Ethics of Literature, Politics of Life

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byHwang Jungeun

Any representation of disgrace or injury to dignity carries an inherent risk. It is similar to the risk involved in representing violence, which can easily turn into violence itself. Ruthlessly exposing the humiliation imposed upon those insulted while ensuring they still demand our respect. Painting a vivid picture of the wretchedness of injured dignity without allowing it to be seen as worthless. Hwang Jungeun is one of the contemporary South Korean writers who has most successfully and persistently risen to this ethical challenge facing literature.

Hwang’s readers may assume that the poetic quality or lyricism permeating her works holds the key to this achievement. As is evident in One Hundred Shadows, one of her earlier novels, once the various forms of anguish and degradation endured by the poor and the powerless undergo the poetic refinement of Hwang’s sentences, they no longer repeat themselves as anguish and degradation, even without losing a sense of reality. To this day, she shows finesse in controlling the length and pace of her seemingly ordinary prosaic sentences to create poetic impact. Her sentences calmly deliver narratives with a colloquial rhythm as if engaged in conversation with someone, which in turn conveys sincerity.

On the other hand, it can’t be denied that over the past few years her novels have grown trenchant and sharper. This is probably because the lives of the poor and the oppressed—the main subjects of her works—have worsened. As implied in the title of the collection (Being Nobody) from which “Raptors Upstream” is taken, these people are increasingly treated like nobodies. This situation has left a delicate yet unmistakable mark on Hwang’s writing. However, she is not interested in depicting them simply as an anguished underclass. Had that been the case, their lives would have once again been bound by pain and humiliation only to be more visibly relegated to the state of being nobodies. By refusing to portray them as mere victims of life—in other words, by showing that although trapped in the firm system of failure, they too have always responded to their reality as “major agents”—Hwang adds depth and layers to their lives.

The first-person narrator “I” in “Raptors Upstream” recalls Jehee, her ex-boyfriend from long ago, and a trip to an arboretum that she once undertook with him and his parents. Jehee’s family used to be well off, running a successful fruit store, but they lost everything and fell into huge debt after becoming involved in a fraud committed by a trusted family friend. Jehee’s parents reject the two options normally taken by people in similar situations—having their kids taken into state care, or running away to avoid repaying the debt. They pride themselves on sticking around and not becoming an embarrassment for their children and keeping their family intact by not giving up their children. As a result, however, Jehee and his sisters are forced to make money from an early age to pay the debt of their parents who are now too old to work. To make matters worse, Jehee’s father is diagnosed with lung cancer. Although the doctors explain that “while surgery was an option, the prognosis was poor at best,” this loving and close-knit family once again unites together and opts for surgery, resolving to “get through this ordeal.” Afterwards, Jehee’s father suffers one infection after another, and the endless struggle against a disease with no prospect of getting better means that not just the patient, but also Jehee’s mother by his bedside becomes more and more exhausted.

The trip to the arboretum serves as a comprehensive tableau of the circumstances and relationships of Jehee’s family. Jehee’s father forgets to bring his ID card required for entering the arboretum, and Jehee’s mother can’t stand him. They bring a ridiculously large amount of food and luggage. Jehee gets hurt while trying to load everything onto a cart. Jehee’s parents walk ahead, avoiding each other’s eyes and showing no regard for Jehee who is lugging the heavy cart behind them. The place they pick for lunch is not a natural valley but a canal carrying sewage from an aviary for birds of prey. By and by, they end up “an odd sight” with Jehee’s parents stubbornly and repeatedly making wrong choices and Jehee “watching his parents with a look I couldn’t describe.” The narrator is pained to see him like that.

The narrator feels a certain amount of respect for both Jehee’s mother who used to be “a beautiful woman with a Hepburn-style hairdo” and his father, a genial man “who should have become a school principal.” In particular, the narrator envies the affection Jehee’s family members have for one another. Indeed, as people who “overcame hardships together and survived,” they seem fully entitled to feel proud. In this respect, their story can be said to be just another quintessentially Korean family narrative. Yet, even as the narrator respects their arguments and solidarity, she can’t help but sense a certain “unethicalness” in them. How can there be something unethical in the lives of people who never run away from their troubles and always keep their family intact?

The pride of Jehee’s parents bind their children securely to their family history. In response, the children take pride in their solidarity and decide to go ahead with their father’s operation and continue his hopeless treatment. This decision soon causes their parents to become resentful and indifferent towards each other. Their self-pride fails to save them, and instead they end up imprisoning themselves within an endless orbit that saps their life little by little. Ultimately, their “honorable” decisions represent their almost prideful attachment to conventional morals. Given this, their immorality originates not from their impoverished everyday life but from their vanity or mendacity in attempting to sublimate that squalor to moral principles.

Some may question why we must point out the limitations and falsehood of those in pain when there’s not enough sympathy and solidarity toward them. However, the ethics of Hwang’s story can be found precisely in the way it refuses to reify them as victims of life. Likewise, the story does not support the decision of the narrator who chooses to leave Jehee and his family. Now married to a kind and ordinary man, her life does not appear to be particularly more fulfilled than before. Every now and then, the narrator asks herself, “Why not Jehee?” instead of the man by her side, and each time she does, she feels lonely thinking she’s been abandoned by Jehee and his family. At first glance, her question and sentiments seem misdirected. In fact, isn’t she the one who abandoned Jehee and his family? Nevertheless, the paradoxical implication of the narrator’s question is that there are countless Jehees and their families out there and that the narrator’s life can never exist outside that grave reality. Nor is she exempt from the tasks of breaking through the vast suffering of “nobodies” and discovering the “politics of life” that will allow everyone to live life to the fullest. Thus, the ethics of Hwang’s literature force us to constantly confront the question about the politics of life.


Translated by Helen Cho

Author's Profile

Hwang Jungeun debuted in 2005 with “Mother,” which won the Kyunghyang Shinmun New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels One Hundred Shadows, Savage Alice, and I’ll Go On, the short story collections Into the World of Passi, The Seven Thirty- Two Elephant Train, and Being Nobody. This year, she published the serial novel Didi’s Umbrella. Her books in translation include One Hundred Shadows (Tilted Axis, 2016), I’ll Go On (Tilted Axis, 2018), and “Kong’s Garden” (Strangers Press, 2019).