Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Kim Chi-wŏn, and O Chŏng-hŭi
So here’s a new thing I’m doing: reviews of out of print books. I love browsing used bookshops. And the treasures I often come up with are brilliant. I enjoyed writing my last review of More Stories from the Twilight Zone and I have a stack of vintage paperbacks that are burning a hole in my TBR pile, so…
First up (second, if you count my last review) is Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers: Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Kim Chi-wŏn, and O Chŏng-hŭi, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, 1989.
This collection was first printed stateside in English translation in 1989, and is currently out of print. I found it by browsing one of my favorite independent retailers: Powell’s or Alibris (but I can’t remember which one). Lyrically translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, these seven stories by noted Korean women writers of the mid to late twentieth century share themes of the female outsider, the inhumanity of accepted social structures, and unreality. These three women–Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Kim Chi-wŏn, and O Chŏng-hŭi*–shine a critical light on both modern and traditional Korean culture: connecting them in ways that highlight more similarities than differences between the two. And while criticizing both modern and traditional Korean cultures, I find these themes to be universal, as critical engagement with art and literature means a questioning of all social mores, regardless of national borders.
Kang Sŏk-kyŏng focuses on the search for the true self and this search typically falls under two categories. First, from the point of view of the artist which is outside of politics. And second, which is the category the two following stories fall into, from the point of view of the ordinary individual whose true self is obstructed and damaged by social structures and conventions.
Kang spent time near an American army base researching the lives of the prostitutes who lived there for her short story “Days and Dreams.” The first person narrator is reportorial and dispassionate, depicting an uninhabitable, transitory world somewhere between Korean and non-Korean societies that these women somehow manage to not only inhabit, but to find companionship in each other.
“We women were facing up to our life with our bodies as our only asset. We may not have smelled like roses, but we got to learn all about life and freedom in our own way.”
The women form a community outside of social conventions where they entertain and support each other. This is most clearly depicted in a scene where the women complain that none of them can ever live a normal life with a Korean husband since they’ve been with American men. They then immediately turn on a Korean man who dares to enter their space. This is a measure of self-defense–the prostitutes defending their bodies from the American soldiers and their dignity from Korean culture. Bodies take up a physical space, physical space implies a class status, and class status demands a measure of human dignity.
Kang’s novella “A Room in the Woods” probably best expresses her theme of the search for the true self. On the eve of her wedding to a middling bank branch manager, the narrator struggles to comprehend her younger sister So-yang. So-yang quits school, lies and disobeys her parents, stays out late every night, and–the narrator discovers when reading her sister’s diary–has a secret lover. The narrator’s investigation is obsessive: she interviews So-yang’s friends and spends entire nights out at clubs. So-yang’s blatant disregard for manner and custom and refusal to participate in the structure enforced upon her in order for her to become a trained member of society (school) is expressed when she interacts with her parents. Her domineering father represents male-dominated society and her submissive mother, who finds sanctuary in ignorance, represents the expected mores of female members of society. The narrator herself is in a transitional position–desperately wanting to discover her younger sister, but equally eager to fall into the role of wife and homemaker.
Kang expertly highlights the inherent hypocrisy of a meritocracy in which the height of achievement is measured by adherence to the status quo. That the search for the true individual results in erasure to nothing. That success in that search means absolute failure to conform. That possibly the only thing remaining within that vast nothingness of the individual is pain.
“A Room in the Woods” is the longest entry in this collection, but by no means drawn-out or tedious. I almost turned back to the start and read it again. In fact, I immediately tracked down Kang’s only other work in translation The Valley Nearby. (I have no definite date on a review for that title, but look for it soon–because it is also out of print.)
Kim Chi-wŏn is from a family of writers–notably her mother and sister. Kim’s background in English literature and period of living in New York led her to write about the immigrant experience. Kim also closely scrutinized relationships between men and women.
Kim adroitly depicts that immigrant experience in “A Certain Beginning.” While living in New York, middle-aged Yun-ja weds young Chŏng-il in a marriage of convenience so that Yun-ja can get a better apartment and Chŏng-il a green card. The “beginning” is never certain, and though both characters long for a meaningful connection in general, neither is willing to settle for vague possibility without certainty. Yun-ja’s and Chŏng-il’s material desires–an apartment and a green card–imply they are both looking for permanence–for a home–but they fail to shed the protective shields around themselves to form that bond. Chŏng-il’s youth, gender, and education indicate a future that is more promising than Yun-ja’s situation. Yet Yun-ja retains her resourceful independence and dignity.
