She was 6 years old when her father’s mistress arrived at the house.
Today, 64 years later, Maija Rhee Devine still remembers what her mother said to the mistress: “Welcome to my husband’s bed. Bear many sons with him.”
They produced four sons and a daughter. But the daughter already in the house didn’t understand. That was Devine, who didn’t know that for years her mother had failed to bear children — a dire situation, according to the Confucian, male-dominant, son-preferring tradition then observed by many in South Korea. She also didn’t realize she had been adopted.
For decades, Devine resisted telling the story of the mistress and the effect of that woman’s presence upon her mother’s health, as well as her own self-esteem.
But today that story is generating international reaction.
In February, the Lee’s Summit mother of five grown children appeared on South Korean television to discuss her father’s decision, her mother’s reaction and the effect of such tradition on the birth rate of girls in South Korea.
On Wednesday, Devine will read from her recent novel, based upon this story, at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library. She’ll do the same at scheduled readings in California, Washington state and New York.
She’ll detail how her mother grew depressed but persevered with a resolve to see her daughter succeed and be “better than 10 boys.” Devine did her best to do that, completing college and attending graduate school in the United States before marrying an American Peace Corps volunteer and rearing a family with him.
“It’s a shocking story to those who grew up in Western culture,” Devine said.
“My mother loved my father and didn’t want to share him. “But she had to behave like a good Confucian wife. The Confucian expectation was for her to be brave, suppress her own emotions and welcome the mistress for the common good of the family.”
Meanwhile, adults blamed Devine for her mother’s melancholia.
“Every day, neighbors would spoon-feed her medicine, look at me and say, ‘If that girl had been a boy, this would not have happened.’ ”
The mistress arrived in 1949. North Korea invaded the next year. Soldiers began conducting Communist indoctrination classes across Seoul. Late one night, soldiers pounded on her parents’ door, demanding rice.
But the drama inside the house was just as dislocating for Devine. Her parents chose to honor the emphasis on male heirs in place during the Choson, or Yi, Dynasty, which lasted from the late 14th century through 1910, when Japan annexed Korea. But even during the several ensuing decades, Devine said, married couples still were expected to produce sons. If there were problems, Devine said, husbands sometimes kept mistresses for that purpose.
For years she resisted committing the story to paper, despite the urgings of her husband, Michael.
“Children were not supposed to verbalize,” said Devine, 70. “Even now, whenever I talk about it, my voice starts shaking.”
That changed in 1992 in Wyoming, where her husband had taken a job at the state university in Laramie. A friend persuaded Devine to enroll in a memoir-writing class almost 300 miles away in Sheridan.
“Michael dropped me off and practically just left my bags in the parking lot,” Devine said. “He didn’t want me to change my mind.”
Devine’s first assignment: Write two pages on her earliest memory. She wrote of the mistress arriving and what her mother said. Classmates teared up. The instructor told Devine to devote a year to the story. Devine gave it six.
“I would write for an hour, run to the bathroom and cry for two hours, and then write some more,” she said.
Later she began taking individual scenes, rewriting them as fiction and placing them in journals such as The Kenyon Review.
A New York agent told Devine to keep doing that. Her novel, “The Voices of Heaven,” appeared last year.
The title is an echo of her mother’s name, Eum-chun, the first part of which means, “sound” or “voice,” and the second means, “heaven,” or “sky.”
In the book, the daughter, based on Devine, learns 25 years after the mistress arrived that she had been adopted. In reality, Devine said, she learned that right after college.
“I had already been psychologically damaged about not being a boy and having caused this disaster,” she said. “I carried that burden, even though it was not really mine.”
Devine’s parents found a way to maintain their relationship, even though the mistress chose to continue to produce children with her father. A woman routinely was defined by the man she was with, Devine said. Eventually her father moved the mistress and her children to a different home. Devine and her mother, meanwhile, stayed in an apartment close to her school. Her father supported them and visited every week, staying overnight.
“They were like newlyweds,” Devine said. “Their love survived.”
Her father, Gui-yong, died in 1972. Her mother died in 1992.
The mistress, Soo-yang in the novel, died five years ago. Devine said she has forgotten her real name.
In 2001, Devine moved to Lee’s Summit when her husband became director of the Truman Library in Independence. All five of Devine’s children, reared in America, are familiar with their mother’s story about the mistress. But some aren’t sure how they feel about their mother’s book, which discusses sexuality in a candid manner.
“All children want to believe their parents don’t know anything about sex,” Devine said
Others are fascinated. “There are a lot of good books in Korean-American literature, but this one is unique in that it provides a window into Korean society in the middle-20th century and reveals problems with the Confucian culture,” said John Han, a South Korea native and English professor at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis County.
That culture largely has disappeared from South Korea today, Han said.
While appearing on South Korean television recently, Devine described how many parents observed Confucian culture well into the 1990s. One result, she said, was an increase in aborted female fetuses as developing ultrasound and amniocentesis technology allowed expectant parents to learn more about their children before birth.
In 1994, Devine said, as many as 30,000 female fetuses may have been aborted in South Korea, according to government figures. During her recent visit to Seoul, Devine organized a ceremony featuring the number “20” prominent on a cake, referencing girls who would have turned 20 years old in 2014 had they been born.
“It was not a political anti-abortion event, but just an event to remember the spirits of these girls,” she said.
Talk by author
Maija Rhee Devine speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more information, go to KCLibrary.org.