Inner Reflections: Beauty Despises Me by Eun Heekyung

  • onFebruary 16, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byKim Seung-bok
Tr. Oh Yeong-ah

Eun Heekyung, born in 1959, is, along with Shin Kyung-sook and Gong Ji-Young, one of the leading female writers in South Korea. Her short story collection, Beauty Despises Me, was recently translated and published in Japan for the first time. The collection delineates the absurdity of our lives in the modern age through the protagonists such as a 34-year-old man who embarks on a diet regimen, and a keenly self-conscious girl.

The uncertain and perilous nature of our existence, our collective sense of loss, and the violence inherent in our daily lives are recurring motifs in Eun’s stories. However, unlike the dark themes, her writing is buoyant and humorous. If you were to catch her in an interview on television or radio, you would be surprised how closely her voice, gestures, and expressions resemble the sentences and writing style in her stories.

Eun Heekyung debuted at the age of 35. “The social novels of the 1980s were not to my liking. I only started writing in the 1990s when novels with themes centered on the individual came into vogue” she said. In interviews, Eun always stresses her literary worldview that lays emphasis on the individual: “I frequently apply the technique of depicting the workings of the human mind through social problems or events. I don’t externalize the problems or events; rather, I internalize the individual’s problems through them. I think the role of literature is to reflect the unique nature of each individual.”

From Japanese readers:

“This was the first Korean book I bought. I was drawn to the title and cover that reminded me of Yoshino Sakumi’s manga. I cannot forget this feeling of being lifted a few inches above reality. This cheerfulness that is not easily visible among Japanese writers is truly urban and stylish. But at the heart of Eun’s writing lies a solemn philosophy. It’s the kind of philosophy that can only be felt, not understood.”

“The title piece of this collection is the story of a man who starts dieting. The writing is crisp and concise. The writer contemplates the dilemma between humanity’s instinct for self-preservation and modern man’s desires through the theme of dieting. The lack of emotional expression also seems to be a characteristic of this writer. Without rejecting modernity, she portrays our mindsets as we reflect on our lives in the modern age.”

Korean readers have enjoyed easy access to the 16 books published by the author during her 20-year career. However, in all these years only one of her books has been translated into Japanese. Despite this, how has reader reaction to Eun’s work in both countries been so similar? Is it because the Japanese are discerning readers? Or is this, perhaps, a sign of the author’s brilliance? 


by Kim Seung-bok


Author's Profile

Eun Heekyung has won several literary awards such as the Munhakdongne Novel Award, the Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of My Wife’s Boxes (Les Boîtes de ma femme) was published by Zulma. Her works have appeared in German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. She also participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.