The Place Behind: Contemplating Hwang Jungeun

I once had to call up Hwang Jungeun about doing a book reading. I was on my way back home after finishing a part-time job, so I was distracted during the call. In the middle of my spiel, she interrupted me, “I’m surprised you’re being so formal.” Was she right? Was I being too formal? Still swaddled in the exaggerated politeness demanded by the part-time job, I was stiff. When had I stopped behaving naturally? Or was this more natural for me? It felt as though I’d called her with a mask on, only to have my face exposed.

     I think back to that day. Naturalness dawdles around unnaturalness before finally disappearing behind it, and only then do I think of the triumph of unnaturalness. I think of those moments when the masked and unmasked, insincere and sincere, and fake and real become inadvertently muddled. It occurs to me that our lives are stuck there for the most part. Matters become complicated at this point in my train of thought, because questioning the boundary between naturalness and unnaturalness begins with being wary of viewing them within a framework of simple dichotomy. Is this world so straightforward that we can easily distinguish between what is natural and what isn’t? I find Hwang scary sometimes because she obstinately takes on this attitude. Readers are placed before her writing with their bare faces only to have even the traces of their masks exposed by her.

     Hwang’s latest short story, “Bokgyeong,” is about a saleswoman at a furniture store in a mall. Accused of ripping a sofa on display, the woman exposes the unfairness of being coerced into compliance. When she talks about the many unfair compromises people are forced to make for things to reach a stage everyone takes for granted, the reader is compelled to think about the appropriateness of distinguishing between the masked and unmasked, insincere and sincere, th...