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FICTION

The Loss of Innocence: Who Ate Up All the Shinga? by Park Wansuh

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.7 Spring 2010
  • byJoanna K. Elfving-Hwang
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?
Tr. Yu Young-nan
2009
264pp.

Park Wansuh’s autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All the Shinga? offers an intriguing and highly personalized insight into one of the most turbulent periods in modern Korean history, and for this reason alone this translation is a highly welcome addition to the growing number of Korean literary works available in English. Charting Park’s own childhood and formative years in late colonial Korea, as well as her experiences of surviving the early part of the Korean War (1950-53), this autobiography also emerges as an apologia of a kind for the often-confused national politics of the period. While the English language translation (perhaps inevitably) does not always entirely capture the playful tone of the original Korean text, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? makes illuminating reading for non-Korean audiences because of the insights it offers to this period in Korean history. Moreover, as the narrative centers by and large on the often-fraught relationship between the author and her mother and so taps into the universal theme of mother-daughter relationships. The novel itself requires very little (if any) prior knowledge of Korean history or culture, making it all the more accessible for a wide reading audience.

While Park has sometimes been described as ‘the auntie next door’ because of her appealing chatty narrative style, the protagonist of this novel emerges as quite the opposite as she takes the reader through experiences that eventually drove her to write literary fiction. The autobiographical element of the story affords a certain degree of reliability to Park's account of what happened to her, yet there is something about both Park’s narrative focus and the style of telling that puts the reader at ease about any possible narrative intention. She never pretends to tell the truth about the colonial experience or why the war broke out. At the same time (and often at odds with the way in which many history books emphasize the overarching influence of nationalist movements in Korea of this period), Park writes very candidly about her own mother’s lack of enthusiasm for Korean nationalist politics, explaining how for the majority of Korean people like her mother such things were simply beyond their realm of concern: “Mother was an ordinary woman.

Envisioning a sovereign destiny for Korea lay far beyond her.” Park’s own initial affinity with the leftist political thought in the aftermath of the liberation from Japanese colonialism is also laid bare in this novel, inviting the reader to consider how easily and without any sinister reason people during this period gravitated toward either side of the political spectrum, and often more because of some immediate practical concern rather than because of some deep-rooted political conviction.

While there is therefore a distinct sense that most people around the author appeared to have lacked a clear sense of national consciousness, there is something very affective about the way this book also highlights what ‘Koreanness’ meant for those less aware of modern national identity discourses around this time. In Park’s narrative, this ‘Koreanness’ is a simple (and in some ways innocent) awareness of an individual’s inextricable connection with one’s family, and the physical land and nature that lives and breathes with the people who nurture it and live off its yield. Essentially then, the story describes the loss of, or perhaps more accurately the uprooting of one family from those origins through the process of urbanization, as well as through political and social upheavals that the family is caught up in.

It is also within this context that the shinga plant of the book title becomes a metaphor of the kind of ‘Koreanness’ that perhaps existed in places like Park’s home village before the war, and which can no longer be rediscovered but simply yearned for as a childhood memory of a kind. The author describes how as a child she would snack on the tender leaves of a shinga plant that grew on the hills near her natal home, and at the beginning of her account shinga is found in abundance in the countryside where she lives. However, when she is taken to live in Seoul by her ambitious, yet well-meaning mother, she discovers that no shinga can be found growing on the hills that surround Seoul: “I wonder who ate up all that shinga that used to be so abundant?” she muses. The tone of this question is not accusing in the least, nor does the question really demand an answer. Yet there is a sense that the question itself begs to be asked, since the absence of shinga is still significant enough to be so conspicuous. It is telling that toward the end of the story shinga is no longer mentioned. While rice is necessary for survival and the constant lack of rice is frequently referred to in the closing chapters of the story, shinga is not. The absence of any reference to it thus highlights, rather poignantly, how human beings when faced with utter destitution, revert to a survival mode that affords little respect for bygone times. In some ways then, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the historical background that created the mindset that drove South Korea to become a major economic power in less than 50 years from where the author chooses to end her account: stranded in deserted and occupied Seoul, but resolved to survive. And having not only survived but succeeded, it is telling that the author chose to have shinga as the metaphor of the lost way of living that enshrines the title of the book itself: not essential to survival, but still at the heart of the memories that came to inform Park Wansuh's later work. 

 

 * Joanna K. Elfving-Hwang is visiting lecturer in Korean Literature at the University of Sheffield, U.K.

Author's Profile

Park Wansuh (1931~2011) was one of Korea’s most revered writers. She debuted at the age of forty and wrote over a hundred novels and short stories in a career that spanned almost forty years. She received several prestigious awards, including the Republic of Korea’s Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit. Recently published translations of her books include Who Ate up All the Shinga? (Columbia University Press, 2009), Lonesome You (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and Was that Mountain Really There? (Kitaab, 2018).