[Japanese] Believing in the Possibilities of “Another Story”: Twelve Women Already Dead by Bak Solmay
- onOctober 4, 2021
- Vol.53 Autumn 2021
- byAoko Matsuda
Tr. Mariko Saito 2021222pp.
Bak Solmay’s Twelve Women Already Dead is a collection of short stories compiled for publication especially in Japan. The copy on the book’s bellyband says that the author “confronts social issues such as the Gwangju Uprising, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, and femicide” with her “unique imaginativeness.”
I cried so much I emptied a full box of tissues while reading Han Kang’s Human Acts. I saw A Taxi Driver, starring Song Kang-ho, in theaters, and left with my handkerchief soaked in tears, a newly made fan of Ryu Jun-yeol, who I first saw in that film. Whenever I see or hear the word “Gwangju,” I think, I know. I know. What happened there, at least, I know.
“Social issues such as the Gwangju Uprising, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, and femicide.” I know the stories that are told along with these words, I think. So I prepared myself mentally before opening this book. No matter how painful the story, I must accept it, stand with the victims, and swear anew from the bottom of my heart to never let these atrocities be repeated.
But on those pages, I found a space I had never imagined spreading out before me. If I were to put it into words, it was a quiet willfulness that refused to simply move the reader, refused to let them come close.
The characters that appear in Bak’s stories are confused. So confused that it makes the reader pull back and ask, “Do you have to be so lost?” There were times when the characters themselves couldn’t accept their confusion. A certain credulity I had expected was missing, and the characters didn’t feel the things I expected them to feel. The world they looked upon was in constant flux, and they continued to change as well. They wouldn’t let me think, I know.
In “Swaying into the Dark Night,” Busan Tower, which the main character is certain should exist in front of Busan Station, vanishes from their mind, transforms, and when they actually visit the spot, has actually disappeared. In “Beloved Dog,” the narrator has no faith in their recollection of 1994, which they must have lived through. When they think back to the year, “a variety of feelings and sensations” well up, yet they also recall without the slightest emotion “incidents, numbers, and people’s names carved into my mind by the words I saw in newspapers.” In “The Eyes of Winter,” two characters watch a documentary about the Kori Nuclear Power Plant and discuss how they wish they could have seen different kinds of movies. And in the title piece about femicide, the narrator evades telling us how they feel about either murdered or living women, including themselves. In “Well, What Shall We Sing?” the narrator, a Gwangju native joining in an event for students in San Francisco interested in learning Korean, listens to the stories told about the Gwangju Uprising while thinking about how they had expected “lighter” conversation. On the uprising’s thirtieth anniversary, the narrator visits the South Jeolla provincial office building that was the site of a massacre during the uprising. They think, “the people who actually know what happened here, maybe they’d tell us another story. Something that we haven’t talked about yet.” It seems Bak is always considering the potential of “another story,” that there is always “another story” behind everything that happens.
In Japan, when someone creates a fictional work portraying actual incidents or events, I often see the “timing” of taking up those topics debated on social media. Isn’t it too early? It’s not yet over for the people who experienced it, they say. But these incidents never end. Suffering and sadness don’t heal with the passing of time, and events that have bred resentment in society are always passed on and stay in this world. Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as perfect timing.
If that’s the case, maybe one way an author can approach fiction with “integrity” is by quietly placing “another story” in some corner of this world. “Another story,” different from what we are all convinced we know. Bak writes about the lives of those of us who, in the face of these atrocities, cannot turn back time or save those who have lost their lives, who have no choice but to go on living out their lives in the places where those atrocities happened, where they still happen, and where they sometimes seem—though maybe not—to have come to terms with this past. The “other stories” she creates have a sedating effect, returning those of us who always wind up thinking “we know” back to a state of ignorance. Of course it is important to know history and the facts, but it is not a bad thing to be forced to remember, “That’s right, I don’t know anything.” And that is how these stories will make you feel.
Translated by Kalau Almony
Bak Solmay debuted in 2009 with the novel Eul, which won Jaeum & Moeum’s New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels Eul, I Want to Write a Hundred Lines, Time in the City, Slowly Head First, and the short story collections Then What Do We Sing, The Eyes of Winter, The Dog I Love, and International Night. She has received the Moonji Literary Award, Kim Seungok Literary Award, and Kim Hyeon Prize.