Modern Existence and the Investigation of Sexuality

It is fair to say that in Korean literary history the 1990s was a decade that belonged to female authors. During this period, the focal point of literature moved away from an excessive political imagination. Rather than as master narratives of history or “the people,” close-range examinations of everyday life from a female perspective took center stage. Two trends define the period: examining existence in the context of a rapidly industrializing society and investigating sexuality as a way to break through the impotence brought about by rationalism. While works of fiction by Eun Heekyung, Ha Seong-nan, Pyun Hye-Young, and Yoon Sunghee fall into the former category, authors such as Jon Kyongnin, Han Kang, and Chun Woon-young represent the latter.

     In Eun Heekyung’s novel A Gift from a Bird, we meet a character that a “1990s personality” with striking accuracy. Jinhee, the protagonist, tells us that “from the age of twelve there was simply no need for me to develop.” She divides herself into “the seen me” and “the visible me,” objectifying her own self as if she were the other, a target of exhaustive observation. This “cool character” appears repeatedly in Eun’s short stories including “Talking to Strangers” and “Her Third Man.”

     In Ha Seong-nan’s Blooms of Mold, from beginning to end, the characters are referred to only as man, woman, and guy, reflecting the callous reality of a world from which communication is absent. Ha has developed a reputation for her elaborate realist descriptions, evincing an interest in the physical world where the inner thoughts or psychology of characters is excluded. Told from the perspective of a cold observer, this world of suffocating realism excels in displaying the dark side of modern everyday life in cities where all communication has been severed.

     With her early collection of stories Mallow Gardens, Pyun Hye-Young displayed an apocalyptic imagination and an innate talent for describing an existence turned to rubbish. Taking on the form of a science fiction novel, Ashes and Red is a harrowing depiction of one man’s life gradually degenerating into “absolutely nothing,” representative of an extreme form of wasted life in industrial society. However, in her recent short story “Evening Proposal,” a thread of redeeming light is visible even in the midst of the waste. One man, having witnessed a sudden death, breaks free from his usual apathy and inaction and in an instant confesses his love to a woman. It may well be that as we are in a state of utter vulnerability, constantly confronted with the possibility of unexpected accidents and disasters, moments such as these are the only things that give meaning to our existence.

     By breaking from the common attitude towards life, Yoon Sunghee seeks to find new meaning. In her short story “Burying a Treasure Map at the U-turn” she calls into question the way our daily lives focus solely on getting ahead. As Yoon sees it, our lives are made plentiful not by traveling as fast as possible to some ultimate destination, but by taking a daring U-turn that is necessary to contemplate the rareified aspects of life so easily overlooked. With speedy scene changes, optimism, and lighthearted characters, the different elements of Yoon Sunghee’s stories culminate as a consolation in the face of the sorrows of rapid industrialization.

     While these writers investigate forms of existence in an industrial society, there are others who seek to bring sexuality to light through the imagination of the female instinct....