Love of the Missing: Modern Korean Fiction by Women, 1990-2010

As Korean women writers move beyond the label of “women” and are recognized as “writers,” a new aesthetic and modern concerns emerge.

Prior to the Enlightenment Period, Hangeul was often disdained in Korea— or more precisely, the Joseon era as it was known then—as “female writing,” meaning it was a writing system befitting only women. During the Enlightenment, however, Hanmun (classical Chinese), which had played the same role as Latin in East Asia, was replaced by the Korean vernacular, and Hangeul, which had previously been used only by the lower classes, naturally became the official writing system. In the hundred or so years since, women who used to be denigrated as yoryu (“female”) have distinguished themselves with their masterful use of artistic language.

As modern education for women took deep root in Korean society, women became active beneficiaries of knowledge transmitted through language and, as a result, their self-awakening began to materialize. By the 1990s, women, no longer a minority in need of special protection, had emerged the mainstream in literature. Even in literary criticism, once the exclusive domain of men, women critics—who understood the value of women’s literature and could subject it to proper critical examination— became actively involved. The literature of women writers received such high praise and captured the attention of both the market and critics that the 1990s could even be called the decade of women writers.     

There, a Petal Silently Falls
Ch'oe Yun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1992, 312p, ISBN 9788932005782

One of the writers who has stood out the most in this new cultural scene is Ch’oe Yun (1953- ). She made her literary debut in 1988 with the publication of her novella There, a Petal Silently Falls in Literature and Society, one of Korea’s leading literary journals. Since her debut novella, which portrays the tragic Gwangju movement through a polyphony of viewpoints in a beautiful and elaborate language, Ch’oe has been investigating what it means to be a woman writer, along with poets Kim Seung-hee and Kim Hye-soon.

The Gray Snowman (1992), for which Ch’oe won the Dongin Literary Prize, is another work of hers that shows what time and story and what politics and history are told from a feminine perspective. Most of her works depict women as a mystery whose traces we have to seek out together; women are missing in the symbolic sense, and novel-writing/reading has a ritualistic aspect that deeply mourns the missing women. Since it is impossible to depict women in the existing authoritative language, women in some ways exist only in absentia. Ch’oe’s novel represents a space where women can break their silence and raise their voices. And as demonstrated by the heroine’s act of copying the German translation of a work by an Italian historian in the novel, the voice and language of women are multi-layered.

 Among the women writers of the 1990s, those that draw our attention include Shin Kyung-sook, Gong Sun-Ok, Jo Kyung Ran, and Ha Seong-nan. The literary field of that decade was adorned with so many women that they cannot be mentioned one by one here. What is interesting is that while their work naturally reflects women’s experience, it is rare for these women writers to reveal their own sense of themselves as women. Even when women in the novel break free from uncomfortable relationships and the institution of marriage, their desires come across not as desires of individual women but rather as those of an individual living in a consumer society. As seen in the case of Ha Seong-nan, her micro-descriptions—which depict the everyday as though it was examined through a microscope—a retypical of the distinguishing characteristics of women’s novels.

1. The Vegetarian
Han Kang, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 247p, ISBN 9788936433598

2. Needle
Chun Woon-young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 247p, ISBN 9788936433598

3. Rina
Kang Youngsook, Munhakdongne Publis

Beginning in 2000, several women writers created diverse images of women. Chun Woon-young’s debut work Needle (2000), for instance, portrays a very unique female character. She has protruding cheekbones and a hunched back, and she indulges in meat. Ironically, the tattoos she creates are colorful and beautiful. Chun’s striking protagonist has become a model of the grotesque dichotomy of beauty and beast. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007) is grotesque in an opposite sense from Chun’s work. In the former,...