Maija Rhee Devine

Korean author Maija Rhee Devine



In “The Voices of Heaven”, Maija (pronounced May-jah) Rhee Devine tells the story of a young Korean couple in the early 1940s with a love for each other “as sweet as sticky rice,” according to the author’s description. Their relationship and country are tested, though, as the pressure to give birth to a male heir mounts and a divided Korea goes to war. Devine also tackles gender roles in a traditional Confucianism system that values men above women. Much of the fictional novel is inspired by her own life.

Devine will be signing her novel today and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at her publisher’s office at 4199 Campus Drive, Suite 550 in Irvine.

Maija Rhee Devine, author of “The Voices of Heaven”


The book is being published by Seoul Selection Publishing and is available on

Q. A lot of noise has been coming out of North Korea lately – what do you think of the latest threats (i.e., the end to the armistice with South Korea and talk of reviving a nuclear program)?

A. Actually, people in South Korea, they are not as nervous about news coming out of North Korea … every time North Korea makes some kind of threat. South Koreans just say “OK, whatever” and they just go on with their lives. Psychologically, emotionally, they have become immune. They have become toughened. And they have lived through so many threats from North Korea for 60 years that they just don’t think anything will really happen. But, of course, every time North Korea makes pronouncements, like they are going to make the sea of fire of South Korea and part of the United States, we all jump and worry and lose sleep. … Our youngest son lives in Korea, he lives in Seoul. He’s married, he married a Korean girl. They are both teachers. He teaches at Seoul International School. Because he and our daughter-in-law live there, I naturally become very anxious whenever threats from North Korea become news. And they also just calm me down and say, “Hey, nothing’s going to happen.”

Q. What was it like tackling your first novel?

A. Actually, I used a lot of autobiographical material. The first book was a memoir. I had an agent who read the memoir manuscript and she recommended that I turn it into a novel. … So I wrote it all over, in a novel form, which took a little over 10 years to do that. I needed to learn how to do it. I didn’t know the craft. It took awhile. In the meantime, I did publish short stories and poems. … I would have given it up long ago, if it wasn’t for believing that these common people I write about in my novel, if I didn’t write about them, they would be lost forever to the world. Nobody would know them. They would just live their lives struggling, loving, doing whatever was necessary under the Confucius value system, and they die and they’re gone and I wanted to honor them.

Q. How much of the autobiographical material from your earlier memoir remains in your novel?

A. My parents had no male child, and at that time in Korea, any family that didn’t have a male child needed to do something about that. Not having a male child was not acceptable because the male child not only carried down the family name but the male child offered ancestor worship ceremonies several times throughout the year. … If a family did not have a male descendent offering these, the spirits of the dead ancestors could not go into heaven. They became wandering ghosts. … So, the well being, not only in this life of the family but the well being in the next life depended on having a male child. So my parents, since they had just me but they were very much in love with each other, my father did not want to get a second wife. But after waiting 15 years, he had to. And so they had a mistress come in and live in the same house and produce a son. …And so the novel’s opening scene is the day this woman is coming and the wife, who is my mother, was preparing food to throw for the big wedding party and practicing what she needed to say to the woman. And what she needed to say was, “?Welcome to my husband’s bed.”

Q. The daughter character, then, I’m presuming is based on you?

A. The daughter does not know that she was adopted right at the beginning of the book. The adults talk about her being an adopted child but she does not know. She blames herself that her parents are going through this tragedy, brokenhearted over the mistress coming, because of this daughter. If she had been a boy, this would not have happened. Only in the epilogue of the novel, when she is a grown woman, she learns that she’s adopted.

Q. What ultimately do you hope readers will take away from your book?

A. I would like them to know this book as a story of common Korean people going through their struggles with not only their personal lives but with national disaster and know that what they try to do was to live up to Confucian values, which means honoring other people, women honoring men. That’s the main theme of this novel. Within the Confucian value system, women were below men. Although that changed a lot the last three or four decades, the male-centric value still continues. … They made this huge economic leap from third world. … But where are the women? They are still lagging behind.

Contact the writer: Maija Rhee Devine graduated from Sogang University in Seoul and earned a master’s degree from St. Louis University in Missouri. She has taught English as a second language at colleges and universities, as well as Asian Civilization courses at the University of Kansas. Her husband Michael J. Devine is the director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.


Posted on: May 7th, 2013 by Maija Rhee Devine

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