Jimin Kang

Nothing Like the Old Masters

The summer a Brazilian won the Van Cliburn piano competition, my mother decided that she loved the classics. There’s nothing like the old masters, she said. Soon the books started stacking up in our home: Beethoven’s biography, coffee table primers on Botticelli. At the time, I was in a graduate seminar on the first Portuguese explorers to arrive in Brazil. I told my mother that if she was motivated to love the classics because a Brazilian had won the competition, why was she so fixated on the European elite? If she was proud of her country, she would read and listen to the Brazilian greats: Villa-Lobos, Guimarães Rosa, the Andrades. Caetano Veloso or Gilberto Gil, even, for a contemporary touch.

The following week in the bathroom of our small São Paulo apartment, I found a partially annotated copy of Grande Sertão: Veredas. By then I had submitted a long paper on Cabral and been commissioned to assist with my supervisor’s latest project, a book review discussing a new translation of Macunaíma in relation to Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Cannibal Manifesto’. My supervisor often wrote essays like these for prestigious journals, which I sometimes read, but only when I had the time. I could barely hoist myself straight before another assignment bent me like a reed over my desk, which my mother unfailingly tidied whenever I was at school. It was a constant source of tension between us, how she would close and straighten a book I’d leave splayed open in lieu of using a bookmark. If the book was a paperback, I would follow the creases in the book’s spine to find where I had stopped reading; if a hardback, I would sulk through a long evening made longer by spite, chastising my mother that she would never understand what it was like to work so hard, only to have someone wind you back each time.

After I had finished sulking on one such night, my mother casually informed me that several of her friends would be coming over for dinner. Reluctantly, I put on my nice shirt and went to the dining room, where Ary Barroso’s Choro brasileiro was playing on the Bluetooth speaker I had brought my mother the previous Christmas. As we started eating, she remarked on how much she loved the classics, the Brazilian classics especially. Had our guests read Grande Sertão, Guimarães Rosa’s great masterpiece? Two of them, a librarian and an accountant, had; the last, who was possibly unemployed, shook his head, indifferent not only to the book, but to the fact that he was the only one who hadn’t read it. I imagined displaying such an attitude in front of someone like my supervisor, whose evaluation of my curiosity often felt equivalent to an assessment of my selfhood. But my mother didn’t seem to mind. She enthusiastically served each of us a second ladle of beef stroganoff as if celebrating something, though I wasn’t quite sure what.

Then the conversation turned to the Van Cliburn piano competition and how proud my mother was that a Brazilian had won. Our three guests unanimously agreed, which was unsurprising to me. It’s incredible how young the winner is too, said Alberto, the accountant, absolutely a step in the right direction for our country’s youth. All the adults looked at me, the only ‘youth’ sitting at the table, and I murmured something in the vein of agreement as young, incomeless students are obliged to do in the company of those who resemble their benefactors.

Though my initial dismay over losing my place in the day’s readings had cooled, I still felt a mild, low-current vexation after the guests had left. While my mother and I were washing the dishes, I said to her that if she loved the classics and was proud of her country, then it was futile to even believe there were such things as ‘Brazilian greats’ within the past century. After all, what was Brazil but a stolen country? What about the Indigenous people from whom the country was robbed, the so-called ‘cannibals’ Oswald de Andrade described so movingly as the progenitors of our mixed and complicated heritage?

My mother took my face in her soapy hands. Cold water trickled past the collar of my good shirt. She sung her familiar speech on how my education was being put to good use, how proud she was to be my mother, then kissed me three times on the cheek and left the kitchen with her soapy hands still wet.

It’s not that I don’t love or respect my mother. Rather, I find it difficult to be patient with her all the time. My degree takes up a lot of my energy, as do my supervisor’s occasional commissions, which provide me not only with additional income – a paltry fee, I must admit – but slowly erode the possibility that I will end up like my mother. Sometimes, when I walk past her in the apartment and see her going through the mail or watering the plants, I feel a pull somewhere deep in the stomach where my words dare not go. I suppose you could say I pity her, though that wouldn’t be the right way to put it. I have been searching for the word to describe the feeling of wanting big things, a hunger that grows and surpasses what I have inherited. There must be a word for that astonishing contrast, and, if there is a word for it, it must be as unspeakable as it is eminently feelable in my stomach and throat and the gait of my walk when I observe my mother.

I felt it then after she exited the kitchen, when I threw a towel on the ground and began wiping away the trail of soapsuds she had left behind.


