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FICTION

Growing Up and Letting Go: A Gift from a Bird by Eun Heekyung

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.6 Winter 2009
  • byKim Dongshik
A Gift from a Bird
1995
396pp.

Eun Heekyung is one of the major forces of contemporary Korean literature. Born in 1959, she graduated from the department of Korean Literature at Sookmyung Women’s University and the department of Korean Literature at Yonsei University. For some time after graduation, she worked at publishing companies and magazines, setting her literary dreams aside. She made her literary debut in her mid-30s by winning the literary contest held by The Dong-A Ilbo with her short story, “A Duet.”

That year, she went to stay at a Buddhist temple called Anguk temple, and there she finished her first full-length novel in two months. She titled the novel A Gift from a Bird, after the poem by Jacques Prevert, a French poet. A Gift from a Bird was awarded the first Munhakdongne Novel Award, and continues to be popular among readers today, a decade since its original publication.

A Gift from a Bird is a story that takes place between 1969 and 1995. 1969 was the year in which man landed on the moon, with Apollo 11, for the first time in the history of mankind; and in 1995, Korea launched a satellite for the first time ever, with Koreasat, a communications satellite.

A Gift from a Bird begins with a first person narrator past her mid-30s, watching the launch of Koreasat, and reminiscing about the year 1969 when she was a 12-year old girl. The girl is named Jinhee. Jinhee’s mother committed suicide, and her father is missing. As a result, she lives with her maternal grandmother, uncle, and aunt, in a small rural village.

The 12-year old Jinhee is stuck somewhere in between. She isn’t yet an adult, but she’s no longer a child. She lives with her maternal grandmother’s family, but without parents, she might as well be an orphan. She states, “I stopped growing when I was 12, because I understood that the world wasn’t friendly towards me. I knew everything there was to know, so there was no longer a reason for me to grow.” Her contradictory and cynical personality imbues the work with a peculiar feeling. Various characters with unique personalities, including Jinhee’s aunt, who is childish but innocent, Hong Giwung, a tough guy who is also a hopeless romantic, Jang-gun’s mother, who is quite talkative, Mrs. Gwangjin Tera (the Japanese pronunciation of the world “taylor”), a sympathetic middle-aged woman, and Miss Lee, a sensuous young woman, are depicted through the eyes of the 12-year old Jinhee.

A Gift from a Bird vividly restores to life the Korean society between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the era just prior to the sweeping modernization of the country. What’s remarkable about this novel, however, is that it goes beyond that.

The insights on life, scattered here and there throughout the work, are enough to captivate readers. The narrator notes, “And that’s how life is, as well. Absurd, trivial coincidences lead life along. So don’t try to dig up meaning in everything. Life is a joke.” This is a work remarkable for its manifestation of the Nietzschesque that leads life into a realm of frivolity and pleasure, rather than one of oppression and responsibility. As we read A Gift from a Bird, we come to reflect on life as we go back and forth between tears and laughter.

And in that process, we are endowed with a renewed passion for living.