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Korean quest for American roots

Clay Walls, by Kim Ronyoung. Sag Harbor, N.Y.: The Permanent Press. 301 pp. $18.95. ``Clay Walls'' is a new contribution to that uniquely American genre, ``literary ethnography,'' the fictionalized accounting of everyday life as reconstructed and sometimes embellished by self-consciously ``ethnic'' writers.

``Clay Walls'' is about Korean-Americans. To tell their story (and, presumably, her own), Kim Ronyoung writes about the period from the 1920s to the 1940s, focusing on the lives of Haesu, the daughter of a noble family, and her husband-by-arrangement, Chun, a peasant's son. They are very different from each other, as different as the strains in their Korean heritage. But those among whom they live and work do not make, or understand, such distinctions. They, and their American-born children, Harold, John, and Faye, are seen as Oriental outsiders, ``Chinks.'' They have to find their way in a new, bewildering, and often hostile world.

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While not a monumental book, ``Clay Walls'' is a loving tribute to the author's roots. Not surprisingly, it is being promoted as a Korean-American complement to Alex Haley's best seller.

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