My Sister Bongsoon

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byGong Ji-Young
My Sister Bongsoon
Tr. Park Jung-eun

My Sister Bongsoon is an autobiographical novel about a middle-class women’s reminiscence of her family’s maid. Told from the perspective of the 5-year-old narrator, this novel sheds light on the neglected servant class during Korea’s early stages of economic growth.


I was still squatting by a table at the window, long after I had hung up. The house I had moved in had windows facing south. The crisp sunlight of early spring was penetrating my frayed curtains, revealing old dust piled on the narrow gaps between the telephone buttons. There, between 1 and 2, 2 and 3… Only the corners between 4 and 1, 2 and 1, 8 and 9 were slightly safe from the dust. Probably, I pressed those buttons more often to call Mom.

That reminded me I barely called anyone else. Once I had called Mom. It was when I had moved into this hilly neighborhood on a cold wintry day last month, after a blazing row with the movers over the extra charges. Oh, yes, I did call. I called the gas and the telephone companies for new services. But I used the landlord’s phone because mine was not working yet. I also called a Chinese restaurant once. After frantically unpacking my stuff for days and nights—as if I had been in a war with someone I had hated for long until the last drop of blood—I had fallen asleep around dawn. The blinding sunshine through the window woke me up and I stared absently at the unfamiliar wallpaper that smelled awfully new. Wondering why it was so quiet in this neighborhood, I got out of the bed, and called the restaurant. Of course no one answered; it was seven-thirty in the morning.

I called that particular Chinese restaurant for no other reason than to get some spicy soup delivered. But I would not have dared to call, if not for the phone number sticker of the restaurant on the windowsill—a legacy of the previous tenant. Honestly, I must confess that I was so tired of my fellow human beings and I did not want to call anyone in this quiet and new neighborhood, except the Chinese restaurant for a delivery. I was even grateful that no one there answered the phone.

Actually, I had been thinking of Bongsoon by then—a sudden reflection after more than 20 years. Maybe, I had already expected what I just heard from Mom as my mind had raced back to Bongsoon out of the blue.

“You see, Bongsoon disappeared again, honey.”

Mom was saying each syllable carefully, not to stir up my nerves, which were ready to explode any minute.

“Yesterday, your aunt in Moraenae bumped into someone from Daeji-gol Village at a wedding and heard… er… she eloped with a tramp dog-vendor. Really, doesn’t she ever feel ashamed of herself, leaving four children with different fathers?”

“Her kids are still in school, aren’t they? Where on earth did she elope to?”

“How should I know? Thank God, her first daughter got married and settled in Gwangyang! I heard the others are all grown up, too! She told them she would be back to get them soon, after making lots of money. No matter what she said, isn’t it outrageous? Well, I meant to ask more questions, but I did not, honey. After all, I can’t be responsible for her forever! No, no. I was only confused… I shouldn’t have told you… But I don’t know why I am having the jitters… I only heard that a man took her away. Honestly, she is not a sleeping beauty, is she? What kind of man will pick up a woman old enough to be a grandmother to elope with? Believe me, the man must have lured her out to slave her away. You know she is a hard worker. Don’t you remember the last time she was kicked out penniless, only to have one more child? After she had worked like hell at the construction site for that damn carpenter! I don’t know… She had such a miserable childhood, and she never had a heyday… Really, no… Never mind… How is your book selling, honey?”

I didn’t say a word. I knew exactly what Mom refrained from saying to me. “I shouldn’t upset you when you are writing... It’s her fate, honey… It’s none of our business at this point how she lives or how her kids get along. After all, they are not our family… Just mind your business, honey. Just yours…” Probably, something like that.

Mom must have sensed that I was very upset indeed, so she hung up after babbling few more words. When she was about to hang up, I called her abruptly, as if I remembered something. But the line was already off. What was I about to say? Did I mean to say something like “Oh dear, how could she do that at fifty, Mom? Leaving four children behind!” No, nothing like that… I knew it. I knew that Bongsoon could do it. She could do it even if she were in her sixties; that’s how she was. First, she ran away from her stepfather, next from a deacon’s house; then she eloped with a drycleaner guy, again with a tramp carpenter, and now, with a dog-vendor… Hesitating to pick up the phone again, a strange feeling of helplessness struck me. I could not even move a finger.

It was a sort of premonition that struck me dead. I used to shiver over uncertain premonitions from time to time. Once, one of my college seniors, whom I hadn’t heard of for many years, had appeared in my dream. The very next day I was told that he had killed himself with poison. Another time, no sooner I had dreamed of strolling with a friend in my old campus, I got a call from her who was living in the U.S. I was thinking of Bongsoon as soon as I moved here, on that morning when I woke up after unpacking my stuff, wondering why it was so quiet in this neighborhood.

All of a sudden, I felt I was turning into a fatalist. I was wondering if the soft skin of newborns was controlled from the very beginning by the massive power of the cosmos, the location of stars, the rotation of the Earth and the five elements of fire, water, wood, metal and earth. Then, people could never get away from those forces until they were re-born… If so, what was the point of grief and remorse, even if she ran away leaving four children, no, even if she died running away, no, no, even if I were dead right now? The only job left for us was to be thunderstruck at the new twist of fate and just mumble, “What is life anyway?” But, still… 

Author's Profile

Gong Ji-Young has received the Amnesty International Special Media Award, Catholic Literature Award, and the Yi Sang Literary Award. Her best-known works include Our Happy Time, The Crucible, and My Sister, Bongsoon. Her books in translation include Our Happy Time (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2014), Nos Jours Heureux (Philippe Picquier, 2014), L'échelle de Jacob (Philippe Picquier, 2016), and Ma très chère grande soeur (Philippe Picquier, 2018).