Mirrors, Memories, and Moments

The room I woke up in was still wrapped in faint twilight so it took me a while to realize I was in a small town in northern Germany where I’d arrived on the previous night’s rain. I tend to wake up at first light when I’m away from home, perhaps because of the strain of travel. Spending that interlude of time, from the moment I wake till my day begins, by going back to sleep, reading a book, or taking a morning stroll seems like a waste, so I usually fling open the window in my room and gaze at the view outside. For me, it’s a way of opening up my mind to new sensations.

     Outside, the sky, heavily laden with clouds, was sprinkling rain onto grey-colored rooftops where pigeons perched and cooed. What drew me out of my room that morning, despite the drizzle of late autumn that chilled me to the bone, was a sound that reached my ears from somewhere. The air resounded with the pealing of bells from a belfry, something that, in Korea, you could only hear at monasteries. Autumn leaves were rustling down on the wet road as I went in pursuit of that sound. At a corner, people were bustling past a hobo sleeping under the eaves with his arms wrapped around a huge dog. The streets of a foreign land are a maze to the visitor, no matter how detailed a map she may carry. But take away the unfamiliar sights, the indecipherable language, the carefree wanderings, the brushing past those you’ll never see again, and the fun and meaning of traveling takes a nosedive. Traveling is what allows us to escape the familiar, domesticated prison of everyday life, to savor that odd satisfaction of solitude, and to stimulate our keen powers of observation and perception as a foreigner, stranger, and outlier. I was hurrying along, engrossed in my quest for the tolling bells, forgetting even to pay attention to the road signs so that I could retrace my steps on the way back, when I found myself in front of a bakery where the warm, tempting aroma of fresh bread was wafting out. I noticed a reflection in the display window. A woman, looking old and worn-out from the anxiety and fatigue of having left her home far behind, stared back at me. I stood there for a long time gazing at a moment in my life that felt like a scene straight out of a movie or a novel.

     Once when I was visiting a sick elderly relative I discovered that all the mirrors in her home were covered with sheets. Apparently the old woman, who was senile, would keep trying to get into the mirrors. At times, she’d even break them and hurt herself. The old woman appeared confused once the mirrors were covered, as though all her exits had been sealed off. Even if the doors were left wide open, she’d never use them and would adamantly fumble around looking for the mirrors. To me, her frantic efforts to enter the world of mirrors seemed to arise more from a poignant homing instinct rather than any symptom of dementia. We all enter into the world of adults after passing through a period when we’re like Alice in Wonderland, imagining and dreaming of the world within those mirrors and trying to enter it.

     Different writers have different writing routines and use literary devices or images in their own fashion, oftentimes not by design. In my case, I realized my first collection was peppered with the color red only when Kim Hyeon pointed it out in his critique. Only upon reading Oh Saeng-Keun’s analysis did it dawn on me that mirrors or, more precisely, faces reflected in mirrors, appear frequently in my oeuvre. Even in my debut story, “The Toy Store Lady,” the protagonist gazes at the reflection of her face in the shiny surface of a mirror after a desperate act of theft. In my later works as well, whenever the protagonists have to cope with serious internal conflicts, uncontrollable emotions, challenging situations, or a deep sense of loss they always find themselves, consciously or unconsciously, in front of a mirror.

 

                    The mirror stood against the wall, shining arrogantly at a scrawny slip of a girl, covered in rashes and bleeding,

                   and a shabby looking boy, his face contorted in a miserable grimace of sorrow, hate, and shame. Brother glared

                   at the mirror with a haunted look before giving it a hard kick. In seconds, the room was covered in slivers of mirror

                   and flashes of light that bounced off them. Mother’s face, dolled up in her nightly ritual, lay shattered in a thousand pieces.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   “Garden of Childhood”

 

At times, the mirror even takes on the image of death—the clamoring of a sliver of light buried in the ground, a deep well, a fabled golden carp, a shadow, a soul stirring wind, the face of a dead man trapped in ice. Unintentional on my part, this could be an outcome of my subconscious or an almost archetypical sensitivity, but I think I have an inkling of its provenance.

     Mirrors were my closest playmates in childhood. As I’ve mentioned in “Garden of Childhood,” a story born of my childhood memories, the oblong-shaped mirror my mother brought with her after she got married was the only thing in our humble home that wasn’t damaged in some way. Mother treasured that mirror, which she’d carried with considerable effort as she made the perilous journey over the 38th parallel, and she’d give it a vigorous rubdown every day and night so that it was spotless and sparkling. The mirror stood in a corner looking on at our destitute, devastated figures, keeping watch as our lives became entangled like the insides of an old gourd as we lost our dignity and grew shabbier by the day. There was nowhere to hide from the mirror’s eyes. When I woke up in the morning to reli...

Reading Oh Junghee’s fiction is like seeing the colors and patterns of life and the universe engraved on a bronze mirror. For some, it has the ghastly beauty of passing through a swamp of anxiety and horror. For others, it is like looking into the existential abyss of lost souls who were born without any place to call home. The world order has become naturalized for us through routine and structure, and so we are startled by Oh’s perspicacity, breaking it apart and rendering it unfamiliar. In order to resurrect the inner spirit on a cosmic dimension, Oh envisions opening up what seems closed, and we share in this vision. We are awed by the mysterious alchemy the writer uses to kindle a new literary world, depicting the full spectrum of life and the outer universe in the abyss, in that scene of tension and disillusionment in the grotto of death where all meaning is extinguished. Her novels show a female perspective in a new light, and subversively open up new horizons for existential reflection. It is also through Oh that a new kind of narration and a new literary style can be established in Korean fiction.