- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byPyun Hye-Young
Every now and then, Yoon Sung-hee and I talk about writing. Of course, most of the time we talk about other things—fun things, things we’re worried about, places we want to go, places we’ve traveled to together. But every once in a while, we talk about a story or novel we’re working on. Not things like, The writing isn’t going well, or I’m buried under deadlines, or Writing is hard. We both know well enough that fiction doesn’t always go the way you think it will and that sometimes you just hit a block, so we don’t bother whining about that. Nevertheless, when you are in the middle of working on a new story, you can’t help but think of nothing but that story, so when you do happen to meet someone, the story tends to find its own way out of you, like a yawn or a cough escaping.
That was the case with Sung-hee’s story, “While They Laughed.” We were hanging out and chatting and having a good time when she casually mentioned the title. Smiling and laughing was what we did every time we met. That time as well, we had eaten our fill of delicious food, exchanged funny stories, and planned our next trip together. Meanwhile, I found myself feeling more relaxed about the writing that wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, about the deadline bearing down on me, and even about the uncertainty of making a living as a writer.
After she told me the title, I couldn’t stop repeating it to myself. It was a fun phrase to say out loud, and it made me curious to know what happens in the story. We moved on to talk about something else, but in the back of my mind I was still imagining what might follow a phrase like “while they laughed.” The characters in Sung-hee’s stories love to smile and laugh: they smile at the small things, laugh at jokes, smile to hide their embarrassment, smile before apologizing, and laugh instead of cry. They laugh as if laughter is their only duty in life. I assumed that this story, too, would feature more smiles and laughter than frowns and tears. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that this wonderful title was a perfect fit for every one of her stories.
When I finally did get to read the story, I paused for a long time between the first and second paragraphs. Yoon Sung-hee has a very elliptical writing style. Her stories have to be read slowly to give readers time to fill in what happens in the white spaces between her sentences. In this story, the narrator falls asleep while remembering dipping his big toe into the water the first time he went swimming, after which his nephew calls the narrator’s friends with some sort of news. You have to keep reading to find out what the news is. Once you do, you realize that the opening scene, in which the narrator and his nephew appear to be having a funny chat about the nicknames the nephew uses for people in his cell phone’s contacts list, was probably him instructing his nephew on who to contact after he dies. You belatedly realize the sadness of witnessing a man’s dying wish.