Teenage Throwaways: Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

  • onJuly 22, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byMaya Jaggi
Familiar Things
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell


More than forty years ago, Hwang Sok-yong traced the bewilderment of millions who toiled for the economic miracle in his classic short story, “The Road to Sampo,” about a drifter returning to his fishing village to find his island scarred by construction sites. In Familiar Things, published in Korean in 2011 and now out in Sora Kim-Russell’s assured English translation, the author returns to an era of breakneck industrialization to probe the human and environmental costs of the “Miracle on the Han River” and its analogues around the world.

The novel begins with the enchant-ment and anticipation of a children’s adventure. A boy standing on an open truck speeds along a riverside expressway, boldly facing the future. The silver grass and sunset evoke a “foreign, faraway land.” Yet the boy and his mother are riding a garbage truck bound for the western outskirts of a megacity. As the convoy climbs a dirt road beyond the “cozy lights” of a village, the child is ripped from his fairytale.

At the crest of the hill, “they could barely breathe from the stench. The smell was unbearably foul, a vile combination of every bad odour in the world—manure, sewage, spoiled food, hard-boiled soy sauce, fermented soybean paste. Clinging to their faces . . . were swarms of flies.” This fetid heap is to be the thirteen-year-old’s workplace and home.

The novel’s 1980s setting on “Flower Island” alludes to Seoul’s Nanjido, once a beauty spot in the Han River famous for orchids and peanuts. Nanjido became the capital’s landfill from 1978-92, when its garbage mountain rose hundreds of meters. In this child’s-eye view of the rapacious logic of mass production and consumption, “the people who lived there were likewise discards and outcasts driven from the city.”

Choi Jeong-ho aka Bugeye (a police-man called him a “bug-eyed little punk”) lives by his fists, wits, and resilient imagination. A veteran of garment sweatshops, he and his mother quit their inner-city slum to join the perilous shantytown of 6,000 trash-pickers. His father was among thousands marched off to re-education camps after a new general seized power vowing to “clean up society”—an allusion to General Chun Doo-hwan’s military coup of 12 December 1979 and “social cleansing” policies.

Bugeye joins masked pickers he sees as astronauts or space aliens, trawling for “yogurt bottles, empty cosmetics jars” in hardhats with miners’ headlamps. A shadow-city microcosm, the dump is a production line with a pecking order of rakers. Bugeye’s stepfather figure, whom he dubs Baron Ashura after a manga villain, runs the work crew like a general. District dumps yield less than private-sector waste such as US military bases. While humble pickers pay a permit fee, there are “Flower Island chaebols, the big CEOs of the trash world.” As his mother points out, “It may be garbage now, but they say it turns to gold.”

Seoulites pinch their noses when Flower Islanders hit town. Facing schoolgirls in uniform, Bugeye “felt like he was watching a movie, and he could not enter the screen.” Yet he and the Baron’s son Baldspot, in hacked-off blue jeans, roam and watch the seasons turn. They visit Peddler Grandpa who dismantles electronics, and his epileptic daughter who rescues stray dogs abandoned amid the new high-rises. When not wolfing “Flower Island stew” made from scavenged food, the boys eat ramen from styrofoam care packages at church school (“where rich ladies come to have their picture taken”). Pickings are plentiful during Chuseok (Korean harvest festival), while kimchi-making season yields little but rotting cabbage and coal ash. Twice a month, a chemical stench sprayed from helicopters turns roofs “shiny black from dead flies.”

The novel pulls poetry from the detritus, with a lucky find after a good turn affording a spree in a downtown toy store. A glue-sniffing interlude resembles a hallucinogenic video game. Since Hwang’s break with pure realism in 2000, he has borrowed from shamanic narratives, as he told me in London in 2015.1 Here, mysterious “blue lights” become a portal into a dokkaebi realm, with a lost pastoral of sailing boats and swaying sorghum that may yet be recovered. At a riverside shrine where islanders once held shamanic rituals, a “mad” woman makes solemn offerings of cherished possessions—a broken pipe, a tarnished hairpin—in defiance of a throwaway society.

A blaze sparked by methane fireballs sweeps the shantytown. But with time, “the flower stalks would bore their way through the ash.” The Nanjido landfill was reborn in 2002 as an urban eco-project, Seoul’s World Cup Park. Hwang offers a crucial reminder of the park’s emergence from a pitiless system where children are “worth less than scrap metal.” 


by Maya Jaggi
Cultural Journalist
Critic for Financial Times and the Guardian