Where Can the Anxious Bird Build Its Nest? - Oh Junghee’s The Bird
- onDecember 22, 2015
- Vol.30 Winter 2015
- byOh Junghee
“People say they’d like to return to their late teens or early twenties and start again, but I’d never want to revisit that age. I wouldn’t have the confidence to relive that painful time of uncertainty, anxiety, dread, and horror muddled together.” Oh Junghee told me this in private. Already many years have passed, but my memory of our conversation is still vivid. At the time, I was envious to the point of jealousy seeing university freshmen in the bloom of youth. I was anxious to return to those days and start my life over. For this reason, I was more than a little shocked by Oh’s words. But deliberating as to why she said this, I arrived at a number of possibilities. In fact, separation anxiety, fear of the dark, despair at being rejected, and the death drive are conspicuous everywhere in her fiction. And perhaps her feelings are understandable, given her biography and background environment.
Oh was born in 1947, at a time when Korea had been liberated from Japanese rule, but before the government of the Republic of Korea was established. She suffered through the Korean War (1950-1953) as a young child. Her family had to move several times even after they were no longer displaced from the war, and when she was fifteen, she witnessed the death of the youngest family member. Oh said that her mind went utterly blank when she saw her sibling after a traffic accident. Considering that she neither dealt with the trauma properly nor went through the regular process of mourning the family member she’d loved so intensely, she likely would have endured an uneasy adolescence. It would be impossible now for her to look back on this dim and gloomy period as a golden age. And even after this, she would have spent many stretches of uncertainty due to political and economic conditions. Perhaps for Oh, literature took the form of an earnest prayer for the possibility of freedom from this instability. And maybe the uncertainty and loneliness, sorrow and solitude that existed inside her drew her to literature, and powered her love for it. Writing was an aesthetic form of self-therapy. And her work was sublimated through the force of imagination, and it spread with growing intensity towards the horizon of collective healing.
Wandering uncertainly, having lost the safety of its nest, where can a young bird build a home? This question fills readers with tension and guides the narrative of The Bird, the novel considered to best represent Oh’s aesthetic. The Bird is a work that displays the author’s defining characteristics, and it is a touching story with a plot that is representative of contemporary prose. Oh thoughtfully describes the wandering, uncertainty, and sense of loss of a brother and sister who have been abandoned by their parents. The story is told from the perspective of a pure-hearted twelve-year-old girl. As the contrast develops between the innocent brother-and-sister pair and the grim conditions of the world affecting them, the sad mood becomes overpowering. Oh takes problems related to the precarious existence of a nest to their logical extremes. The German translation of The Bird won the LiBeraturpreis in 2003, and Oh’s acceptance speech can be of help to us in understanding the overall nature of the work.
“Bird is the story of a young brother and sister. A family that lived a happy life together cultivating flowers on a farm loses its home and livelihood in a flood, and migrates to a large city to make a living. There they join the underclass, and fall into a steady downward spiral of poverty, dread, and familial break up. In the course of these events, their true nature as human beings is tarnished and eventually destroyed. When a society is unstable and families are torn apart, the biggest victims are children, who lack the ability to defend themselves. In this novel, I wanted to say that when children are left on their own, their spirits breaking in the face of abandonment, violence, and neglect, they grow up and become our dark and bitter future.”