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Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers – Kang Sok-Kyong, Kim Chi-won, Oh Jung-hee

Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers

Women writers. Women penning the trials and tribulations of being a woman. The pen and ink bidding farewell to the prevailing apprehensions. The spoken language of an individual narrowed by gender hierarchy labouring in relative anonymity, women write, knocking down the heavily guarded patriarchal gates of a traditional society , the defining emergence diminishing the glaring divide of public from domestic life, where men reigned the former and women the latter. How does one designate the essence of being a woman? How does one quote a chapter and verse from the consequential book of womanhood? Women who have conventionally been beheld as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife and someone’s mother; their own individual identity lapsing into being a mere legal signature on few sheets of paper. How does one then define the constitution of Korean women? Or can you? Women who are as diverse as the land itself spanning through generations, cultural edifications and numerous personal and societal evolutions seeking an autonomy to their existence in an overwhelming patriarchal world. How does one ever answer the unwelcomed question of signifying the autonomy of womanhood? The patriarchal advocacy of literature, the very notion of belles- lettres being the prime avocation of cultural gentlemen, the adversities of gender discrepancies shadowing the laboured efforts of women writers derides the valid declaration of talent having no gender whatsoever. The contemporary Korean women writers (three of whom being mentioned in this book) bring forth an notable insight to the strenuous effort of their emergence from a society profoundly influenced by the Confucian precepts, finally breaking out from their obscurities. The undying spirit of their penned narrative, the meticulous characterization, accomplish a sophisticated sensory faculty of symbolism sketching the evolution of Korean women in a rapidly modernized world


“……to accept our own lives, and without such thoughts to make us feel good, how could we live? We women were facing up to life with our bodies as our only asset. We may now have smelled like roses, but we got to learn all about life and freedom in our way…..”

The picturesque forsythias blooming on a palace walls, the beauty of scenic spring stretching on a wall calendar in a clinic testing venereal diseases befits the stark revelation of a social world where days and dreams brim with the futility of a traumatic past and the aspirations of striving for a dignified existence. Kang Sŏk-kyŏng allegorizes the social status of prostitutes surviving on the U.S. military base in Korea, to a drifting isolated island, a temporary home destined to subsist in loneliness of abandonment. The slight flicker of hope within melancholia is the hallmark of their lives which struggle to find a haven of freedom and integrity. In the endless fight for human dignity, their bodies become the sole measure of self-defence, a path to their freedom however despicable. The marginal women thriving on the societal periphery seek comfort among their ilk, the labelling of “leftovers” a crude irony, in a world where men carry the burden and the badge of brutal enforcers. The rebellion and restraints to freedom, personal choices of women shackled by archaic ethos stretches afar from the Korean peninsula into the male-dominance of the Western world, applying universality factor to the predicament of women sexuality condemned to abhorrence. “But if two women see eye to eye, there’s no law that says they can’t live together,” said Toma.” So what if they’re lesbians? People live the way they want to. And so what if we’re whore? Except for worrying about money, it’s great living around the base. No husband to treat us rough, no kids to worry us, no one interfering with us.”

The controversial subject of a woman’s body becoming the weapon for her emancipation edges on the possibility of emotional vulnerabilities and inconspicuous rebellion. Kim Chi-wŏn dwells in to unchartered territories where the society as a whole becomes the source of shame for a woman. The collective chauvinism that safeguards the sanctimonious matrimonial institution rests upon the humiliation of women. The marital sacrosanctity ruthlessly abused under the assumed patriarchate prerogative. Kim Chi-wŏn is scrupulous in rendering the dual state of relationship between a man and a woman , raising a similar yet different issue concerning the life of a Korean woman immigrant in U.S. The quest for a resourceful independence gives Yun-ja a possibility of a certain beginning, a marriage based purely on monetary and legal convenience. The probability and improbability of a ‘real marriage’ immerses in reflections of a financial arrangement, age and divorce. The disconnect of a woman and the society is evident in the final libertine declaration.


“Longing for something to sustain and steady her, the woman nevertheless tended to to doubt the permanence of everything. Do flowers last more than ten day? And floods that look like they’ll sweep the world away are gone in a couple days, aren’t they? But her relief that the world was transitory was tempered by the painful realization that society expected marriage to be the most harmonious of human relationships.”

Transience becomes the most fitting lifeline to despondency. Kim Chi-wŏn is scrupulous in rendering the dual state of relationship between a man and a woman. The nightly mellow lullaby sung a mother is marred by domestic brutality, estrangement and resentment. A clandestine corner in the house tries the patience of a battered wife, the harmony of matrimony crumbling into ashes floating on the cold ghostly waters of a pond nearby. The central themes of hopelessness and self-restraint fade away, yet the predictability of self-reliance is still muddled in impermeable monocracy.


“Like a foolish girl you’re trying to find beyond the world. If you’d only given in a little, you wouldn’t have had to go around butting up against the world; you wouldn’t have had to spill your blood. You would have found that the springtime of life isn’t a chain; it’s a pair of wings.”

