In THE PICTURE BRIDE, Lee Geum-yi shares the story of Willow, a picture bride who—under the guise of false promises of success and joy—travels from Korea to Hawaii to marry a man she does not know. Today, the author joins us with a letter to librarians to share what inspired her to write the story and the impact she hopes it will have in the hands of readers.
While reading a book about Korean American immigration history, I stumbled upon a black-and-white photograph of three girls each holding something different: a bouquet, a fan, and a sun parasol. The book explained that these girls were picture brides who had left their same village in 1917 to arrive in Honolulu. Two of them in particular, looked just way too young to leave their own family and move across the world—let alone to marry men about whom they knew nothing except for a photograph.
I wondered if these girls were handed the props by the photographer, or whether they were items of their own choosing. The latter possibility—of these girls having weighed their options and chosen different items for different reasons—lifted them off the black-and-white photograph from a century ago and into my heart.
During my research, I came across THE 50 YEARS OF KOREAN AMERICAN IMMIGRATION HISTORY by Kim Won-Ryong. At the end of the book was a list of immigrants who made donations for Korean independence or to new constructions of school buildings. I was moved so much by this list of immigrant donors, many of whom probably had a hard time feeding their own families, yet they still found a way to share what little they may have had for a larger cause. That was a precious archival record of solidarity that I wanted to place at the heart of THE PICTURE BRIDE. Though I named all the main characters myself, the minor characters have their names borrowed from this very list. In doing so, I wanted to pay homage to these immigrant visionaries and adventurers.
History is said to hold up a mirror to the present. This novel is by no means stuck in two limited places, Korea and Hawaii, of a century ago. Even now, every country has many immigrant laborers, as well as immigrant women who married into the country. And many of my readers may come from an immigrant family that left its motherland for some American dream. I sincerely hope that all of those who find THE PICTURE BRIDE will find a piece of their own story in this book.
Amidst this unrelenting pandemic, we’re awash not just with the virus itself but with discordance, bias, and hate. Never has there been a time more in need of philanthropy and sobriety. I hope this story of three picture brides, written by a Korean woman writer, will contribute to enriching and diversifying the bookshelves in English-speaking countries in this time of much emergency.