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FICTION

[Japanese] For the Weak, the Frail, and the Precarious: dd’s Umbrella by Hwang Jungeun

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byYoon Woongdae
ディディの傘 (dd’s Umbrella)
Tr. Saito Mariko
2020
288pp.

During a visit to Japan in 2018, Hwang Jungeun said, “To me, the fundamental basis of revolution is worrying about whether the person standing next to you has an umbrella when it starts to rain and you open your own.” To borrow this expression, dd’s Umbrella is about worrying about your neighbor. It earnestly questions whether the person next to you has an umbrella. It’s such a modest experiment that it’s difficult to imagine that something so small could start a revolution. It’s too weak, too frail, too precarious a gesture.

In our current world where Neoliberalism runs rampant not just in Korea and Japan, but across the face of the earth, we all look out on a shared landscape. This is why even I, who lives on an island in the Far East, can be moved by the films of Ken Loach. Because we share a landscape in ruins. Our will to live has been battered, and the culture that once supported humanity has been uprooted. In this world where it takes all you have just to get by, living a truly human life is little more than a pipe dream.

However, the moment we consider the humanity we cultivated before all was reduced to ashes as common sense, the second we begin relying on that common sense to shape what life should be, we run the risk of falling into a trap. We are in danger of getting caught up in what this book refers to as “Eichmann’s old tricks”: getting stuck in a state of unthinking.

The happiness we yearned for has been twisted out of shape, and we have no idea when another glimmer of hope might arrive. We’re starving and hoping for rest and a chance to recover, but once that causes us to consider our previous experiences as normal, we begin to use that definition of normalcy to search for clues as to what went wrong. But what if our old common sense depended on never worrying about our neighbors?

Common sense is both a subtle means to oppress deviation from the norm, as well as a madness that holds definitions of propriety in place. It always contains within it this duality. The poor, sexual minorities, the blind. The common sense that relegated their voices to just background noise also permitted countless injustices against them.

The thread that connects the two stories “d” and “There’s No Need to Say Anything” is the sinking of MV Sewol. This tragic event in 2014 sent shockwaves throughout South Korea and left the country stupefied. It serves as the background for both stories. There is no direct discussion of justice in ddi’s Umbrella. Rather, the author brings to the fore quiet voices speaking about that incident, and the demands for justice those voices carry. This takes time. If you’re impatient, you won’t hear them.

I have only read bits and pieces of Korean literature. I don’t have an exhaustive knowledge of the canon of Japanese literature, either. However, based on my limited reading experience, I get the impression that Korean literature often must speak about what justice is. Japanese literature, on the other hand, questions justice. Or otherwise, rather than asking whether something is right or wrong, it tends to pay attention to those things outside that frame of reference. And by outside that frame, I mean it tends to focus on the highly personal, or the internal.

Maybe the lived experiences that form the basis of these discussions of justice are different. In Japan you often hear people say that “Justice is always opposed by another justice. As such, you must question those who claim to act in the name of justice.” But the opposite of “justice” is “injustice,” not “another justice.” If two opposing ideas both claim to be just, we must question what justice itself is. What makes it so difficult to question justice? Is this not the problem that Korean literature tries to shine a light on? Those who have grown used to using Japanese, whose common sense is grounded in this language, may begin to lose sight of that question.

The depictions of war, violence enacted by those in power, and the sudden accidents that cost lives in ddi’s Umbrella are founded in the lived experience of the Korean people. Time is suddenly interrupted, and the life lived up until yesterday suddenly vanishes. And still if you try to go on living, you have to learn that the environment that raised you began with violence and injustice. You must recognize that the framework of violence and injustice treats people such as women and the blind as worthless. And you must feel shame for that.

You must feel the world is prejudiced and intolerant. That there may be no hope. In “d,” the main character’s body grows cold and they begin to feel objects giving off heat. They start to think that’s just how the world is. But there must have been a world before they felt that heat. Our understanding of the world is limited by the frameworks we’re given; thinking is not the same as living.

“There’s No Need to Say Anything” takes up an unfinished novel. That unfinished novel refuses to take the shape of a novel. If it were finished, it would become the present world. Maybe a world where your neighbor has no umbrella and is left to freeze in the rain.

Both hot and cold are a sort of heat. And when that heat delivers a tingle of pain, we must not just let our thoughts concern themselves with the worthlessness of reality. If we open ourselves to that pain, we may be able to hear the quiet voices of others. If we do, maybe there we will find hope. The strength to imagine, to think. To not just react to the frame we’re given, but to adapt to it.

 

Yoon Woongdae
Author, Goodbye, Patriarchy (Akishobo, 2020)
 
Translated by Kalau Almony

Author's Profile

Hwang Jungeun debuted in 2005 with “Mother,” which won the Kyunghyang Shinmun New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels One Hundred Shadows, Savage Alice, and I’ll Go On, the short story collections Into the World of Passi, The Seven Thirty- Two Elephant Train, and Being Nobody. This year, she published the serial novel Didi’s Umbrella. Her books in translation include One Hundred Shadows (Tilted Axis, 2016), I’ll Go On (Tilted Axis, 2018), and “Kong’s Garden” (Strangers Press, 2019).