The self-restraint of rebellion originating from the conventional mores once again twirls the idea of freedom although being the sweet nectar in a claustrophobic milieu; it is the dawn of justice that brings the sweetest aroma in an acrid life. The fortunate franchise of youth caught amid Marxist ideas and democratic upheaval plunges into an abyss of alienation and confusion. The structural sanctity of filial piety bruised by blatant hypocrisy and customary subordination questions the cogency of an inherited male-dominated hierarchy. The pursuit for individuality resulting in either enforced submission or absolute abandonment; agony being the sole companion of nothingness. As a daughter, is trapped between familial obligations and self-exploration, the youthfulness of a sibling risking the madness of a powerless chaotic soul, the maze of confusion unable to find a sheltered room in the woods. Kang Sŏk-kyŏng once again underlines the crucial adherence factor of meritocracy that stamps its social legitimacy of becoming a societal shrine with its ignorance, narcissistic enforcements and submissive gender protocols.

Alienation is seen as one of the strongest denominator in lives of these female characters perpetually trapped in the polarities of modern and conformist worlds. O Chŏng-hŭi in her literary explorations reveals the torments of estrangement when engulfed with the bleakness of death and impermanence. The stories spun a convoluted web of conflict and acquiescence where choices are imaginary. An evening game is vacated for a pleasurable night with a young lover. The women preoccupied by the melodies of a young mother reminiscence her harried past detached from her present apathy. The daily father-daughter card game echoes the whispers of a mother losing her sanity over the loss of her child, a father waiting for his son and a possible infanticide. O Chŏng-hŭi adroitly frames a sequential persecution in an episodic narrative. The vagueness of death seeps into the comprehensibility of life. The grave stones symbolise the quandary of two women, the former seeking a grave plots for her and her husband and the latter contemplating the rationality of her husband’s dubious absence. The words of farewell scatter the memories of physical departure and vacuousness of physical existence.

Talent has no gender. Creativity does not go picking and choosing its master appropriated on the grammatical gender system dais. Literature has no single definition. The vexing question then arises as to why women are the only ones to be bestowed by such an endearing privilege of their entirety being abbreviated through the myopic primal gender regulations? Sarcasm or anxiety of the patriarchy? These stories of Korean women penned by three remarkable women writers encompassing multifaceted thematic nitty gritty of prostitution, youth, death, generational gap, bigotry, sexuality, love and much more, travel beyond the said geographical panorama depicting the notion of universality, broadening the thematic accessibilities of the female characters chronicling their own future detached from their status as someone’s mother, wife or daughter. In the current ongoing global scenario where women’s rights are easily bargained, a coming of an age story not cracking down on the deliberations of a quintessential teen male, but, a disquieting collage of a young girl matured beyond her naïve years, life impressions swirling around the nauseating chaos of sex, death and poverty in the war ravaged Seoul district bylanes of Chinatown ,call for a response of literary stimuli to view beyond the charcoal coated faces in the classic Bildungsroman ,an empathetic astute listener to the stories of women acutely ingrained in Korean culture ; the innocence of childhood stepping on the onset of womanhood culminating in the pragmatic…“My menstrual flow had begun.”

 

4/5 ♥♥♥♥

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The Vegetarian – Han Kang

The Vegetarian

 

“…. I went on and came to a tree. The tree told me that one could not talk here because human beings do not understand feelings. I went on, I was sorry to part with the tree because the tree understood me.” – ( The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky)

Abstinence – The passage of self-denial, the resolve of sheer restraint; where does it all begin and where will it eventually end? The steady shedding of birthing desires, the restriction of outwardly impulses marred by internal nightmares, slowly culminating into a growing silence. Silence – the sin of resilience or a rickety salvation from a venomous psychotic turmoil or a falsified symbol of complacency? Complacency , it’s obeisance revered, it’s rebellion sued. The superficiality of an acquired complacency steeped in the will of ignorance, the façade of normalcy shamelessly taking refuge in someone else’s mediocrity. A sense of superiority acquired by the bullish masking of your own imperfections within the blemished veil of others. Power- The artillery of dominance menacing the societal hierarchy, becoming a fateful pawn in haunting gender games separating individual and the community. The woes of patriarchy are magnified by the cultural power play of resilience and rebellion. The loneliness of the body, an individual, muddled in the patriarchal conformism embodying the egotism of a person’s disposed ignorance to the needs of others. The entrapment of individuals within their own individualities; the legitimacy of a human disseminating in societal iniquity. The possibility of violence and the impossibility of beauty thriving in the chaotic mesh of human feelings; abstinence being the only respite to an existing nirvana.

