When You Trap a Tiger: Tae Keller's 2020 BGHB Fiction and Poetry Honor Speech

Thank you so much for this award. I am so honored and grateful. Receiving it is surreal, because the fact that this book even exists is still surreal. To be honest, I was afraid to write it. I almost didn’t write it. Many times, I nearly quit. It felt too personal, too honest. And yet I kept coming back to it.

This story was sparked into existence a few years back, when my sister and I begged our halmoni to teach us to make kimchi. She protested (Go buy from the store. No time for that!), but we flattered her (Your kimchi is the best. Really, truly!) until she agreed.

Kimchi-making is a long process. The cabbage needs time to salt and soak, so we filled the waiting with stories. Tell us, we begged, about Korea. Here she protested, too, as she often did when we asked about her past. But the waiting wore her down, and finally she relented.

She told us stories we’d never heard before — about growing up in her village, about not being able to speak her own language during the Japanese occupation, about walking in circles at lunchtime to distract herself from hunger when she couldn’t afford rice. She told us about life after leaving Korea, how she ached with homesickness. How she eventually made a home in the U.S., where she sat with her daughters and fed them bites of kimchi.

But don’t listen to my stories, she said again and again. Too sad. I couldn’t explain, exactly, the drop-kick in my chest. I couldn’t express what it meant to learn just how strong she was, to discover a family history I’d never known. I wanted to tell her how her tales had unlocked a door inside me — but I didn’t have the words.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2020 BGHB Fiction and Poetry winners.]

To find them, I started writing. I wove my family history into Korean history into fiction into fairy tale. I felt connected to my grandmother and my identity more than I ever had, but I worried that I’d taken on too much. This story was too big. Where did it start — where did it end? Yet every time I tried to give up, I thought of my halmoni saying, Too sad, don’t listen.

Here’s the thing: when we talk about immigration in this country, we often speak about the struggle of uprooting, the red tape, the rampant racism, the trauma passed down through generations. All those things are very real. And those are the things we must fight to change, because here’s the other thing: there is so much more to us and our families. There’s so much more to our story.

My grandmother has filled her life with laughter. She is radiant. And I wanted to write a book that highlights not just the pain of being “othered” in America, but also the strength, magic, and joy of my heritage and my family.

In writing this book, I found a way to tell my grandmother that her history isn’t something to hide. I am proud of where I came from; I am proud to be hers.

Our story is not a tragedy. Our story is ongoing.

From the January/February 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB20. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Tae Keller.

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