Mirrors, Memories, and Moments

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byOh Junghee

The room I woke up in was still wrapped in faint twilight so it took me a while to realize I was in a small town in northern Germany where I’d arrived on the previous night’s rain. I tend to wake up at first light when I’m away from home, perhaps because of the strain of travel. Spending that interlude of time, from the moment I wake till my day begins, by going back to sleep, reading a book, or taking a morning stroll seems like a waste, so I usually fling open the window in my room and gaze at the view outside. For me, it’s a way of opening up my mind to new sensations.

Outside, the sky, heavily laden with clouds, was sprinkling rain onto grey-colored rooftops where pigeons perched and cooed. What drew me out of my room that morning, despite the drizzle of late autumn that chilled me to the bone, was a sound that reached my ears from somewhere. The air resounded with the pealing of bells from a belfry, something that, in Korea, you could only hear at monasteries. Autumn leaves were rustling down on the wet road as I went in pursuit of that sound. At a corner, people were bustling past a hobo sleeping under the eaves with his arms wrapped around a huge dog. The streets of a foreign land are a maze to the visitor, no matter how detailed a map she may carry. But take away the unfamiliar sights, the indecipherable language, the carefree wanderings, the brushing past those you’ll never see again, and the fun and meaning of traveling takes a nosedive. Traveling is what allows us to escape the familiar, domesticated prison of everyday life, to savor that odd satisfaction of solitude, and to stimulate our keen powers of observation and perception as a foreigner, stranger, and outlier. I was hurrying along, engrossed in my quest for the tolling bells, forgetting even to pay attention to the road signs so that I could retrace my steps on the way back, when I found myself in front of a bakery where the warm, tempting aroma of fresh bread was wafting out. I noticed a reflection in the display window. A woman, looking old and worn-out from the anxiety and fatigue of having left her home far behind, stared back at me. I stood there for a long time gazing at a moment in my life that felt like a scene straight out of a movie or a novel.

Once when I was visiting a sick elderly relative I discovered that all the mirrors in her home were covered with sheets. Apparently the old woman, who was senile, would keep trying to get into the mirrors. At times, she’d even break them and hurt herself. The old woman appeared confused once the mirrors were covered, as though all her exits had been sealed off. Even if the doors were left wide open, she’d never use them and would adamantly fumble around looking for the mirrors. To me, her frantic efforts to enter the world of mirrors seemed to arise more from a poignant homing instinct rather than any symptom of dementia. We all enter into the world of adults after passing through a period when we’re like Alice in Wonderland, imagining and dreaming of the world within those mirrors and trying to enter it.

Different writers have different writing routines and use literary devices or images in their own fashion, oftentimes not by design. In my case, I realized my first collection was peppered with the color red only when Kim Hyeon pointed it out in his critique. Only upon reading Oh Saeng-Keun’s analysis did it dawn on me that mirrors or, more precisely, faces reflected in mirrors, appear frequently in my oeuvre. Even in my debut story, “The Toy Store Lady,” the protagonist gazes at the reflection of her face in the shiny surface of a mirror after a desperate act of theft. In my later works as well, whenever the protagonists have to cope with serious internal conflicts, uncontrollable emotions, challenging situations, or a deep sense of loss they always find themselves, consciously or unconsciously, in front of a mirror.

The mirror stood against the wall, shining arrogantly at a scrawny slip of a girl, covered in rashes and bleeding,
and a shabby looking boy, his face contorted in a miserable grimace of sorrow, hate, and shame. Brother glared
at the mirror with a haunted look before giving it a hard kick. In seconds, the room was covered in slivers of mirror
and flashes of light that bounced off them. Mother’s face, dolled up in her nightly ritual, lay shattered in a thousand pieces.

“Garden of Childhood”

At times, the mirror even takes on the image of death—the clamoring of a sliver of light buried in the ground, a deep well, a fabled golden carp, a shadow, a soul stirring wind, the face of a dead man trapped in ice. Unintentional on my part, this could be an outcome of my subconscious or an almost archetypical sensitivity, but I think I have an inkling of its provenance.

