Through the Eyes of a Young Adult

  • onOctober 5, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • bySeran Oh

©Rowoo yi


Faced with the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity has finally begun to reflect on its anthropocentrism and seek a way out. When we talk about anthropocentrism or a human-centered worldview, “human” usually implies “adult.” Rethinking this adult-centered perspective can help humanity to resolve the dilemma it faces. The adolescent gaze may in fact be the key to dismantling our center-periphery belief system and bringing about much-needed restoration around the world.

For a long time, Korean literature was centered around adults, meaning that the lives of adolescents and young adults were depicted according to the adults’ idealized vision. However, recent efforts have been made to reject this objectification by adults and establish young people as the agents of their stories. YA writers are trying to expand their readership by adopting the characteristics of digital media and depicting the growth and adventures young people experience as they make their way through the world on their own and cry out  against the outmoded ideas of the previous generation.

Adolescence is generally understood as a transitional phase prior to entering adulthood. Yet this stage in life does not exist merely to churn out adults. Adolescents exist in an “in-between” time. A closer look into events that occur during this “in-between” time leads us to realize that our entire life is a succession of “processes.” If we retain the perspective we had as a young adult, we will be able to understand that it is this unpredictability of an uncertain and vague life that is in fact what has meaning, rather than a life set out by others. What’s more, by choosing the best path for ourselves, we will be able to accrue more strength to continue carrying on in life.

Literature for adolescents in Korea traditionally focused on growing up, but the meaning of growth has recently undergone subtle changes. Yuwon, by Baek Ohn-yu (Changbi, 2020), is a traditional coming-of-age story. The eponymous protagonist is a teenager who survived a fire at her apartment building when she was very young with the help of a local man who happened to be at the scene. The protagonist and her parents feel both grateful to and burdened by the man. The parents are unable to refuse any favor the man asks of them, no matter how unreasonable, so the protagonist is left on her own to speak her mind to him. People forge relationships through conversation. The content of the conversation or the relationship between the people conversing can cause them to be circumspect in choosing their words. The scope of words used in a given conversation is affected by many factors, such as the age and gender of those taking part in the conversation as well as the degree of their closeness. In particular, young girls in Korea are taught from an early age to refrain from answering right away to elders but to “read the air” to understand what the senior person actually has in mind.

Adolescent characters in YA novels aren’t the only ones who go through these experiences. The same is true for adult readers who have tailored their lives to suit others. There are many grown-up “Yuwon”s in this world who rather than living for themselves, put others first, always acting humble, expressing their gratitude or remorse in great excess. Adult readers of Yuwon root for the teenage protagonist and identify with her at the same time. Recent Korean YA novels show how the inner struggles of a teenage character are not unfamiliar to many of us.

YA novels cleverly point out how degenerate the older generation is from the perspective of teenage characters. Kim Jung Mi, one of Korea’s leading YA fiction writers, has consistently criticized the contradictions of Korean society created by older generations in several of her books, including There for You (Changbi, 2021). Set in Incheon, a place that sits at the margins of the Seoul metropolis, the novel illustrates the results of a hurried industrialization. The depictions feel all the more powerful because they are seen through the eyes of teenage characters.

I Am Moonui (Little Mountain Publishing, 2021), by Kim Haewon, is the story of a teenager who lives with her grandmother. The story questions whether what we call a normal family is actually normal as it uncovers the mystery behind the death of a young delivery worker. These adolescent characters encounter a fallen world where adults shout out words like justice, equality, and truth that have nowhere to stand. They question whether society created by adults is a mature and trustworthy society driven by principles, and whether the adults themselves abide by the rule of not lying that they emphasize to their children.

You Eun-sil’s Sunrye House (BIR Publishing, 2021) is a black comedy that wittily mocks and keenly dissects the materialism that is so prevalent in Korean society. The teenage protagonist compares her parents, who are intellectuals who scorn manual labor but live off their parents, with Sunrye, who has worked all her life to support herself.

Meanwhile, adults and young adults of the twenty-first century are familiar with the digital world and thereby have no qualms about virtual reality. This commonality between the two generations has helped blur the boundary between them, leading the two groups to share the young adult world. This has affected the authors of fantasy and science fiction works and many of them publish novels for general adult readers and young adults without distinguishing between them. Recent trends in YA fiction have led to works where two or more genres, such as fantasy, SF, mystery, thriller, horror, romance, martial arts, and history, come together and portray a variety of characters, such as zombies, witches, detectives, superheroes, and half-man/half-animal beings, making these works seem more like an entertainment show. They may seem far from “authentic” literature but they are actually rooted in traditional, classical works. Many of their narratives originate from ancient tales from the East and the West, illustrating or parodying archetypal characters.

The Struggles of a Girl Fated to Die Young, by Hyun Hojeong (Sakyejul Publishing, 2021), winner of the inaugural Park Jiri Literary Prize (created in commemoration of author Park Jiri who passed away at a young age after leaving an indelible mark on the world of Korean YA literature), reflects these characteristics. The story is a retelling of an ancient Korean tale, “A Tale of a Boy Fated to Die Young,” featuring a nineteen-year-old female protagonist who goes on an adventure, unlike the original story. Readers who are familiar with the digital world may notice that the scenes of the novel are like a game setting with a martial arts narrative, featuring two girls who become swordswomen and chase after enemies. The present progressive plot and the author’s unique writing style keep the reader on edge.

The number of general novels that are not very different from young adult fiction is on the rise. Again, this means that the boundary between adults and young adults is becoming blurred. The Korean publishing world tends to change in accordance with the trends set by young female readers. Many of them are dedicated to literature and are willing to continue to read as they grow older, to understand where they stand in society as well as to learn more about the world through literature. The YA category is likely to grow and expand to include older readers, as so many of us have grown closer to the forms and subject matters of YA fiction.

“Young adult poetry,” a recently-created category, seeks to act as an outlet for the thoughts and sentiments of adolescents. Children’s and adolescent literature in Korea has developed alongside efforts to give visibility to society’s marginalized people. YA poetry has succeeded in continuing with such efforts. Readers of the poetry collection I Walked Tall, by Kim Ae Ran (Changbi Education, 2019), will be able to perceive how the poet’s heart goes out to socially-disadvantaged teenagers. Her works depict the feminine perspective, teenage single parents, runaway teens, teenage workers, and LGBTQ teens.

For a long time, literature has portrayed contradictions found in groups of people and suggested their antidote. The response of Korean and international literature to the recent Coronavirus pandemic also stems from the contradiction between the earth and the human community and demands a rethinking of our fundamental human existence. In this context, Korean young adult fiction deserves notice as a literary response to finding a way out to overcome the contradictions of “adults” in Korea as well as throughout the whole world.



Translated by Juyeon Lee


Seran Oh
Literary Critic of Children’s and Adolescent Literature
Editorial Board Member, Changbi Review of Children’s Literature