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FICTION

[Review] A Profession of Faith in Humanity: Summer Outside by Kim Ae-ran

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byJianan Qian
外面是夏天 (Summer Outside)
Tr. Xu Lihong
2019
208pp.

On the morning of April 16th, 2014, the Sewol ferry, a 6,825-ton vessel carrying 476 passengers and crew, sank off the coast of Jindo island. A total of 304 people died in the catastrophe, including 250 students from Danwon High School. The tragedy made both national and international headlines. I remember seeing the news in Shanghai: the images of heartbroken parents, the criticism of the rescue operations, and the many yet-to-be-answered questions about the cause of the wreck. Though I was only a foreigner who bore no relation to the victims, the tragedy left me speechless—I couldn’t imagine how those families would ever be able to cope with their sadness, and I wondered how their hearts would ever heal.

Written in the aftermath of the disaster, Summer Outside (Wàimiàn shì xiàtiān) can be read as Kim Ae-ran’s response to the tragedy. All seven stories are built on a premise of loss. In the first story, “The Beginning of Winter,” just as a young couple has bought a new apartment and looks forward to a new life, their baby boy, Yeong-u, dies. In the second story, the young protagonist, Noh Chan-seong, struggles with the shadow of his father’s death. In the last story, after the protagonist’s husband dies saving one of his students, she begins searching for answers: What is pain? What happens after death?

Trauma induces silence, and traumatic memories, in turn, suck people in like black holes. In fiction, however, it is extremely difficult to give silence a voice and to reveal those invisible holes. Kim accomplishes both tasks gracefully by focusing on the details of everyday life. For example, in “The Beginning of Winter,” the topic of Yeong-u’s death becomes something of a taboo between the couple. Yet, when they try hard to cover the stains the husband’s mother has accidentally left on the wallpaper, we can see the couple struggling to rise above their trauma. Oftentimes, Kim fills a small detail with so much meaning that we can both feel the complexity of human emotion and also contemplate larger, abstract topics, such as the nature of human connection and communication. Take “Noh Chan-seong and Ivan.” Noh’s relationship with his grandmother suffers after the loss of his father. His grandmother, burdened with unspeakable pain, mounting responsibilities, and old age, becomes bitter and cruel. This is why Noh’s love for an aged dog is profoundly touching. On the one hand, it seems to be the child’s subconscious attempt to reallocate the love he had for his late father; on the other hand, Noh also seems to be subtly expressing his unfailing love for his grandmother. Although Noh’s grandmother might not understand the gesture, and he might not fully understand his devotion to the dog, it is clear that he will never abandon her for her illness or uselessness.

Kim’s collection reminds me of my favorite Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” In that story, a couple who has just lost their young son comes to a bakery; their helplessness has turned to resentment, and they take this out on the baker. However, because the baker has shared similar hardships, he ends up bringing them comfort. Kim’s stories provide even more hope and strength than Carver’s. Her heroes are not strangers from chance encounters as they are in “A Small, Good Thing,” but children. She implies that love and understanding are humanity’s fundamental nature: we are born with this capacity, and we don’t need to endure suffering and misfortune in order to understand each other. In “Silent Future,” Kim’s award-winning experimental story, the narrator says that their original name is “misunderstanding,” but “people change it into ‘understanding’ depending on what they need.” The narrator goes on to confess that they like their current name because it embodies “the simple love in complicated grammar.” Kim’s insight is inspirational. We all worry so much about the challenges of mutual communication that we ignore the fact that our efforts in connecting with others is proof enough of humanity’s loving nature.

The moment that touches me most tenderly is in the first story, when the couple comes across their late son’s scribbling on the wall: a segment of his name, as he hadn’t yet learned to write his full name. To me, this symbolizes the eternal trace that every life leaves in this world, no matter how short that life is. In that regard, our woes over loss illustrate how important each life is to us. Summer outside. Hope outside.

 

Jianan Qian
Author, 29 Letters (2019), Say No to Eggs (2018)
“To the Dogs” (2019 Granta Fiction Top Reads)
 
Translated by Xu Lihong

Author's Profile

Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for the story “I Go to the Convenience Store.” Her debut work “No Knocking in This House,” excerpted here, won the 2003 Daesan Literary Award.