Mirrors were my closest playmates in childhood. As I’ve mentioned in “Garden of Childhood,” a story born of my childhood memories, the oblong-shaped mirror my mother brought with her after she got married was the only thing in our humble home that wasn’t damaged in some way. Mother treasured that mirror, which she’d carried with considerable effort as she made the perilous journey over the 38th parallel, and she’d give it a vigorous rubdown every day and night so that it was spotless and sparkling. The mirror stood in a corner looking on at our destitute, devastated figures, keeping watch as our lives became entangled like the insides of an old gourd as we lost our dignity and grew shabbier by the day. There was nowhere to hide from the mirror’s eyes. When I woke up in the morning to relieve myself in the chamber pot kept in the less heated part of the ondol floor, when I was fighting with my siblings, or even as I was wolfing down my food, I’d look up to find the embarrassing reflection of an unfamiliar face staring back at me.

When no one was home, I’d pass the time by playing in front of the mirror. I’d sing, talk to myself, fantasize about entering the mirror, or carry it around the room on my back. Every time I got caught, I’d receive a dressing down from Mother. Then one day, the inevitable happened and I broke the mirror. I remember standing there with blood flowing from the cuts on my body made by the shards of glass, feeling too scared to cry out after seeing the shattered remains of the mirror on the floor. After this incident, my family members and neighbors started calling me by a name that sounded almost Native American: “She who carried a mirror and broke it.”

As he turned away after burying Yeong-no, it occurred to him that what he’d just buried wasn’t a corpse,
now surrendering to spring and quickly decomposing, but a piece of mirror.

“Bronze Mirror”

I was giving myself over to the warm jet of water when I nearly jumped out of my skin. I didn’t show in the mirror!
I knew it was because the mirror was clouded, but not seeing something that should’ve been there was scary nonetheless.
I turned the shower off and stood there staring at the mirror. As the steam slowly cleared, the outline of my face loomed
in the mirror, as though closing in from a distance. A face that’d lost its symmetry, like a cloth yanked the wrong way.

“The Old Well”

He noticed something under the ice. A pale face, the hairs on its head undulating freely, was staring up at him from
beneath the transparent ice. It was trying to speak, but its eyes and mouth seemed to have frozen just as they were
about to express the terror they felt on meeting an unfamiliar world…

“The Face”

Regardless of whether this obsession with mirrors and the faces reflected in them is a sign of narcissism, excessive self-consciousness, or simply a predilection, I want to think of it as a dream about an unfamiliar and scary yet beautiful and strange world, perhaps a place I left behind and where I have to return. I’ve done my penance for breaking Mother’s cherished immaculate mirror, and my wounds from the sharp shards of glass have long since healed.

The bells cease their ringing, and I turn away from my image reflected in the glass. Where am I? Where do I go now? I lose my sense of direction the moment I step away from the mirror, and as I stand on that unfamiliar street, I hear the sounds of the world stirring around me and I grow anxious, unsure if I can find my way back, and mutter to myself as I measure the span of time left to me. 


by Oh Junghee

* The original Korean version of this essay first appeared in Daesan Culture quarterly magazine, 2005.

Author's Profile

Reading Oh Junghee’s fiction is like seeing the colors and patterns of life and the universe engraved on a bronze mirror. For some, it has the ghastly beauty of passing through a swamp of anxiety and horror. For others, it is like looking into the existential abyss of lost souls who were born without any place to call home. The world order has become naturalized for us through routine and structure, and so we are startled by Oh’s perspicacity, breaking it apart and rendering it unfamiliar. In order to resurrect the inner spirit on a cosmic dimension, Oh envisions opening up what seems closed, and we share in this vision. We are awed by the mysterious alchemy the writer uses to kindle a new literary world, depicting the full spectrum of life and the outer universe in the abyss, in that scene of tension and disillusionment in the grotto of death where all meaning is extinguished. Her novels show a female perspective in a new light, and subversively open up new horizons for existential reflection. It is also through Oh that a new kind of narration and a new literary style can be established in Korean fiction.