The Twilight Years

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byKim Won Il

from the wall sculpture, War & Women's Human Right Museum

What does it mean to be old? The elderly live in weak bodies that are biologically incapable of reproduction, do not participate in the economy due to their loss of productive capacity, exist as surplus beings that await aging and death, and have grown all too familiar with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is why they have remained in the background instead of taking the center stage in Korean literature. The elderly have been portrayed as peripheral figures and treated like objects. This socially disadvantaged group needs protection from their family and society. In literary works, they often lack a sense of identity and serve as mere props that illuminate the problematic reality around them, or as objects deprived of the right of self-determination. As a result, the elderly have existed as objects and not subjects both inside and outside of literature. 

Since the 2000s, writers who began writing in the 1950s and 1960s grew older, and Korean literature began featuring the elderly as narrative subjects. These characters are an autobiographical reflection of the writers themselves, and offer an intimate look at the ecology of old age. At the same time, these writers are fully aware that they are peripheral figures isolated from society. Because they have acknowledged the fact they are no longer at the center of society, they are able to deliver a more realistic view of the problems faced as marginalized beings. What allows them to adopt a more comprehensive approach is that they have lived through turbulent times including the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the April 19 revolution, October Yushin, and the Gwangju democratic movement. As such, the elderly can provide insights by bringing a modern perspective to the past or applying traditional principles to the future.

With their vast experiences and multifaceted approaches, Park Wansuh and Kim Won Il are prominent writers of literature concerning the elderly. The two writers are particularly interesting as their works are an inquiry into the problem of elderly women. The existential condition of being female and old holds special meaning in Korean society, which is still deeply influenced by its history of wars. A young girl dragged off to the battlefield and forced to become a comfort woman, a wife who is widowed after losing her husband in war, a woman who sells her body to foreigners to make a living in a place where men are left dead or paralyzed—these are women who have been colonized by Korean men, in addition to enduring Korea’s history as a colonized nation. A literary survey of elderly women who have survived the Japanese occupation and years of war will allow a physical embodiment of the ironic reality in a private, public, and historical manner. Park Wansuh and Kim Won Il, both with their unique styles, have examined the past and present of Korean society by dealing with the status of elderly women.

1. Kindhearted Bokhee
Park Wansuh, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2007, 302p, ISBN 9788932018140

2. The Loneliness of You
Park Wansuh, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2000, 303p, ISBN 9788936436520

3. An Illustration of a Dim Day
Park Wansuh, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2002, 356p, ISBN 9788932013312

4. Summer of Revenge
Park Wansuh, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2006, 470p, ISBN 9788954601931

 Since early on, the late Park Wansuh (1931~2011) attached importance to elderly women in her novels. In "A Pasque-Flower on That Bleak Day" (1977), an old woman voluntarily enters prostitution when the U.S. soldiers who invade the town demand a young bride to fulfill their sexual desires. It tells the story of a wrinkly old woman selling her body to soldiers in order to protect the virginity of young girls and to maintain gender order. The book reflects the tragedy of the Korean War on the surface, but upon closer examination, we find a crude message that exposes the wretchedness of an old woman’s body. This was followed by "Grandma Judy" (1981). The protagonist, Grandma Judy, is an attractive lady “with white and still full breasts, and a lascivious line running from her legs to hips.” Moreover, she enjoys a high social status, is happily married, and is a mother to a successful son. But in the end, she is revealed to be a concubine, and her attractive body becomes the subject of mockery. In her early novels, Park represented elderly women as possessing overly grotesque bodies to depict the tragedy of war, or through them, attacked the false consciousness of middle-class women who were financially well-off but unrefined. 

Park moves on from using elderly women as a means of exposing hierarchical and generational conflicts to placing them as the narrative subject in her collection of short stories, An Illustration of a Dim Day (1991). The autobiographical content in An Illustration of a Dim Day brings to mind the actual experiences of the writer. The book features a list of minor episodes, such as the everyday life of an elderly couple, the generation gap between young and old, and the self-deceiving bourgeois mindset of the middle class. She continues her everyday style of writing in The Loneliness of You (1998) and Kindhearted Bokhee (2007), but at the same time, describes elderly women’s new self-awareness of sexuality and memories of the tragic past that haunts them in their daily life from their point of view.

The two books can be said to be an urban ecological investigation told from the perspective of a writer who has entered old age herself. The women, belonging to the middle class, lead relatively stable lives but soon must face the reality of their identity as elderly women when they encounter unexpected change (such as developing an illness or moving to a new place). In this process, these elderly women rediscover their sexuality and gain a new understanding of reality.

In Kindhearted Bokhee, “For Longing” depicts an elderly woman who takes a break from her dreary life in the city and remarries an elderly man she meets on an island, thus growing to value the vitality and beauty of health. Given Korean society’s emphasis of Confucian values, elderly women have been regarded as sexless beings without any desire. Of course, Park’s work does not directly cover the topic of sexual longing. Through the everyday life of the female protagonist, the writer subtly stresses that she recalls the vitality and sexual energy of youth, and that she is capable of contemplating reality from a different perspective. Instead of disregarding the unethical acts of the middle class and their false consciousness, Park admits that there is still some element of truth in such a lifestyle, which she says may be essential to maintaining the internal order of reality.

War & Women's Human Rights Museum

The elderly, unable to find new meaning in their present reality, attempt to justify their existence based on memories of their youthful days. For those who are closer to death, new meaning is not in the future but in the sweet dreams of the past. Their youth is gone, yet it comes alive beyond reality. Kim Won Il’s Memories of a Sad Time tells the story of elderly women who verify their existence with memories of the past. Actually, Kim has rarely used women as the main voice in his works. He has mostly told stories of war, ideology, and the division of Korea through male characters. It is notable how, since the 2000s, he has shifted to using the voice of elderly women in addressing the problems of society and the nation’s painful history. 

The four elderly characters living in a nursing home in Kim Won Il’s Memories of a Sad Time question the truth of their existence as they face death. These questions are formed through reflections on their individual private pasts. What’s interesting is that these reflections are delivered to readers in a rhetoric of self-deceit and concealment. In “Who Am I” and “I Know Myself,” the two female characters are stuck in the self-contradiction of disclosure and secrecy. Their statements are thus no more than hypocritical acts that lack authenticity. However, the problem does not lie in the two characters but in the ordeal that their bodies were subject to. As can be seen from how Han Kyung-ja changes her name to Keiko and then to Anna, she was forced to serve as a comfort woman and a prostitute for foreigners. She claims to be a noblewoman in order to forget the past and gain some self-respect. After developing dementia, she reveals her true identity by unknowingly bringing up her horrific past. “Who am I? Who the heck am I?” she asks herself on the brink of death. This question suggests the character’s acceptance of her innermost memories and confirmation of her identity.

Memories of a Sad Time
Kim Won Il, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2001, 312p ISBN 9788932012667

As described above, Kim Won Il introduces multiple layers to historical memories through disorderly testimonials given by elderly women who were sexually and physically abused. These personal and at times humiliating statements not only invite a multi-dimensional approach to history, but also broaden our horizons in life. This is where we can see the possibilities of literature about the elderly. It is the elderly, with their sensual and physical experiences accumulated over time, who adopt a fundamentally different approach to create new opportunities in life. Through the perspectives of these writers, the spectrum of Korean literature will undoubtedly gain breadth and depth.