A half-black/half-Korean 25-year-old virgin struggles to connect with her mother, who became pregnant with her while working as a prostitute on a segregated American military base in Korea.
This is the crux of the Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis. While it sounds sensationalistic, it isn’t. The book has been hailed by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston and is an admitted work of fiction. To boot, the author didn’t change her life story to sell more copies of it. She’s neither black nor Korean with no ties to the sex trade. Brandeis (pictured below) was simply inspired to write the novel after watching a documentary on the plight of Korean prostitutes on American military bases.
Unlike the books written by authors who embellish their life stories to garner more press and, thus, more sales, the Book of Dead Birds isn’t filled with graphic details of the sex trade or any other underworld. Because of this, the Korean prostitute character isn’t further exploited.
Overall, the Book of Dead Birds is a quiet, lyrical novel that chooses not to pelt readers with a laundry list of its characters’ sufferings. Instead, the novel rewards readers by exploring the healing process, not only of protagonist Ava Sing Lo but of the birds she aids on the Salton Sea, where thousands of birds died from exposure to agricultural run-off.
Initially, Brandeis said that she felt uncomfortable writing about characters with backgrounds so different from hers. Compare this to writers such as Margaret Seltzer and Nasdijj who were willing to claim membership to ethnic minority groups they didn’t belong to just to capitalize on their appeal. Because the two main characters Brandeis dreamed up simply wouldn’t drift from her consciousness, the author ultimately dove into their tales, choosing to use her imagination, conduct research and consult a wide network of people to craft an authentic narrative.
The Book of Dead Birds went on to win Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which supports socially responsible literature. While Gayle Brandeis is certainly not a household name, she’s proof that a quiet tale can be more dignified than the fantastic, grisly ones that seem to be all the rage as of late.