WHILE DUNKIN might have you believe that America runs on coffee and donuts, the truth is that this country is fueled by one fundamental power source, and one alone: hope. Hope that if we put in time and hard work and make all the right decisions, tomorrow we’ll reap the benefits of what we sow today. For immigrants, what lies at the heart of this hope is the ‘American dream,’ the idea that a brand-new life of success and happiness awaits anyone who manages to step foot onto US soil. It’s a bewitching fantasy, one that has drawn millions of people to this country and which continues to shape the face of the nation.
In her sophomore novel Translations of Beauty, author Mia Yun suggests that the American dream loses much of its shimmer when viewed in the cold, harsh light of reality. She tells the story of Korean-born twins Inah and Yunah, who emigrate to the United States as young children due to a horrible accident that disfigured Inah’s face permanently. The novel, narrated by a twenty-eight-year-old Yunah, is split between flashbacks recounting their childhood in Flushing and the struggles their family faced and a present-tense of account of her unwilling reunion with Inah in Italy.
While the structure of the novel and Yun’s penchant for descriptive imagery can make it a slower read, the value of this novel lies in the way that it links the immigrant experience with ideas of physical beauty, opportunity and guilt. The twins’ mother, so sure that in America Inah’s disfigurement will be of no consequence, is forced to watch in despair while Inah suffers endless torment from children and stares from adults. To be successful in America you must be beautiful, she realizes hopelessly, pushing Inah relentlessly to make something of herself.
Yet, just how her life in America isn’t what she expected, Inah doesn’t fulfill all her expectations, either. Yunah, who grows prettier as she ages, is spared this torture, but the guilt she feels at being the twin to escape that fate binds her to Inah as she struggles to find her own identity. Yunah looks at Inah with fear and guilt because she recognizes that her sister’s life could easily have been hers, and she hates herself for feeling secret relief that it isn’t after all. She has all the opportunity in the world with a pretty face to match, according to her mother, sister and society. So why does Yunah ultimately come off as lost as Inah?
Translations of Beauty doesn’t offer any answers to that question. What it does do, however, is force us as readers to question the extent to which physical beauty impacts our ability to be successful. What kind of inner strength– inner beauty– would you have to develop if you were constantly forced to confront a hostile world like Inah is? And what does that say about American society at large and its obsession with physical perfection?
The first step to finding out is in asking the questions in the first place.