Yeong-hye’s proclamation of being a vegetarian triggered a distressful cycle of abuse and self-annihilation. The status of women in a patriarchal society is marred with agonizing conflicts. The aching desire to maintain normalcy in a gingerly structured survival balancing the hierarchical constitution burgeons with a sense of superiority and the thriving of a submissive spouse. The thought of quitting the existing conflicts, the surreal yearning to sprout from the earth, the undertaken path of abstinence frees the body from the vicissitudes of the mind. The radical spirit of a woman powerless in a world enveloping values that demands a bona fide conformity, endures the burden of her choices being ruthlessly interpreted on a communal dais.

“This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated.”

The entrapped melanocytes claim their dermal existence in a patterned bluish-gray birthmark. The ugliness of the Mongolian Mark disproves the beautiful distinctiveness of the melanocytes condemning the presence of the dermal cells that are different in their formation. The psychedelic floral patterns painted on Yeong-hye’s naked body bury the unsightliness of the Mongolian Mark in the alluring work of art. The beauty of the art evoking a repulsive guilt of carnal desire. Art is escapism. Sex, the beaten path to escape into a fantasy. The worlds of art and sex collide merging the flesh and identities, faceless humans, the body becoming distinct, free-moving into a whole new entity. The ultimate nullification of personality and identity. The intensity of the emotions clashing over the quandary of body over mind wrapped up in surrealism of unrestricted art. Free-will convulsing within the bounds of insanity, drives the notion of sexual freedom to the edge of a carnal conundrum.

“ Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his impulses?”

When the fear of losing everything overrides the self-assured convictions deterring a restrictive conscious encompassing unrestrictive art, freedom becomes a luxury. The discomforting anxiety burdens the agony of self-realization. The notion of an ‘absolute freedom’, an untainted freedom beyond the realms of self-examinations trapped between the battles between normality v/s animalistic fervour and morality v/s immorality. The impulses of self–obliteration hovering over Yeong-ho.

Identity becomes a farcical metaphor floating in its own singularity. The human body is torn between its own language and the language imposed by others. The individual and the community segregated by the former’s quest to explore the terrains of freedom confronting the limitations of the society; the sum and substance of ‘identity’ collapsing within an individual. Han Kang is meticulous in layering the intricacies of mainstream Korean Society laminating the cultural fringes in the dual domains of “social-self” and “solitary-self”. The concept of freedom and identity carved in harmony with the workings of societal dogmas rather than those of an individual is tactfully highlighted through the firm notion that people are somehow in debt of the socio-cultural benevolence. The menacing arcs of gender, food, sexual liberation, sexual violence, abuse, mental maladies and suicide dismantles the values of personal freedom with asphyxiating constraints. Thus, the fatalities of individualities misplaced in the struggles, societal responsibilities and imposed taboos; the denied personhood exiled in the feelings of displacement.

“Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called ‘a person’, but then wasn’t exactly some feral creature either – more like a mysterious being with qualities of both”

Personal identity becomes highly subjective in this three-tier narrative. Each of Han Kang’s focal characters struggle amid the legitimacy of their personhood. Be it In-hye, who has this incredible ability to adapt to any dire circumstances with staunch endurance, binding up her wounds with an ingrained smothering stability. Yeong-ho , who weighed down by his own battles of moral obligations and self-depravity. Lastly, Yeong-hye’s husband who exemplifies the nitty-gritty of a patriarchal society. But, the greatest irony of the identity clash stems in the portrayal of Kim Yeong-hye. Despite Yeong-hye being the pivotal common thread throughout the audacious narratives, fails to take the centre-stage. Her personhood becomes secondary forging its way around and through her, in the course of her emaciated life. Yeong-hye is steadily pushed in the background. Her own individuation clings on the opinionated strings of the people around her.

“ Look , sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands……they delve down into the earth. Endlessly,endlessly…….yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide……..”

Respect – Who deserves the core of its sentiment? The oppressed body that uproots itself from the surface of the human race or the resilient body that submerges under an ocean of emptiness to survive among the human race? Or then, is it the inescapable individual existing within the two claustrophobic bodily milieus, who is the rightful beneficiary of the justified reverence? The predominant existentialism theme encircling this literary reserve, probes the legitimacy of human existence in the state of chaos amplifying the very core of human nature. The individual remains incomprehensible; the significance of kith and kin disseminating in a ruthless abandonment. Unlike the black bird soaring the blue skies, the earthly bound tree runs short of absolute freedom. A tree may stand solitary on the mountain top, sturdy on the fertile ground, still, its roots run deep, firmly rooted into the earth below. Akin to a tree rooted in its earthly codes, an individual is forever rooted into the societal dogmas. An individual is far from being truly free, the cost of an absolute freedom paid through self-annihilation. The supreme exemption from the morally reprehensible decoding of the totality of being attained in the final uprooting of a human being from the society. Is then, the path of abstinence a bane or a boon? At the risk of bizarre insanity devoid of a definite beginning or an end, is then the onset of abstinence a daring last resort to establish identity? And, how farther can a person keep running, far into the deep darkness before crashing into his/her own fractured soul?

4/5 ****