books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews, a remarkable achievement for a beginning author.
Sonju chronicles the life of a young Korean woman born into a prosperous and status-conscious family in the aftermath of World War II. The cruel Japanese occupation has ended after 35 years, but the destructive and destructive Korean War will soon be unleashed. It is a time when profound social, political, economic and cultural changes are beginning to take shape. The brief peace of 1946 gives a 19-year-old woman in Seoul the dream of accessing a university education and imagine the power of equal status with his brother and, one day, in marriage.
Unfortunately for Sonju, she is caught in the stifling confines of family Confucian traditions even as the onset of modernity encroaches on the long-existing social order in the capital, Seoul.
Sonju stubbornly resists her own family’s values. But her father’s authority can never be questioned, and her mother blindly submits to the patriarchy and insists that her daughter do the same.
While pursuing her short story and poetry writing, Sonju falls in love with fellow college student Kungu. The two hope to get married after graduation when Kungu can land a good job. But her family’s low social status makes such a union taboo in the eyes of Sonju’s parents, who believe her marriage should preserve and promote the family’s social advancement and economic status. Fearing that the young couple will run away, they hastily arrange Sonju’s marriage to someone the family does not know and have not met, a negotiated contract between two families of approximate rank and resource.
Sonju is exiled to her husband’s clan village, far from the bustling capital, living under the control of her husband’s father. Her husband is an aloof and emotionless figure, always on a business trip, and Sonju learns by sleeping with other women.
The Korean War, with Chinese and American proxies supporting North and South Korean forces, soon envelops the country and future clouds even more. Sonju ultimately plots her desperate escape from the wedding and the village, causing both families to banish her in shame.
Her first job in Seoul as a hostess in a restaurant and club turns out to be a solicitation to work as a prostitute. She runs away again.
Chang creates a number of well-executed twists as Sonju navigates between opportunity and the limits of freedom as a single woman adrift in 1950s Seoul. The pain she endured in a captive marriage strengthens her to survive the pain she endures living alone. In the end, she finally finds true love a second time in life.
I resisted the opening Sonju for months after a copy arrived in my office. My expectations were low, not knowing the author, who was gentle in her periodic exhortations that I read her work. I never imagined that I would be taken on such an engaging journey of learning about Korean culture by a Korean American writer living in San Antonio.
I had been to Korea twice in the 1980s as a journalist, and although I remember the calm, restrained hospitality of the people and the distinctive, somewhat fiery cuisine I tasted in Seoul, I I was concerned about visits to the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. , a tense no man’s land separating North and South Korea.
Now, decades later, I found myself sitting at the Seoul Food restaurant, a mile from the gates of Fort Sam Houston. Chang had asked to meet there for our interview, assuring me that he served the best Korean food in San Antonio.
It’s no coincidence that Seoul Food and the Korean enclave of modest restaurants, grocery stores, salons and shops on Harry Wurzbach Road and nearby Rittiman Road are located so close to the fort. Many American servicemen returned from the Korean War with Korean wives. Most of the city’s Korean and Korean American community are rooted in this era. Families settled near Fort Sam and opened small businesses.
The size and prosperity of the local community surprised me. Many successful small businesses and retail businesses are owned by Korean families, including 10 of the stores in North Star Mall. The roughly 9,000 Korean and Korean American residents — considered an undercount — who live in San Antonio can choose from more than a dozen Korean-owned restaurants, 15 Korean churches, two language schools and various institutes. and cultural celebrations, according to Korean American. Cultural Center of San Antonio.
The sound of Korean language echoed through Seoul Food as I waited for Chang to arrive. Hyun Suk Lee, a soft-spoken formal woman, greeted regulars and shuttled to and from the kitchen while her husband Ho Lee handled the cash register.
Ashley Bellitt, who came to the United States from Korea when she was 2 years old and now works at Seoul Food, offered me a running commentary on local Korean culture and cuisine, and later enjoyed looking at my eyes widen up after tasting jjampong, the spicy seafood soup she recommends.
“This is the basic version I served you, which lacks the intense flavors of the spicy version we eat,” Bellitt said. When I protested that I was no stranger to eating jalapeño and serrano infused dishes, she laughed.
“Mexican food is not hot,” Bellitt said.
Chang and I settled into our conversation and wondered out loud if Sonju was autobiographical.
I am not Sonju,” Chang said, “but there are elements in the book of my own life and experience.”
“My father was a trained banker during the Japanese occupation,” Chang said. “A whole generation was forced to speak Japanese and even change its name as Japan sought to make Korea a second-class annex of its country.”
Chang benefited from a family that valued education and parents who treated their two daughters and one son as equals.
“Under the circumstances at the time, my parents had a hard time, but they were very progressive,” Chang said. “My mother said, ‘I will treat girls and boys the same.’ My brother didn’t like it because my grandparents told him he had to be the head of the family.
Chang won a regional writing contest in Korea at the age of 10 while producing news daily. She studied journalism in high school, admiring First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, herself a former journalist, from afar. She enrolled at the prestigious Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, which translates to Pear Blossom Women’s University, which at the time only accepted single women.
“At the time, we didn’t mix races in Korea, even though American servicemen were everywhere, but most of the women who met servicemen at that time were prostitutes,” Chang said.
Chang’s English studies in Seoul led her to her first marriage to a State Department employee who was her teacher in a US-sponsored language program, interrupting her college studies when the couple moved in Augusta, Georgia. A second marriage would take her to New Orleans and, later, to Houston and Corpus Christi. She became an American citizen along the way and earned an undergraduate degree in Augusta and a graduate degree in Corpus Christi.
Chang then returned to Korea to work as a family therapist with U.S. servicemen from the 2nd Infantry Division and their families in the DMZ. After a few years she returned to Corpus Christi but was soon recruited to work at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in Victoria where she met Bernard Rauch, her current husband and a retired civil servant. They moved to San Antonio in 2008 in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
One of Chang’s sisters lives in Georgia, while her other sister and brother live in Korea. Chang has a daughter, Suanne Chang Soon-Jee, who lives here, and a son, Dennis Bilbe Jr, who lives outside of Houston.
As she found her voice as a writer, Chang enrolled in Gemini Ink classes, where she met both published and unpublished writers, and she joined the San Antonio Writers Guild. This support system, she said, proved essential for her to complete the book and find a publisher.
Now, while Chang remains busy promoting Sonjushe’s also working on a second novel set in Korea, though she hints it won’t be a sequel.