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In Search of a Lost Past: Who Ate Up All the Shinga? by Park Wansuh

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.19 Spring 2013
  • byPark Hyekyung
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?
Tr. Yu Young-nan
2009
264pp.

Park Wansuh was an outstanding storyteller and prolific writer who filled Korean literature with spirit and vigor. Park’s novels are characterized by her straightforward and penetrating style. Her style, which is like a skillful weaving of boldness and sensitivity makes readers feel as if they are touching a piece of smooth fabric. In particular, her ability to expose selfishness, secular greed, falsity, and accurately depict multiple layers of human psychology is unrivaled.

Her infinite narrative imagination is based on her own experiences that were more dramatic than her novels. Her childhood and youth coincided with the most turbulent period of Korean modern and contemporary history from the Japanese occupation of Korea to the Korean War. During her formative years, when the emotional rapport between the self and the world is most sensitive and active, Park experienced the tumultuous history of Korea. This experience became a constant source of repeated trauma in her novels. For Park, the life she experienced was in itself the treasury and the origin of her literary imagination.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? is an autobiographical novel that elaborately chronicles her experiences. In particular, this novel is significant in that it sheds light on historical topics, which had been monopolized by male writers, through a woman’s view for the first time. It vividly portrays a historical experience captured by a woman’s regard and sensibility. In Park’s novels, ideology and the history of struggles for power that were the exclusive provenance of male writers are absorbed into a very personal and microscopic world of daily life. The history of the turbulent years Koreans experienced is turned into rich folkloric scenery through various trivial episodes of everyday life such as a broken bowl of soy sauce in the kitchen, girls’ hairstyles that changed from braided hair to straight bobs, shamanic rituals that often took place in villages, tales told by mothers who did sewing for pay, and strange games children played.

In Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, Park revives Korea’s unique daily lifestyle that had disappeared and heals and restores the history destroyed by men with a feminine sensibility through the story of mother and daughter who were left out of history.

In the novel, the mother who has a powerful influence on the daughter’s life is the most interesting character. When her husband dies, she leaves her home in Bakjeokgol and moves to Seoul. She becomes the head of the family and forms a new matriarchal family. Having rejected the role of a daughter-in-law, she assumes the responsibility for the livelihood of the family by doing needlework for pay and turns into an unyielding and tough woman whose sole goal is to give a modern education to her children. She then forces her daughter to live the life of a modern woman that she has never been.

The daughter however, regards her mother sometimes with love but other times with bitterness. The feelings of love and hate the daughter has toward her mother are shown in the way she sees Bakjeokgol where she spent her childhood. To the mother, Bakjeokgol, where her husband’s family was based, was a feudal world she needed to escape. To the daughter, however, it is remembered as a space of longing, a paradise where her childhood memories are kept. As the grown-up daughter looks back on her past, Bakjeokgol is portrayed as the model of Korean life that was not damaged by modernity but that no longer exists today. In this sense, the mother gives her daughter an opportunity for a modern education as well as takes away her daughter’s childhood, Bakjeokgol. However, it is not only the daughter who suffers. The mother also loses all interest in life when her son dies in the Korean War. The author is asking us: Who ate all the sing-ah fruit that used to be so abundant in the fields?