The Masterful Children’s Tales of Park Wansuh
- onJune 19, 2015
- Vol.4 Summer 2009
- byJung Yeo-ul
Spending long winter nights in grandma’s lap listening to her stories has been a common Korean experience since ancient times. For children these days raised on Disney animation and computer games, grandma’s tales are an unfamiliar genre. Park Wansuh, a leading figure in the Korean literary scene, has published two books to satisfy our society’s nostalgia for grandma’s old tales. The Three Wishes and Thank You for This World are raconteur Park Wansuh’s latest books.
The Three Wishes is a collection of short stories imbued with the innocence of children. Young Seulgi’s pictures are an astonishment to her teacher. For her assignment on “drawing dad’s face,” Seulgi draws her dad’s toes. All Seulgi gets to see of her dad are his toes, as he is always sleeping in on holidays with his blanket pulled over his head, revealing only his feet. Another drawing is full of rectangles. That is how Seulgi pictures scabbard fish, her favorite, in her mind’s eye. To Seulgi, who has never seen a whole scabbard fish, they are little rectangles swimming underwater. She says, “The ocean smells like when mom washes scabbard fish, but I’ve never seen them swim. Mom wouldn’t let me swim far out into the ocean because it’s too dangerous.”
“The Most Wondrous, Beautiful Thing” depicts the ways a mom, dad, and grandma prepare for a new baby. They realize that in order to prepare their world for the baby, they must first fill their own lives with beauty. The father’s disapproval of a world fraught with danger turns into proactive steps to change the environment little by little. By childproofing the house and the playground, the dad learns that being a good father means doing what he can to turn the world into a beautiful place. The grandma prepares a “barrel of tales” to enlighten the child on the secrets of this world so that the child’s life may be filled with happy dreams. In “The Village of Aficionados,” an artist slowly goes insane trying to recreate the unforgettably stunning color he once saw at sunset. When he finally does find the color, he discovers it is his wife’s blood. The artistic inspiration he had been searching for all his life was right there beside him all along, in his wife’s love and devotion.
The children’s tale, Thank You for This World is the story of an eleven-year-old orphan named Bokdong. His mother passes away soon after his birth; his father leaves him with nothing save his name, Bokdong, before disappearing so that his son must be raised by his aunt who suffers from polio. The winds of change blow in Bokdong’s humdrum life when he travels abroad to meet his father’s new family. On top of meeting his father for the first time, Bokdong experiences an enormous cultural shock when he meets his father’s Filipina wife and biracial children – Bokdong’s half-brothers and half-sisters. Bokdong meets Dr. Brown, an adopted Korean-American, who helps Bokdong open up to his father and his new family and ultimately become thankful for the world he was born in. In addition, Han S. Oki’s beautiful illustrations weave perfectly through the story of a multicultural family’s conflicts and reconciliation.
As tales that appeal to both children looking for a good story and adults nostalgic for the past, these two books are a treasure trove of stories the author has been collecting for a long time. The stories of Grandma Park Wansuh, a master storyteller of our times, are not flavorful ancient folklore, but proof that new timeless tales can be created in today’s cities of cutting-edge technology.
By Jung Yeo-ul
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).