Literature and Resistance
- onDecember 13, 2018
- Vol.42 Winter 2018
- byHwang Jungeun
I’m forty-two years old. I don’t have any illusions about getting married, and I don’t plan to marry. I’ve made up my mind to remain single until I die. Several months ago at the gym, a person I’d conversed with a few times before approached me, asked my age, and suggested setting me up with someone. “I know of an eligible bachelor. He’s young, runs a sushi restaurant, and is a very sincere man. How would you like to be the wife of an entrepreneur? I heard that his mother has set aside a hundred thousand dollars to give to the woman he marries.”
When I turned down the offer, she persisted. She said that it was only common sense that I should take opportunities when they arose because I was past my prime and as time went by, the best I could hope for was to become someone’s second wife.
What is “common sense”? When people refer to common sense, oftentimes they believe it is what they personally think. So is it their thoughts? No, since it’s “common” sense, maybe it’s a sort of common intuition regarding the world—that something should be a particular way. Or maybe, instead, common sense is the information we gather to form judgments. But the basis of this information is people’s thoughts, so, in the end, common sense is still thought. If you consider it, though, when we say we’re talking common sense, rather than expressing our thought, we’re closer to the state of not having one. Common sense doesn’t seem to be thought after all. When we say we are talking common sense, how often are we really thinking, and how often are we in an unreasoning state? Common sense, then, is not a product of thorough thinking, but rather of fixed ideas and habits to which we are accustomed. Otherwise, there is no way to explain why we exclude such a vast number of things when we say, “This is common sense.” We can’t even suppose that my understanding of common sense may be different from yours, and that you can be hurt by my idea of common sense. And why is this? Is it because some people are in a position where they don’t have to bother with such assumptions? And how do these people figure in Korean society?
I wrote these questions on my laptop and recently used them to write a novel. I wrote my first novel thirteen years ago and have been writing ever since, and this is how many of my novels have started out. To me, writing a novel is not about saying, “X is X,” but asking: “Is this really X?” Through this thinking process, I come to see the banality of my society and of my own thoughts. According to Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg’s research, banality in human society numbs the ability to speak, to think, and to empathize. Where I live, banality is sometimes mistaken for common sense.
After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, a culture of contempt for human life developed in South Korea. The worth of human labor—of laboring people—hit rock bottom. Korean society has long had a culture in which labor was poorly regarded, but after the financial bailout, this attitude was sanctioned at a structural level and became official policy. By the time that many people recognized this, the roots of the new structure had already gone deep. At their workplaces and in their daily lives, people witnessed their own and others’ worthlessness. The individual’s plight was miserable and since there was nothing to be done, one was overcome by a feeling of helplessness. Until right before the 2016 candlelight protests, a feeling of helplessness prevailed in our society. Out of helplessness, hatred of oneself and others comes easily, and this hatred gnaws away at all varieties of imaginative power. I believe that this has been the situation in our society for the past twenty years. People can hardly imagine that their relations with others can be different, or that different possibilities exist for themselves. Worthlessness has become banal. A constant stream of hate speech is aimed at temporary workers, housekeepers, young children, women, sexual and gender minorities, refugees, and victims of social incidents. And when these people are being disparaged, we feel incapable of responding. We are incapable of speaking, thinking, or empathizing.
According to what I have learned from reading and writing for the past thirteen years, literature is a genre that resists this numbness in all three domains.
These days I’m writing a novel about the candlelight revolution that took place in South Korea in 2016. People call it a revolution, but is that what it was? Again, “Was it really X”? Above the desk where I’m undertaking this work, there is a Post-it Note with a quotation from Jacques Ranciere: But the whole question, then, is to know who possesses speech and who merely possesses voice.
I remember February 2017 with that sentence in mind. Candlelight rallies were still being held, people were yearning for and eagerly anticipating change in society, and Moon Jae-in was the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. During a gender equality forum, a woman held up her hand and asked Moon, “I’m a woman and a homosexual. Do you think my human rights can be cut in half? Can my rights to equality be split into two? If you’re the front runner in this election, please answer. Why does your gender equality policy not include homosexuals?” And to that woman who was seeking an answer to her question, the audience chanted, “Not now, later. Not now, later.” She had to fight alone against the audience, the people sitting right next to her telling her to shut up. In that political venue, her voice muffled by chants of “Not now, later” coming from the audience and the odds-on favorite, that woman was a speaker who merely possessed voice. Even though she was speaking, people listened only to her voice and not to what she was actually saying. They demanded silence from the speaker because her loud voice was interfering with the smooth flow of the event and making everyone uncomfortable. Everywhere in the world there are words that are isolated and silenced. I want to think and talk about those silenced words through literature. I want to continue the words that have been interrupted and write down those that have not even become words yet. As someone who reads and writes, resistance, for me, is the friction with the society that produces such silence.
by Hwang Jungeun
*The essay presented here was written for a special event Korean Literature Now hosted as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations on September 15, 2018 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of America’s biggest book festivals and the largest free literary event in New York City.
Hwang Jungeun has authored the novels One Hundred Shadows, Savage Alice, and I’ll Go On and the short story collections Into the World of Passi, The Seven Thirty-Two Elephant Train, and Being Nobody. She has received the Kim Yujung Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award. One Hundred Shadows was published in 2016 by Tilted Axis, which is also set to publish I’ll Go On in 2018. Japanese translations of Savage Alice and Being Nobody were published in 2018.