The following day, I stumbled upon a receipt from the local independent bookstore on the kitchen counter next to the bread. Apparently, my mother had purchased several titles by Indigenous authors earlier that afternoon; in the list were folktale collections and treatises and anthropological essays, some of which I’d read for various courses and workshops. At dinner that night, my mother asked if I had recommendations for newsletters devoted to the impartial coverage of Indigenous affairs, revealing that she had made a Twitter account to follow the right journalists covering the Amazon. I was amazed that she knew about Twitter, which had been privy to my own attempts at creating an academic’s online personality before it became vogue to consider the site bust. I told my mother that times were changing as Twitter was, too, and how did she know about it in the first place?

Oh, she said, gesturing to the new books that she had lined horizontally, one on top of another, on the dining room table. All the authors and publishers seemed to have one, so I decided to make one too. She began clearing the table as I stood up to finish my readings, but before I left, she opened the front cover of the topmost book on the pile and handed me an oblong piece of card tucked inside.

Here, she said. I got a bookmark for you.

Before bed, I opened my email to find a note from my supervisor in my inbox. Some way or another, she had found my mother on Twitter. How great to see that your mum is so engaged in Indigenous affairs. Is it your influence I’m seeing? she had written in the postscript. I marked the email as unread, so I could return to it when I had the energy to write back.

When my supervisor finally finished her public-facing critical essay on Oswald de Andrade, we went out to celebrate over drinks, and while I made an effort to appear delighted, I resigned myself to the fact that I had a long way to go before publishing in journals as prestigious as my supervisor’s. As if reading my mind, my supervisor asked if I had submitted my article on Cabral to the university journal she had recommended. I stirred my drink before obliquely saying that I was considering other journals that my peers had recommended, which was to say that I hadn’t gotten around to doing what I’d promised. But maybe my excuse appeared flimsier than I had intended, because instead of responding with encouragement, my supervisor sighed. You might be preparing for something all your life, she said, and realise there were many things you could’ve done in the meantime.

When I returned home, my mother was lying on the sofa reading one of her Indigenous books, but I quietly shut my door before she had a chance to ask how my evening had gone.

The following week, I began an essay on constructed ideas of nationhood and started re-reading another text, this time on imagined communities. One Sunday afternoon, my mother and I were sitting in the living room. An Indigenous DJ played on her curated radio program. I was trying to read while she flipped through a magazine. I felt the urge to remark that if my mother really cared about the classics, then it wouldn’t matter who the old masters were at all, let alone that a Brazilian could master them. If there was any spite in my voice, then my mother’s eyes told me she hadn’t noticed it. What is a Brazilian anyways? I continued, triumphant. Anyone of any colour or size or creed could be Brazilian in one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies. Really, anyone could be anything they wanted to be if you thought about it, Brazilian or otherwise. We could all be cannibals, leeching off each other’s best qualities and incorporating them as our own. We could harness the force of sheer experience to become our own hybrid monsters, evolving into bigger and better beings regardless of what traumatic past like colonialism and racism and despotism had come before us. We just needed to put in the work.

My mother listened, quaint and quiet. I observed the shadow of the lace curtain falling across her ageing face and felt strangled by pity. Turning off the radio, she invited me to go on a walk, if not to clear our heads, then to discuss this new suggestion of mine further. I declined, saying I had an abstract to submit the following day, but mostly because I wanted to prove to myself that with enough time and hard work – contrary to my supervisor’s remark – I could do anything I set out to do. My mother accepted this without judgment and went out on her own, leaving me in the living room not reading anything at all, but rather imagining my mother in her too-big jacket pondering how she would ever understand me, her only son.

When my mother returned much later, I was surprised to find that she was holding, in her arms, three yellow books with dark-green borders. Their spines read Czerny, Hanon, Burgmüller. I was dumbfounded. What are they for? I asked. She placed the piano books down on the coffee table, on top of Beethoven’s biography and her copy of Euclides da Cunha, as well as the Indigenous magazine she had been browsing earlier that afternoon.

Meu filho, she said, I’ve been considering what you said, and I think you’re right.

She was going to learn to play the piano.
Jimin Kang is a writer based in Oxford, England. Born in South Korea, raised in Hong Kong, and educated in Brazil and the United States, she has published fiction in Joyland, Wasafiri, and The Oxonian Review, where she edits a column on Hong Kong writers. In 2022, she was shortlisted for the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize.

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