Love of the Missing: Modern Korean Fiction by Women, 1990-2010

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byKim Hyesoon

Prior to the Enlightenment Period, Hangeul was often disdained in Korea— or more precisely, the Joseon era as it was known then—as “female writing,” meaning it was a writing system befitting only women. During the Enlightenment, however, Hanmun (classical Chinese), which had played the same role as Latin in East Asia, was replaced by the Korean vernacular, and Hangeul, which had previously been used only by the lower classes, naturally became the official writing system. In the hundred or so years since, women who used to be denigrated as yoryu (“female”) have distinguished themselves with their masterful use of artistic language.

As modern education for women took deep root in Korean society, women became active beneficiaries of knowledge transmitted through language and, as a result, their self-awakening began to materialize. By the 1990s, women, no longer a minority in need of special protection, had emerged the mainstream in literature. Even in literary criticism, once the exclusive domain of men, women critics—who understood the value of women’s literature and could subject it to proper critical examination— became actively involved. The literature of women writers received such high praise and captured the attention of both the market and critics that the 1990s could even be called the decade of women writers.     

There, a Petal Silently Falls
Ch'oe Yun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1992, 312p, ISBN 9788932005782

One of the writers who has stood out the most in this new cultural scene is Ch’oe Yun (1953- ). She made her literary debut in 1988 with the publication of her novella There, a Petal Silently Falls in Literature and Society, one of Korea’s leading literary journals. Since her debut novella, which portrays the tragic Gwangju movement through a polyphony of viewpoints in a beautiful and elaborate language, Ch’oe has been investigating what it means to be a woman writer, along with poets Kim Seung-hee and Kim Hye-soon.

The Gray Snowman (1992), for which Ch’oe won the Dongin Literary Prize, is another work of hers that shows what time and story and what politics and history are told from a feminine perspective. Most of her works depict women as a mystery whose traces we have to seek out together; women are missing in the symbolic sense, and novel-writing/reading has a ritualistic aspect that deeply mourns the missing women. Since it is impossible to depict women in the existing authoritative language, women in some ways exist only in absentia. Ch’oe’s novel represents a space where women can break their silence and raise their voices. And as demonstrated by the heroine’s act of copying the German translation of a work by an Italian historian in the novel, the voice and language of women are multi-layered.

 Among the women writers of the 1990s, those that draw our attention include Shin Kyung-sook, Gong Sun-Ok, Jo Kyung Ran, and Ha Seong-nan. The literary field of that decade was adorned with so many women that they cannot be mentioned one by one here. What is interesting is that while their work naturally reflects women’s experience, it is rare for these women writers to reveal their own sense of themselves as women. Even when women in the novel break free from uncomfortable relationships and the institution of marriage, their desires come across not as desires of individual women but rather as those of an individual living in a consumer society. As seen in the case of Ha Seong-nan, her micro-descriptions—which depict the everyday as though it was examined through a microscope—a retypical of the distinguishing characteristics of women’s novels.

1. The Vegetarian
Han Kang, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 247p, ISBN 9788936433598

2. Needle
Chun Woon-young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 247p, ISBN 9788936433598

3. Rina
Kang Youngsook, Munhakdongne Publis

Beginning in 2000, several women writers created diverse images of women. Chun Woon-young’s debut work Needle (2000), for instance, portrays a very unique female character. She has protruding cheekbones and a hunched back, and she indulges in meat. Ironically, the tattoos she creates are colorful and beautiful. Chun’s striking protagonist has become a model of the grotesque dichotomy of beauty and beast. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007) is grotesque in an opposite sense from Chun’s work. In the former, there is no boundary between the female body and plants. When a video artist has intercourse with his wife’s younger sister, after painting flowers on his own body and hers, the female body turns into a beastly plant.

 Kang Youngsook’s full-length novel Rina (2006) is the story of a girl named Rina who escapes from a space suggestive of North Korea and crosses a desolate landscape. Unlike Needle or The Vegetarian, Rina shows an affinity between woman and the industrial machine of civilization, rather than between woman and nature. Rina is a work that links together a woman’s life with the tension between regionalism and internationality, which has become a major talking point in Korean society since 2000. While Rina brings up the image of a North Korean defector, the work also evokes countless women of the global village who experience the diaspora both voluntarily and involuntarily. Thus, Rina can be regarded as the point where Korean literature as regional literature meets global reality.

 The problem of desire which defined women’s literature in the 1990s has been inherited by Jeong Yi Hyun in the 2000s. Jeong’s debut work Romantic Love & Society (2003) unpleasantly reveals that women are accomplices of consumer capitalist society. Here, we face the fact that women are not free from the pleasures of consumption and wealth accumulation. A female character symbolically named Yuri (“glass”) uses her virginity as a kind of bait for her social advancement and works her way through the “Ten Commandments” one by one to win love. Her virginity, like glass, must be handled with caution, for it loses its value the moment it is “broken.” In Jeong’s work, romantic love is but a fantasy that conceals the human desire for material possessions and power. The author does not glorify the fact that marriage is an intellectual game and an exchange of desires.

1. Romantic Love & Society
Jeong Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 251p, ISBN 9788932014487

2. My Sweet Seoul
Jeong Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2006, 442p, ISBN 9788932017150

3. Girl Friends
Lee Hong, Minumsa Publishing Group
2007, 304p, ISBN 9788937481253

Since Jeong Yi Hyun, many women writers have focused on and voiced their comments regarding issues of relationships and marriage in a consumer capitalist society. These coded issues have been frequent themes in Korean classical literature, for they are important occasions for the clash and negotiation of the values of communities. In this respect, works that deal with relationships and marriage, such as Jeong’s My Sweet Seoul (2006), and Lee Hong’s Girl Friends (2007) can also be seen as connected to the classical women’s literature of Korea. The modif ier “woman” is not used when critica lly evaluating young women writers of the 2000s. Promising writers like Han Yujoo, Apple Kim, and Kim Miwol are not read as women but as writers. If women writers of the 1990s unleashed individual desires that had been hitherto suppressed, their post- 2000 counterparts battle the invisible true nature of capitalism and question their inherited desires. For the latter, men as individuals are not the enemy.

 In Apple Kim’s full length novel The Boy Who Laid Down on the Gallery Floor (2009) and Kim Miwol’s The Eighth Room (2009), women hope for love. They seek love because they know it can rescue them from the anonymity of the individual in the neoliberal era caught up in the tide of anonymity—the truth that humans are fundamentally lonely, that there are differences between men and women, and, as a result of such loneliness and differences, women long for men as the Other. The charming male figures in these two novels signal that women, who used to depict men only as the other, have begun to portray them as beautiful.  

Perhaps the rupture and disorder born out of global neo-liberalism are a blessing for Korean literature, which has passed from the 1990s into the 2000s and from the 2000s into the next decade. Perhaps women on the verge of drowning will join with men who are also about to drown, and together they will send out a new call for help in a new language.

1. The Eighth Room
Kim MiWol, Minumsa Publishing Group
2010, 267p, ISBN 9788937483028

2. The Boy Who Laid Down on the Gallery Floor
Apple Kim, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2009, 294p, ISBN 9788954609456