Game of Mirrors: Spectators by Yoon Sunghee

  • onJuly 20, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byMauricio Rodríguez
Espectadores (Spectators)
Tr. Laura Hernández and Lee Eun Kim


Yoon Sunghee was born in 1973 in a province of South Korea and began her literary career in 1999, when she won a contest in the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo. Later other distinctions would follow, from the Hyundae Literary Award and the Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award to the Today’s Young Artists Award and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award.

Her literary trajectory noted minor stories, populated by almost invisible, poor and down-trodden characters, whom her writing seems to rescue from a certain and inevitable forgetting. With warm-hearted humor, hints of costumbrismo and appealingly agile and fluid reading, Yoon has consolidated a rich, original, and unique literary universe.

Spectators is, in that sense, a confirmation. It is a collection of interwoven tales that reconstructs the life of a typical Korean family in detail. The apparently simple texts are at once a complex and potent exercise of memory, where the characters wage a silent battle against despair. The tales are like a trail of breadcrumbs upon which one fine day Yoon decided to return. As the author tells it, in order to write them she got up at three in the morning, “checked the moon’s position in the sky, had a hot tea, and turned on the old laptop.” From that climate began to emerge the characters she chose to carry these multiple stories on their shoulders.

Like in a great work of theater or, better yet, like the scenes and cuts that happen in a film, Yoon makes them enter a scene, exit, turn around and return as in an inexhaustible game of mirrors. There is in all of them a latent loneliness that transforms them into survivors, but despite their missteps, they never cease to reveal life in a series of actions as slow and inexorable as the passage of time itself.

Spectators is a crossing of paths, a necklace of stories that give way to others, that in turn refer to still others and others. For example, the story of an abandoned refrigerator in which a child later hides; the arguments that originate in a two-story house between successive tenants; the experience of two students fighting over a desk; or the mechanical ritual of a grandmother who can’t stop cutting one hundred pig’s feet. There are also unfinished stories of love that some twist of fate ends up neither thwarting nor consummating.

Spectators is a family trip where children, parents, grandparents, and uncles add memories to a logbook that is constructed like a long path of footprints in the snow. Behind the succession of seemingly anodyne and routine anecdotes lurks a deep journey into the souls of individuals with whom it’s impossible not to reach a certain identification. In this way, a stuffing machine encloses a challenge to willpower or some teenagers who spit in the street become a metaphor for maturity that is perhaps never achieved. There are also places for reflections that, behind a simple formulation, hide for the characters and the world in which they move the character of a judgment. For example, when one of them affirms categorically that “you don’t really know someone until you play cards with them.” Or when another writes “What is love?” on the steamed-up glass of a bus.

Yoon Sunghee demonstrates in Spectators a great ability to unite a long chain of events that flows without interruption. And where, as is affirmed on the back cover, “those involved are authors of a story in which the events and their small miracles return to the everyday its seminal condition and space for the wonderful to resonate.” In telling the sad hopefulness and half-happiness of her characters, which makes them absolutely human, Yoon appeals to miniscule details that can only be explained through a patient and potent capacity for observation of her surroundings. As she affirms: “Recently it has occurred to me that life consists of contemplating things and remaining disconcerted . . . I made the decision to observe everything. To put all my effort into being disconcerted.”

Spectators demonstrates that this was a fortuitous decision for which her readers can only be grateful and enjoy.



by Mauricio Rodríguez
Cultural Journalist
Director of

Author's Profile

Yoon Sunghee has written five short story collections and one novel. She has received the Today’s Young Artists Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, Hwang Sun-Won Literary Award, and Hyundae Literary Award. Her book Spectators is currently being translated into Chinese and Spanish.