What Is Rubbish?: A Familiar World by Hwang Sok-yong

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byShim Jinkyung
A Familiar World

A cracked, splintering wooden pestle, a twig brush all worn down at the end, a rubber clog missing a heel, a silver hairpin covered with rust, a cracked button made from an animal's horn, a broken pipe, a fine-tooth comb missing teeth, a thimble broken along the seams. Are all of these now useless items rubbish or not? If they served their true purpose in life to the very end in the hands of judicious, caring owners, discarded only when used up, then these deserve to be called rubbish. If they were discarded with still plenty of use left on a whim of their owners, however, they cannot be called rubbish in the strict sense of the word—they are false rubbish. Disturbingly enough, more and more false rubbish is littering the world.

Hwang Sok-yong’s A Familiar World paints a dramatic yet bleak picture, against the backdrop of Nanji Island, a colossal landfill built in the 1970s, about the twisted desire in society today that creates rubbish in order to keep the engine of capitalism running smoothly. As can be inferred from the author’s prologue, the landfill is a metaphor for the very real yet invisible underworld that supports the endless cycle of waste that goes on in the visible world to support the empty bubble that is the consumerist lifestyle. The forsaken souls and forgotten objects of the city are sketched in painstaking detail, suggesting that it is possible to become rubbish even in the heart of the city far away from the landfill, and that it happens every day.

Today’s brutally competitive society may merely be a reflection of the race to not end up as rubbish as well. But is becoming rubbish truly such a terrible fate? At the end of the novel the protagonist Ddakburi tentatively tries out a new way of life at the landfill, taking care of abandoned dogs, and holding a memorial service for objects that have lost their usefulness (real rubbish). This reflects the fact that the landfill is the only place in the novel that has the potential to truly become “a familiar world.” 

Author's Profile

Hwang Sok-yong was born in Changchun, Manchuria in 1943. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, he moved to his mother’s hometown Pyongyang, where he lived with his mother’s side of the family. In 1947, his family moved to the South and he grew up in Yeongdeungpo. Hwang left Kyungbok High School in 1962 and left home to wander the southern provinces. He returned home in October, and in November of that year he won the New Author Literary Prize from the magazine Sasanggye for his short story, “Near the Marking Stone.” Hwang lived life as a drifter, taking up manual labor and temple jobs until 1970 when his short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest and he began his writing career in earnest. He also participated in the Vietnam War.

Throughout the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong published a continuous stream of works that became well known such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,”“The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” becoming a foremost author in the Korean literary world. For the duration of the seventies, he went undercover working at the Guro Industrial Complex and took part in the resistance movement through his membership in the Association of Writers for Actualized Freedom while penning his epic novel, Jang Gilsan.

In the 1980s, Hwang completed his full-length novel, The Shadow of Arms, which shines light on the capitalistic world system during the Vietnam War. He did this all while working tirelessly to organize the fight to spread the truth about the Gwangju Democratization Movement as well as a variety of other resistance movements. After visiting North Korea in March 1989, Hwang was unable to return to South Korea and took refuge as an invited author at the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1991, he continued his exile in New York. After returning to South Korea in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1998 after serving five of those years. Following this, he has shown year after year that his creative spirit will not die with the publication of The Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shim Cheong (2003), Princess Bari (2007), Hesperus (2008), Gangnam Dream (2010), A Familiar World (2011), The Sound of the Shallow Water (2012), and Dusk (2015). He has been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award, among others. Hwang’s major works have been translated and published around the world in countries such as France, the US, Italy, and Sweden.