Women: His-story, Her-story, Our-story

The turning point for women’s writing in Korea came in the late 1980s. Postmodernism had made its appearance along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, resulting in an increased scrutiny on the literature of the past written mostly by men about men, with a focus on ideology and reason. Now women writers in the 21st century are evolving in a direction that emphasizes the differences in rights over duty and power over disenfranchisement. Korean women’s writing stands out as a successful example of thinking globally and acting locally in the literary sphere, more so than any other subgenre of literature. Korean women writers stand not only for the empowerment of women but society as a whole in their criticism of the country’s traditional patriarchy, jingoism, and plutocracy.

1. Mongolian Spot (The 2005 Yi Sang Literature
Prizewinning Stories)

Han Kang, et al., Munhaksasang Co., Ltd.
2005, 378p, ISBN 9788970126746

2. サイの角のようにひとりで行け
Gong Ji-Young, 新幹社, 1998

3. Zeit zum Toastbacken
Jo Kyung Ran, Pendragon, 2005

4. Ván Bài Lúc Hoàng Hôn
Oh Jung-Hee, Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Học, 2005

Oh Jung-Hee’s “Evening Games” (1979) is a quiet yet chilling depiction of the war disguised as a game between an old, ailing father and his daughter that increasingly resembles him. The source of their conflict may be traced back to the absent members of the family: the mother, driven out of her mind by the father’s infidelity, the younger sibling that she killed, and the older brother who ran away from home to escape everything. It is no wonder that the games of hwatu the father and daughter play every night in the absence of these three family members are only peaceful on the surface.

Even more dangerous than these, however, are the “evening games” the daughter plays every night by going out to have depraved sex with anonymous men. Her self-destructive, escapist decision, born out of despair and anger at her mother’s destroyed life, is also the ultimate act of rebellion against the patriarchy symbolized by her father. These acts of escapism subvert the submissive image of traditional women. Oh Jung-Hee uses the uncanny as a means of exposing the dark side of women’s lives, in which the familiar dog may suddenly turn into a strange wolf. Her macabre, shocking images of depraved sex, child abandonment, infanticide, and arson serve to illustrate the unbending strength of the patriarchal order and reject any complacent idea of salvation or redemption in women’s lives.

Gong Ji-Young’s Go Alone Like a Musso’s Horn (1993) caused a catalytic uproar in feminist discourse when it was published in the early 1990s. In the novel the unhappy marriages of the three protagonists Hye-wan, Gyeong-hye, and Yeong-seon paint a detailed picture of the inequality middle-class women face in their daily lives. Given that these women all had the potential to succeed and flourish on their own, their failure and despair cannot be chalked up to personal shortcomings but social and structural ones. The main character, Hye-wan, is the youngest of three daughters and bears the scars of having been continuously found lacking for not having born a son. After her own son dies she thinks she might get a job but her patriarchal husband forbids it, which eventually leads to their divorce. Her friend Gyeong-hye capitalized on her looks to land a good marriage, but sinks into self-destructive infidelity to get back at her cheating husband. Another friend, Yeong-son, sacrifices everything for her husband only to be betrayed by him and commits suicide.

The unhappy marriages of these women expose how dominant the male hierarchy is in Korean society. Is it not even more chilling, the author asks, that the aberrant behavior of these husbands is actually considered normal? This is where Gong insists that it is imperative that women should be able to stand on their own feet “like a rhinoceros’s horn” in order to break away from this unequal hierarchy. In this sense the novel proposes that conflict and confrontation is unavoidable as a process towards the goal of “debating or fighting with men then finally being abl...