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FICTION

The Modern Woman: Gendered Landscapes compiled by Yung-Hee Kim

  • onJune 20, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byAriell Cacciola
Gendered Landscapes
Tr. Yung-Hee Kim
2017
360pp.

Editor and translator Yung-Hee Kim does an exceptional job of collecting nine eminent short stories by adept twentieth-century female Korean authors in this anthology. Kim, a University of Hawaii professor of Korean literature, joins together not only the stories but also engages in a conversation about women writers and their literature in modern Korea. She introduces the fundamentals of Confucian gender principles, which give birth to the idea of the “virtuous woman.” Korean society, life, and culture had been molded through this Confucian canon, and Kim aims to rub up against that with the stories she collects here. The authors selected deal with women’s lives and desires, ideas and conflicts of marriage, and their own places within society.

The stories have been placed in chronological order from 1935 to 1998, and Kim has also included footnotes and previously published textual analyses. This lends a natural progression, both with the themes of society and culture, along with the evolution of storytelling itself. The prose style and structure are apparent and it’s also a curious endeavor to see the stories themselves transform over decades.

Each female character is married or about to become a wife. How they view themselves and their husbands, along with their purpose in life, is at the forefront. The most absorbing stories of the collection are the opening selections.

“Manuscript Payment” (1935) by Kang Kyung-ae is a series of epistles to “Dear K.” The narrator is ecstatic at her first big payday, a payment for her manuscript. Her husband is less than thrilled. He can’t understand why his wife would want to strike out on her own or find fulfillment in anything other than him. Additionally, he is a critic of the oppressive government authority, but he has no problem ruling over his wife in much the same way. The letter writer remains with him because she rightfully concludes there are no options for divorced women in Korean society. The opening scene of “Mountain Rites” (1938) by Choe Chung-Hui is a difficult one. Fourteen-year-old Tchokkan is going through a painful and scary event, which we soon learn is the moment the girl loses her virginity to her thirty-year-old husband. Soon the story jumps to her being sentenced to six years in jail with Tchokkan inexplicably wishing to be sentenced longer so as not to return in shame to her horrible in-laws. After being married off by her father to a man that no one else wants to marry, Tchokkan commits a damaging and criminal act. It is the only agency this desperate girl has left in her life after being flung away from her family home and sent to one that is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger’s home. The fact that she would rather spend her life in jail than return to the binds of marriage is a frightening critique.

As the collection continues, Kim drives home the idea of what it is to be a woman in Korea, or conversely, to be an unwoman. The latter is a notion that comes out of instances when women lose connections to their husbands. Widows are expected never to remarry and divorce is barely thought of as a reasonable response to an unhappy marriage. Furthermore, a married woman who does not produce a male heir is considered a “nonperson.” A woman’s identity is inherently entangled with that of her marriage and home.

In the story “Dreams of Butterflies, 1995” (1995) by Cha Hyun-suk, the narrator, a woman in her early thirties, is married with one child and has another on the way. She spends her days aimlessly. She recounts the decade prior when she was a university student, unmarried, and with plans for her studies and career. Instead, the middle-class educated narrator finds no enjoyment in life or with her husband, a man described as going through a midlife crisis. He thinks she is a “delinquent housewife” for desiring more in life. Even she, an uneducated and modern woman, finds divorce an end in which there is nothing for her.

The stories in Gendered Landscapes are both funny and striking in their horror. They capture women’s desires and inner emotions. It is women with their own voices. Kim’s choice to include authorial biographies and supplementary short essays provides an even more enriching experience. This collection is an excellent window into Korea of the past century. 

 

by Ariell Cacciola
Writer, Editor, Literary Critic