Multiple Korean newspapers are noting the passing of brilliant Korean author Park Wan-so, who apparently died as the result of gallbladder cancer. Park had been battling the disease for years and her death leaves behind four daughters. An international literary treasure as well a national one, Park’s literary career spanned thirty years, and she wrote more than 20 novels and 100 short stories, a fair proportion of which were translated into English.
Born in what is now a North Korean village in 1931, Park was a relatively late-bloomer as a published author, writing her first novel just before she turned 40. The housewife turned into a novelist when her long story Namok, or Bare Tree, won a contest organized by a female magazine run by the Donga daily newspaper. Park became the Grand Dame of Korean letters, and in 1981 received the prestigious Yi Sang award for her novel, Mother’s Stake, and in 1990 the Korean Literature award.
Park was forced to drop out of the Korean literature department at Seoul National University at the onset of the Korean war (and at the death of her brother) in order to work at a US military base. During the war, Park was separated from her mother and elder brother by the North Korea army, which moved them to North Korea.
Park’s ouvre quickly grew and her work is revered in Korea. Park’s early work focused on the tragedy of families separated by the Korean Civil war, and the ongoing damage caused by that war in its survivors is demonstrated in suck works as The Naked Tree, Warm Was the Winter that Year, and Who Ate Up all the Shinga (to which Park has released a second volume, not yet published in English, Was the Mountain Really There). Since about 1980, Park’s work has centered on families, problems affecting women in Korea’s extremely patriarchal sociaty and biting critiques of the middle class. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is in her work The Dreaming Incubator in which a woman is forced to undergo a series of abortions until she can deliver a male child. Her best known works in Korea include Bad Luck in the City, Swaying Afternoons, Warm Was the Winter that Year, and Are you Still Dreaming? Park celebrated last year her 40th anniversary as a novelist. Her last book was an essay on her life as an old-aged writer, named Roads Not Taken Are More Beautiful, published the same year. (Yonhap News)
Park’s translated novels include Who Ate up All the Shinga which sold some 1.5 million copies in Korean and was well-reviewed in English translation. Park is also published in The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea.
At the time of her death she lived in the village of Achui, in Guri, outside of the hustle and bustle of Seoul.
Park’s work focused on the traumas of war and its aftermath, but in the context of family stories that alternately tugged at the heartstrings and brought smiles of recognition. Her work allowed multiple levels of understanding of Korean history, literature, and culture. Her work was primarily semi-autobiographical pieces in which families’ and women’s lives were snarled in economic, social, and pyschological changes created by the war. Park’s work can be read on the simple plot level, for the complicated but essentially loving family stories or as most elegant and subtle introductions to pundhan munhak and all sorts of political, social and economic themes. Park’s stories, first and foremost, shine through and the reader can appreciate the “Koreaness” of the story as his or her knowledge allows. Park’s indirect political strategy means that readers who know Korean history and culture can understand the historical context of her works, while a newcomer to Korean history can feel the same ominous undertones, but understand them within the narrower context of the family situation. Perhaps her most famous work in English was Who Ate Up All the Shinga, which was reviewed here at KTLIT:
Park Wan-suh’s Who Ate Up All the Shinga, originally published in Korean in 1992, is a brilliant book on at least three levels. First, it is the compelling narrative of a writer coming into being in the most trying of times. Second, it is a highly amusing and often bittersweet mother-daughter memoir. Finally, it is an unusually well-balanced novel – a remarkable cultural artifact, if one chooses to approach it that way – one that manages to utilize Korea’s extremely difficult history without making the novel itself about Korean history. This unusual combination has the beneficial effect of making Park’s novel enjoyable on multiple levels. Who Ate Up All the Shinga is one of the best translations, and choice of works to be translated, in recent memory.
But as Who Ate Up All the Shinga an “autobiographical novel” reveals, the authorial seeds were planted young. Who Ate Up All the Shinga’s relation to fiction is not at all coincidental. Park tips her hand on this on the book-sleeve, where she calls her work an “autobiographical novel.” In fact, it is a compelling story of a young girl who seems, almost unknown to herself, to be destined to write and then finally reaches that conclusion herself.
Park’s writing was touching, literary, clever and a sparkling window into Korean history and culture. She will be missed and cannot be replaced.
Literature and Experience – an article by Park Wan-Seo about her life as a writer
The Naked Tree – an extract from the novel
Partial list of publications in English
My Very Last Possession: And Other Stories
The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Sketch of the Fading Sun
Three Days in That Autumn
Weathered Blossom (Modern Korean Short Stories)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel
Partial list of publications in Korean
The Naked Tree (Namok, 1970)
The Beginning of Days Lived (Sara-inneun, Nal-ui Sijak, 1980)
Mama’s Stake (Eommanui Malttuk, 1982)
Warm Was the Winter That Year (Geuhae Gyeoul-eun Ttatteuthaenne, 1983)
The Woman Standing (Seoinneun Yoja, 1985)
Illusion (Mimang, 1990)
My Beautiful Neighbor (Na-ui Areumdaun Iut, 1991)
The Dreaming Incubator (Kkumkkuneun Incubator, 1993)
Such a Lonely You (Neomuna Sseulsseurhan Dangsin, 1999)
A Very Old Joke (Silcheonmunhak, 2000)
Who Ate up All the Sing-a (Woongjin, 2002)