Modern Existence and the Investigation of Sexuality

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byShin Soojeong

It is fair to say that in Korean literary history the 1990s was a decade that belonged to female authors. During this period, the focal point of literature moved away from an excessive political imagination. Rather than as master narratives of history or “the people,” close-range examinations of everyday life from a female perspective took center stage. Two trends define the period: examining existence in the context of a rapidly industrializing society and investigating sexuality as a way to break through the impotence brought about by rationalism. While works of fiction by Eun Heekyung, Ha Seong-nan, Pyun Hye-Young, and Yoon Sunghee fall into the former category, authors such as Jon Kyongnin, Han Kang, and Chun Woon-young represent the latter.

In Eun Heekyung’s novel A Gift from a Bird, we meet a character that a “1990s personality” with striking accuracy. Jinhee, the protagonist, tells us that “from the age of twelve there was simply no need for me to develop.” She divides herself into “the seen me” and “the visible me,” objectifying her own self as if she were the other, a target of exhaustive observation. This “cool character” appears repeatedly in Eun’s short stories including “Talking to Strangers” and “Her Third Man.”

In Ha Seong-nan’s Blooms of Mold, from beginning to end, the characters are referred to only as man, woman, and guy, reflecting the callous reality of a world from which communication is absent. Ha has developed a reputation for her elaborate realist descriptions, evincing an interest in the physical world where the inner thoughts or psychology of characters is excluded. Told from the perspective of a cold observer, this world of suffocating realism excels in displaying the dark side of modern everyday life in cities where all communication has been severed.

With her early collection of stories Mallow Gardens, Pyun Hye-Young displayed an apocalyptic imagination and an innate talent for describing an existence turned to rubbish. Taking on the form of a science fiction novel, Ashes and Red is a harrowing depiction of one man’s life gradually degenerating into “absolutely nothing,” representative of an extreme form of wasted life in industrial society. However, in her recent short story “Evening Proposal,” a thread of redeeming light is visible even in the midst of the waste. One man, having witnessed a sudden death, breaks free from his usual apathy and inaction and in an instant confesses his love to a woman. It may well be that as we are in a state of utter vulnerability, constantly confronted with the possibility of unexpected accidents and disasters, moments such as these are the only things that give meaning to our existence.

By breaking from the common attitude towards life, Yoon Sunghee seeks to find new meaning. In her short story “Burying a Treasure Map at the U-turn” she calls into question the way our daily lives focus solely on getting ahead. As Yoon sees it, our lives are made plentiful not by traveling as fast as possible to some ultimate destination, but by taking a daring U-turn that is necessary to contemplate the rareified aspects of life so easily overlooked. With speedy scene changes, optimism, and lighthearted characters, the different elements of Yoon Sunghee’s stories culminate as a consolation in the face of the sorrows of rapid industrialization.

While these writers investigate forms of existence in an industrial society, there are others who seek to bring sexuality to light through the imagination of the female instinct. In this context the writer who must be mentioned first and foremost is Jon Kyongnin. Many of her novels embody woman’s organic sense of adventure as aroused by a desire for deviation or escape. Notable examples include The Goat Herding Woman, where in the final scene the protagonist turns her back on her apartment complex at night, and departs in search of her very own “forest” with nothing but a suitcase and a goat in tow. And in “Nighttime Spiral Staircase” there is an image of a woman standing completely alone at a bus stop, exhausted by family relations in which nothing but obligation remains and housework repeats in an endless cycle. On the surface there is the tedium of everyday life, but brimming within is an adulterous sexuality that floods into everyday existence. With these two conflicting worlds as the starting point, Jon’s fiction has a tendency to push her characters to the far limits of longing and desire.

Han Kang’s The Fruit of My Woman brings to the forefront the world of fundamental desire which lies within a woman’s instinct. The Fruit of My Woman begins as a couple who have been married for four years finally secure an apartment of their own thereby achieving the middle class dream. In the end the story comes to a close with the wife having transformed into a yellow-green plant. This tale of metamorphosis as told by Han is every bit as mystical as the story of a woman who turns into a wolf, and is not without elements of the grotesque. On one level it is a sorrowful cry of resistance to reckless redevelopment, while at the same time it can be interpreted as the manifestation of the feminine desire to follow one’s instincts and live as an unbridled soul.

Chun Woon-young’s Needle amounts to a veritable feast of this female desire. With, for example, a scene detailing the process of tattooing with a needle—a more general interest in people with unusual jobs, and an exploration of the sexuality of women who, because their work involves their bodies, have been forced to the periphery of society—Needle can be understood as the blueprint for Chun’s subsequent works. Above all, by affirming women’s experience of their bodies in contrast to masculine strength, Needle calls for a renewed interest in the female body that draws critical attention to its public disavowal as the target of taboo, and its representation as an object for masculine voyeurism. In this vein, she describes the needle-shaped tattoo on the chest of the emasculated “man in flat 801” as looking like “a shallow crevice like a young girl’s vagina,” written in such a way that the tattoo is a source of strength, so much so that it is “as though the universe could be pulled in through that gap.”

This incredible world of femininity opened up by the female writers of the 1990s represents a significant new realm for Korean fiction. Eun Heekyung’s cynicism and Ha Seong-nan’s excavation of every day life come to fruition in the writings of Pyun Hye-Young and Yoon Sunghee, which amount to an investigation of the new possibilities of modern existence. With Jon Kyongnin’s longing for deviation, Han Kang’s transformation into plant life, and Chun Woon-young’s needle as a metaphor for the affirmation of female sexuality, we are witnessing a new chapter in the history of Korean fiction. There is no way the discoveries made by these women could be overemphasized. This is because the new writing of our literary history begins precisely with their work. 


by Shin Soojeong
Literary Critic and Professor of Creative Writing
Myongji University