The Color of EarthThe Color of Earth is the first book of a trilogy by Korean manhwa creator Kim Dong Hwa. Recently released in English for the first time by First Second Books, The Color of Earth is meeting with strong positive word of mouth.
A beautifully illustrated, poetically written tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening and her relationship with her mother, The Color of Earth will be followed in June by The Color of Water and in September with The Color of Heaven. Taken together, the three books will complete the maturing of young Ehwa, a teenage woman uncovering, with the careful guidance of her widowed mother, herself relearning how to open up to another, the mysteries of romantic love, physical infatuation and womanhood.
With helpful translation assistance by the folks at First Second, we asked Kim Dong Hwa about The Color of Earth and its coming sequels.
Newsarama: To start, what inspired the Color trilogy?
Kim Dong Hwa: Since I was very young, I’ve been interested expressing the growth and change (mentally and physically) of a girl in manhwa form. I consider the process of a girl becoming a woman one of the biggest mysteries and wonders of life. And one day when my mother was sleeping in her sickbed, I looked down at her wrinkled face and suddenly realized that she must had been young and beautiful once. Then I started imagining her childhood and youth. What would she have looked like in her 60s, 50s, 40s and etc.? These thoughts inspired me to put my hand to the plow. Ehwa is the result of tracing back my mother’s youth.
The Color of Earth, page 301NRAMA: The comparisons between flowers and love or a woman’s physicality dominate the story, giving the book a very poetic quality. How did you decide on that approach to the narrative?
KDH: I’m very fond of flowers. My back and front yard are full of flowers. I plant, water, and take care of them whenever I have free time. And I also give each of them a special meaning reflecting my former experiences. The flower and the meaning combine into one united entity, becoming inseparable. When a concept flashes through my mind, I have to find a flower that is related to the concept. This influenced the book’s basic composition.
NRAMA: It’s interesting to me how innocent Ehwa is in comparison to her two friends. Ehwa is their friend, but she’s also obviously coming to the world from a very different perspective. What does the contrast between the three girls tell you about Ehwa?
KDH: I wanted to emphasize Ehwa’s innocence and her own perspective with the contrast of the three girls. There’s a risk that some readers may think the sharply contrasted characters are boring or too typical, but the contrast is a way for readers to understand Ehwa’s uniqueness and purity more easily.
The Color of Earth, page 302But I don’t mean to say that Ehwa’s way of life is better than the other two girls’. I just wanted to present the various paths people can take in life on a neutral basis.
NRAMA: Well the other girls are presented very fairly I thought.
Although their romantic relations get considerable play, the real meat of the book is clearly the relationship between mother and daughter. Is it difficult, as a man yourself, to get into that relationship and find that emotional truth?
KDH: If I were to say that I understand women completely, it would a lie. I think there’s a wide river between women and men that men can not immediately cross. So it wasn’t easy for me to understand women’s relationships and emotions, especially a mother and daughter’s. I spent quite long time observing them and trying to figure out the core of their relationship.
The Color of WaterIn Korea, fortunately, the close and profound appreciation of motherhood is widely popular. I had many opportunities to see and hear many anecdotes about it, which helped me a lot to fictionalize it in this trilogy.
In addition, the mother-daughter structure is one that’s common throughout art and literature. This prevalence inspired me, and I really enjoyed the process of the research and contemplation that I went through to tell the Color trilogy.
NRAMA: All of the characters have a duty that complicates their relationships – the monk’s studies, Sunoo’s school, the painter’s travels, the young widow’s work. What does it say that we all have these outside influences that compromise our personal lives?
KDH: The world is full of small and insignificant things. These things end up coming together and creating the history of entire human beings. People can think that each one of their personal decisions, their obligations and responsibilities, are just their own, but the truth is that everything and everyone is connected and related deeply and closely.
Even though the book is set in the early 1900s and the characters and their lives are anachronistic for us, the conflict and hardship in their lives are all applicable to ours and vise versa. We go through numerous conflicts every day because of the discordance between what we want to do and what we should do, and we are forced to choose only one of them. The book is the reflection of that reality.
NRAMA: How long have you been creating manhwa?
The Color of HeavenKDH: I debuted in 1975 presenting My Sky to ‘Daily Hanguk’, one of the most prestigious Korean newspapers of the time. It has been 34 yeas so far, but I always try not to forget my original determination and inspiration.
NRAMA: I found the book very accessible and easy to read, but are there aspects of the book that you worry might be unique to Korean culture or won’t translate to American readers?
KDH: I’m not worried because I trust in American readers. The United States is a combination of diverse cultures and races, and American readers are not only well educated but also open-minded to something new and fresh. The Korean emotions and cultural background from the book will be unfamiliar and exotic, but Americans are equipped with sufficient knowledge and willingness to read and learn. In addition, no matter where and when a life takes place, there are similar things happening all over the world. I know American readers will come to see this.
NRAMA: When were the Color books first published in Korea? Were they originally in the trilogy format that we’re seeing here in the United States?
KDH: The first iteration came out in 1992 in a comic magazine for adults, Twenty Seven, where it was serialized for three years. Then it was published in five volumes even though I originally intended them to be a trilogy. At that time in Korea, a single comic book was not allowed to contain more than 180 pages. After the custom became outdated, we re-bound them as a trilogy.
NRAMA: Does it represent anything special to you to have the Color books in English for American readers now? Do you hope to have other books translated now?
KDH: This is an opportunity for me to meet American readers who have very different cultural backgrounds and values from me. And unlike other manhwa that has been published in U.S., the Color trilogy is the first one I feel has a strong Korean traditional touch. I highly value this aspect myself and I’m proud to be helping my culture and people to become known and appreciated by American readers. If possible, I’d love to have a chance to meet them again through my other books.
The Color of Earth is currently available from First Second Books. Successive books in the Color trilogy, The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, will be published in June and September, 2009, respectively.