Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 29 October 2019)
Every mother deserves a child as expressive in their devotion as Joan Sikand is in her memoir to her mum.
‘Mrs Sikand’s Sunflower A Memoir’ is a testimony from an adoring daughter whose admiration for her mother is manifest in both her glowing introduction to her mum and in her inclusion of her mother’s oil and pastel paintings in the book. There are almost 50 in all.
The mother’s artwork is naturalistic and intimate, featuring her family in domestic poses as well as lovely landscapes, still life’s, nudes and graceful birds in flight.
What makes the artworks most remarkable is the way the beauty and simplicity of her paintings contrasts sharply with the painful journey she made out of North Korea when it was occupied, first by Japanese, then by Communists who subjected her to incarceration (more than once), starvation and torture.
Sikand explains it all in face-paced detail, including how her mother finally made it to the US on a scholarship, then met and married her dad. What we don’t learn is where the mum learned how to paint so well that she was eventually able to maintain the family by painting portraits for rich New York City elites.
The mother’s life story often blends in with Sikand’s o. For she too got scholarships first to Brandeis University, then to the UK where she met and married her Kenya-born spouse who brought her home to a life antithetical to the one her mother endured.
Sikand is clearly a student of comparative religions and her cosmic consciousness permeates the poetry that she has written and interspersed with her mother’s paintings. The poems that touched me most were those that revealed the truths of her mother’s everyday life experience and the way she managed to overcome all of that hardship largely through her art
Several of Sikand’s early poetry books also blended artists’ paintings with her verse. As a consequence of previous research for those books, she managed to find the right publisher who appreciates Sikand’s original style of aesthetics.
It is common knowledge that few publishers anywhere care to publish books of poetry since they tend not to be best sellers. But Sikand discovered Pathpress. They not only appreciate the author’s poetry but also the artistry of her mum.
The one peculiarity about Mrs Sikand’s Sunflower is the way the author only mentions her mother’s name once in the introduction. Her Korean name is Chang Jung Chwe. And at age 90, she is alive and appreciative of her daughter’s labor of love.
But since we don’t know if Chang changed her name once she became a naturalized American citizen, it’s an important detail to find out. For Chung deserves the recognition that Sikand’s book will begin to bring. But if the daughter expects to see her mother’s name and reputation as a world class Asian-American artist grow, we will need to know what name to give her. And that must be done as soon as possible.