The same cannot be said of the main character in “Lullaby.” The woman and her husband purchase a traditional Korean style house because they need more space to raise their growing daughter Suni. But when the woman looks over the new house, all she can see are the places where she can hide from her husband. What should be a period of unity and growth for a married couple–buying a house, raising a child–is fraught with resentment, estrangement, and subdued violence.
“Longing for something to sustain and steady her, the woman tended nevertheless to doubt the permanence of everything […] But her relief that the world was transitory was tempered by the painful realization that society expected marriage to be the most harmonious of human relationships.”
Among the many things the husband hides from his wife, he doesn’t tell her that their new house is supposedly haunted… Because the woman already is attuned to pain from her emotionally and physically abusive husband, the woman can hear the lullaby that permeates the house: “My head aches, your head aches. My head aches, your head aches.” It takes an exceptionally painful trauma for the husband to hear it, too.
O Chŏng-hŭi is probably the most famous of the women writers in this collection, having made her literary debut while still in college and winning numerous literary accolades since. O has several works in translation (I have not done the research on what is currently available), and a reprint of a 2013 collection River of Fire (also translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is coming this fall.
In “Evening Game” a woman is caught between traditional and modern Korean worlds. She scrubs her Western style apartment which she shares with her elderly, ill father and where he prepares traditional Korean unguents that are keeping him alive. The two play card games until the evening drops into night, when the woman sneaks to a nearby unfinished construction site (likely the site of more Western style buildings) to have sex with a construction worker. When she returns home, she goes through items belonging to her mother who was unceremoniously abandoned in an asylum by her father. She listens to the tread and the lullabies of the young mother soothing her fussy baby upstairs. O’s narrator is detached–uncomfortably so–and this story, like the others in this collection, O’s in particular, is “difficult” fiction. It doesn’t encourage the reader to empathize with any of the characters.
“Chinatown” takes place in a district of Seoul that was most ravaged by the war, and subsequently a settling place for Chinese immigrants. The nine-year-old narrator discusses her large family, her childless step-grandmother, and her friend’s family’s tennant–a young prostitute named Maggie who is publicly murdered by an American GI. The narrator spends the entirety of the story in a yellow haze of nausea, adding to the feeling of loosely connected impressions that swirl around sex and death. The tale culminates in the only way a coming-of-age story of this ilk can: “My menstrual flow had begun.”
An unmoored collage of nausea, death, sex, and menstruation? That is so much my style that I want to wear this story as an evening gown to some ostentatious masturbatory industry event. (I don’t even care what industry and whether I belong. Points if I don’t.) Some readers may have a problem with a nine-year-old speaking with the voice of an adult woman. Because this is difficult fiction, I don’t.
O’s final story lends its title to the collection. O’s ability to write a nonsequential narrative and stream of consciousness to fracture reality is used to full effect in “Words of Farewell.” Chŏng-ok and her son visit her parents, where her mother take them to see hers and her husband’s grave plots. Nature is oppressive if not actively hostile. The reader learns that Chŏng-ok’s husband drowned in a flood that occurred when he may or may not have abandoned her. O’s skill with language truly shines here where she skirts a quiet anger that permeates Chŏng-ok’s life. The story ends with a sort of cleansing during a second storm that forces the women to take shelter in a Buddhist temple where a Paekjung ceremony is taking place. Chŏng-ok starts back home, assured that the dead are just memories.
“Words of Farewell” is O’s most sentimental of her stories collected here, but like the others, it examines the loosening of familial bonds rather than a strengthening. The obligations that caused Chŏng-ok to lie for her husband no longer exist. O echoes Kang’s themes of rejection of society and the search for the true self, although O’s characters, like Kim’s, are more passive in discovery due to isolation rather than the active rejection and refusal to confirm of Kang’s.
I love this collection. I absolutely hate that it is out of print. Seek it out. It’s worth every penny and every second of effort. In the meantime, look forward to the reprint of River of Fire in the fall.
(If you can find it)
*Usually, when I can find the information, I will use the author’s preferred Romanization of her name. When I cannot find an author’s preference, I use the revised Romanization, except when the publication under review consistently uses a different standard Romanization. This publication uses the McCune-Reischauer Romanization, so I will retain the publication’s Romanization (though outdated, it is still the best way to find this work). The revised Romanization of these authors’ names are as follows: Gang Seok-gyeong (Kang Sŏk-kyŏng), Gim Jiwon (Kim Chi-wŏn), and Oh Jung-hee (O Chŏng-hŭi).