Park Wansuh, one of the leading figures in the Korean literary world, has made remarkable achievements both in terms of literary sophistication and general popularity. The JoongAng Ilbo reporter Shin Junebong recently interviewed the woman who has captivated Korean readers with vivid reconstructions of her own experiences during the Korean War and insights into human nature.
The poet Ko Un and the novelist Hwang Sok-yong, often cited as candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the poet Kim Ji-ha, for whom existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre signed a petition demanding his release from prison in 1974, are leading Korean writers who enjoy a degree of recognition outside the country. But there is another Korean writer without whom the history of modern Korean literature would be incomplete, even if she is not well known outside her native country. It could be argued, in fact, that her name belongs above those of Ko, Hwang, and Kim in the roll call of modern Korean writers.
The author in question is 78 year old novelist Park Wansuh, born in 1931 in Gaepung-gun, Gyeonggi-do (province), in what is now North Korea. One of the leading veterans of the Korean literary scene, Park’s achievements both as a writer of literary fiction and a popular author are remarkable.
By the time they reach their seventies and eighties, most writers’ creative desires are no match for those of their youth. Park, however, published two storybooks for children earlier this year and is showing no signs of neglecting writing, her life’s work.
One day in late June, while summer rain soaked the ground, I used the publication of the storybooks as an excuse to visit Park. She lives in the village of Achiul, in Guri, just beyond the eastern limits of Korea’s capital, Seoul. It’s a quiet place where, unlike the loud monochrome of high-rise apartment blocks in Korea’s big cities, the green of trees and forests dominates and the sound of a flowing stream can be heard. The lawn in Park’s garden smelt fresh, and the apricot tree to one side was dropping small, red fruits around the base of its trunk. Park greeted me with her characteristic broad smile, saying, “I don’t eat the apricots straight away, but store them up in the fridge and make jam with them later on.”
The Three Wishes, one of the two storybooks recently published by Park, is a collection of 10 small episodes. The other book, Thank You for This World, combines Park’s skill as a masterful writer with watercolor illustrations in subdued tones. The book’s hero is Bokdong, a fifth grade elementary school student. When Bokdong’s mother dies during childbirth and his father leaves for America in search of a way to make a living, Bokdong ends up living with his grandmother and aunt. Bokdong, thoroughly bright and innocent, is mature enough to understand the perspectives of all the adults around him, including his aunt. Eventually he travels to America, at his father’s invitation, where he manages to untangle his father’s emotional knots in the few months of his stay. Above all, Bokdong’s story will go down well with readers of his age, thanks to the specific and vivid way it realistically reflects their psychology, their daily lives, and the vocabulary they use.
Reportor Shin Junebong and novelist Park Wansuh
In fact, Park states in the author’s note that: “It was an actual event in the Korean War (1950-53) that incited me to write this book.” An episode introduced at the end of the book, in the style of a frame narrative, is a heart-wrenching story that is hard to get past without crying. An American officer fighting in the Korean War is on the retreat southwards one winter when under a bridge, he finds the naked body of a woman frozen to death. A newborn baby is crying next to her, swaddled several layers deep in its mother’s clothes. The woman, a pregnant refugee, felt the pangs of labor and had no choice but to give birth to her child before allowing herself to freeze to death in order to save the baby. The officer takes the child back to America with him, adopts it and raises it, sparing no affection; but the child keeps his adoptive father and friends at arm’s length and becomes gradually more tied up in knots. At his wit’s end, the boy’s father takes him to Korea, deliberately choosing winter as the time to visit, and goes to find the grave of the boy’s birth mother. After lying down on his mother’s grave and wailing with grief, the boy resolves to change. He grows up to become a doctor, develops a new kind of medicine and works to help children in developing nations.
Terrible experiences of the Korean War and a writing style that vividly reproduces them: I will mention these things again later on, but I think they are the nutrients that have fed Park’s growth into a masterful writer with a huge influence in the Korean book market.
Foreign readers may not realize the extent of Park’s power in the Korean literary market. I asked Park about the sales figures for her major works. “As far as I know, Thank You for This World (2009) and Three Wishes (2009) have sold about 20,000 copies each,” she answered. “The short story collection Kindhearted Bokhee, published in 2007, sold about 200,000 copies, and the novel Who Ate All the Shing-ah? (1992), considered one of my leading works, has sold about 1.5 million copies up to now.” Park also mentioned how “a staff member at Columbia University Press, who wanted to publish Who Ate All the Shing-ah? in translation, claimed there was ‘no way a work of fine literature could sell so many copies’ and went to check the figures again.” She also added that, “in 2007, at the Seoul International Book Fair, an elderly gentleman from the countryside brought a copy of The Naked Tree, published in 1970, and asked me to sign it.” As expected from a writer known for her modesty, Park revealed the sales figures for her books with reluctance.