The Writer as Witness: Testimonial Narratives in Korea
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byKang Yu-jung
Novels are fiction. This might be so obvious it could even be the very first line of an introductory lecture on literature. Novels are crafted stories, made up of events that seem plausible. If such crafted stories are fiction, then non-fiction is supposed to be the exact opposite: a recounting of real events. Stories based on real events, historical events that really took place, are non-fiction. But is it actually possible to make events that really did happen into a story without crafting them in some way? Can we really believe that all history, which claims to record events that happened in the real world, is complete fact?
All novels, without exception, are involved with history in some way. This is because as long as anyone lives with flesh and bones and has feet on the ground, one cannot help but be a part of history. This is true even for those often seen as residing on the fringes of history, the “ordinary people” history tends to overlook. This is the reason that all novels, especially those that consider the modern history of Korea, are both non-fiction and fiction at the same time. All fiction is both history and fact.
Published in 1989, Kim Won-il’s novel The House with a Sunken Courtyard depicts the life of a family of refugees during the Korean War. Having fled south without their father, the family manages to find a place to live, but suffers from poverty and exhaustion in the aftermath of the war. The situations of the various families who all live in different rooms under the same roof of what they call “the house with the sunken courtyard” are all somewhat similar. This space and story are fictional creations by the author, but they are also very reminiscent of the life he lived at that time. An adult narrator shows us this life through the eyes of a child. Through such young eyes, which cannot yet fully understand the world, the Korean War and its aftermath become much more vivid for the reader than any historical account could be.
Park Wansuh’s novel The Naked Tree is also an outstanding testimony and record of the Korean War. The daring and unflinching perspective of a twenty-year-old woman, not very young, but not quite fully mature, is particularly striking. A glimpse of the terrible time suffered by those who could not escape from the battleground of Seoul during the Korean War is depicted in scenes that pull the reader in. The work reveals a kind of life in Seoul that was not recorded in the history books, and brings into relief the wearisome silhouette of an artist hidden from public memory.
Fiction or novels can often be far stronger than bare facts or sparsely recorded history. In South Korea, there have been times when it was also impossible to depict or talk about certain historical events without facing severe consequences. The clearest example of this is any reference to the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Many people who lived in other cities had no way of knowing what was happening during those tragically momentous days in Gwangju. Information was blocked and facts were distorted. For a long time, even the word “Gwangju” was taboo. It took years to even acknowledge that such a prohibition existed. Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that the events of May 1980 have still not been properly investigated or brought to light.
This is precisely why Han Kang’s novel Human Acts draws much closer to truth than any historical record. Through the character of a young boy who was part of the Gwangju Uprising, Han reveals an inner space overlooked by other narratives. It has a very different quality to the evidence of cold-blooded violence shown in the documentary footage that survives. The terror and despair, the conflicting feelings of someone caught in the middle, are conveyed intact. Seeing the corpse of the boy's friend left to rot, along with so many others, induces a strong desire for truth, truth of a world in which the facts have still not been fully revealed. Through the lens of another’s suffering, the reader is taken directly to the point of compassion.
The “I” and Detective Kim who appear in Hwang Ji-woo’s poem “To Detective Kim Who Is Humane, Too Humane” are no different. In the poem, the tortured “I” shakes hands and shares smiles with his torturer, Detective Kim. “I” was tortured in reality, but at the same time, he is also a poetic voice that exists only in the space of a poem. Detective Kim is an actual person who has tortured someone, but he is also a fictional character who exists in a poem. When the two people ask each other how they are and talk about what they have been doing since the incident, the conversation may not be truthful, but there is an agitated echo that leaps beyond questions of fact.
The important thing is not the veracity of their exchange, but rather that, in the scene where the two “act” as though nothing has happened, there is a chilling truth that rises up from the depths, hidden by the official history that denies it. The scars left on “I” by the grossly inhumane torture stand in stark contrast to the too humane Detective Kim.
Although both poetry and fiction set out from facts and history, they surpass simple descriptions or testimonies and function as meaningful statements. In the poem “The Apprentice’s Dream” by Park Nohae, who conveyed the labor conditions of the 1980s in a simple but heartbreakingly truthful way, we discover an anguished confession. The poem does not focus on the dangerous working conditions, terrible injustices, or merciless circumstances faced by workers. Like the “dream” in the title, the apprentice’s dream is confined to a small and humble world. If one can lead an ordinary life only in one’s dreams, then one’s life has clearly taken a wrong turn.
Shin Daechul is greatly concerned with the division of North and South Korea, and depicts it in his poetry not as an issue of politics but as an issue of people, thus revealing a way for our reality to become literature. In “I Don’t Know Who You Are but I Love You,” he calls out, “you who are . . . / nowhere in our land, / I don’t know who you are but I love you.” Here, he enters into the realm of truth beyond fact, where love defies the reality of living across a militarized border zone. This is also the reason that the poem “They Say We Should Wait,” written by Kim Ki-taek to share the desperation and suffering following the 2014 Sewol Tragedy, begins with a text message left by one of the deceased. The text message of “They say we should wait” is not simply a piece of evidence found on the deceased’s phone, but stands as a symbol of the Sewol Tragedy and of our society as a whole. In such a way, poetry and novels deal with things that cannot endure as history or fact.
Gong Ji-Young’s novel The Crucible, which was based on an actual case of sexual abuse at a school for children with disabilities, is an example of literature becoming a catalyst for making things happen in the real world. In the end, the events in the novel, which were also made into a film, brought about such public indignation that an investigation was reopened and those responsible were brought to trial.
Kim Soom’s novel One Person captures truth that goes beyond the many non-fiction narratives of the Korean comfort women. The story begins when all of the other victims of sexual slavery have passed away, leaving only one last survivor.
Unlike history, literature is made up of stories that plausibly could have happened. But literature is also capable of reaching under the skin into the minds, realms, and lives that history tends to eliminate. Although the way of literature may be a narrow and perilous path, it is precisely within literature that we can discover the experiences of people excluded from history: the shame of those for whom history is a wound, the hope of those who dream of a better life in the midst of that history, and even the despair of those who have to brutally keep it bottled up. It is also in literature that those facts that have yet to be settled, things which have already passed but which will continue to shape our futures, have a much more holistic form. Every Korean novel is both wholly fiction and wholly historical. Literature is the last stronghold of those who have suffered.
by Kang Yu-jung
Literary and Film Critic Kangnam University
Photo ⓒ NOH Suntag, Namildang Design Olympic II #BJB2201, 2009