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FICTION

The Inherent Violence in Two Women’s Daily Lives: Two Women by Song Aram

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byLaëtitia Favro
Deux femmes (Two Women)
Tr. Yeong-hee Lim
2018
168pp.

Through her intimate and heartrending tale, Song Aram paints a portrait of two friends, seemingly total opposites, set against the backdrop of a Korean society split between tradition and a longing for modernity.

A native of Daegu, Gongju lives on the second floor of the family house where she is looking after her grandmother who has taken ill. Because she has stopped studying and now supports herself with odd jobs, her relationship with her parents has become strained. She does not dare to reveal her dream of becoming an editor for a famous newspaper in Seoul. To cope with the hardships of her daily life—her boss’s machismo, her struggle to earn a living, and her mother’s reproaches—she writes a blog where she shares her personal struggles, feelings, and ambitions. One of her most faithful readers, Hong-yeon, a cheeky and free-spirited cartoonist, encourages Gongju to join her in Seoul, offering to help her find a place to stay. Gongju is hesitant. Can she really trust such an exuberant girl, so different from herself? However, despite having never met, the two women grow close and a strong bond of friendship is forged between them. The death of Gongju’s grandmother becomes a turning point in her decision to leave Daegu. Then, after yet another quarrel with her mother, Gongju packs her bags and hops on the first train to the capital, determined to take fate into her own hands. When she arrives at the station in Seoul, Hong-yeon is already there waiting for her.

Two years later, Gongju’s dream has begun to fade. After a series of jobs editing for tabloids and commercial websites, she is forced to return home to Daegu to take care of her mother, who has developed an advanced stage of cancer. Seoul did not live up to her expectations and Gongju begins to feel overwhelmed by the events in her life. Around the same time, she learns that Hong-yeon has become pregnant and will soon get married. The two friends keep in touch by writing letters and meeting up from time to time, during which they turn back the clock, reminiscing on their past ambitions. Their pursuit of a different lifestyle, free and independent, gives way to the weight of tradition and the pressures of society.

“Is this an autobiographical story?”

It is quite likely that Song Aram has been confronted with this question on numerous occasions. Born in Seoul in 1981, the young author started out by attending law school before deciding to study manhwa (cartoon) drawing and publishing her work in various magazines. The force of her personal experiences gave rise to Deux femmes, which was inspired by the journey of the author as well as of her friends. The story offers more than each individual destiny, instead weaving them together into a tapestry of enlightenment that reveals the place of women in Korean society. As different as Hong-yeon and Gongju’s lives may be, a higher power seems to push them into the same mold, shaped by obligatory events such as marriage and childbirth.

The novel takes the form of a diptych, where the two young women’s stories reflect the commonplace machismo ever-present in a society that remains largely patriarchal (the relationship between Hong-yeon and her husband is very telling on this subject). Yet the story also reveals the rivalry between women, which is manifest among both families including the in-laws. The intricate relationships between Gongju, her mother, and grandmother (three generations of women living under the same roof), as well as the pressure placed on Hong-Yeon by her in-laws are subtly illustrated through the scenes of everyday life, exposing the inherent violence of the ancient system. In spite of everything, the mothers and mothers-in-law repeat the patterns of suffering of which they themselves were once victims, handing down deception and resentment like an inheritance from generation to generation.

Innocuous as it may seem, the story of these two friends is nonetheless significant and reflects the near impossibility for women to realize their ambitions in a society still largely dominated by men. The softness with which the author paints her words, and the omnipresence of things left unsaid, arm the violence of this impossibility with even more force, leaving a lasting mark on the reader. In tune with the aspirations of young Koreans, Deux femmes reveals those universal, innermost feelings and will move any reader, regardless of culture of origin.

 

by Laëtitia Favro
Literary Critic, Le Journal du Dimanche