Review: Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women

Questioning Minds is a collection of short stories by women writers (as the book notes ruefully, this is a common description in Korean) with an intentionally feminist bent.  The fact that it is intended to be a textbook is perhaps its greatest weakness, LOL… well, maybe not in a classroom.

The “academic” nature of the book is revealed several ways, including extensive history/biography and theoretical explication after each story. The history/biography is great – particularly the unbelievably unfortunate endgames for the first three authors, Kim Myeong-sun, Na Hye-seok, and Kim Weon-Ju; stories which must have made it a very daunting prospect indeed, for female authors to follow. All three were initially successful and then, for a variety of reasons, destroyed by society. As the editor dryly notes about Na, her “story proved a cautionary tale for generations of Korean women thereafter” (26).

The academic nature of the book also means it feels compelled to include stories from every era it can (while noting that nothing representative could be found between the 20s and 40s), and that means at least one clunker is included.

Still, as a kind of hybrid of a feminist and Korean literature textbook, this is one worth picking up, and unlike some other books discussed here, is easily available online.

The first story is A Girl Of Mystery (1917) by Kim Myeong-sun. This is a subtle story of a young girl of uncertain origin, unhappy and partially hidden, and eventually on the run. It is a bit ruined at the end when itdestroys it’s own air of mystery with a tacked on explanatory section.

Kyeonghui (1918) by the tragic Na Hye-seok, is not so much a short story as a lecture. The character Kyeonghui is straight out of North Korean literature. Always brave, noble, and ecstatically happy at the thought of additional work. The other characters are similarly simple – cutouts who only serve to further the didactics of the story. Kyonghuiconducts completely politically correct lectures in her own head. Those who disagree with her are gossips and whoremongers, though Kyeonghui’s mere presence at least semi-converts or temporarily convertsthem when they meet her.  It’s well written, including at least one clever narrative shift around page 45, but that can’t overcome its harpy (ooooh!) tone.

Kim Weon-ju’s Awakening (1926) has a clever double-epistolary structure. It is also much more ideologically varied than its predecessor, Kyeonghui. It begins with an apparently happily married woman (though when her husband leaves for Japan he shakes her hand!) who goes through a process of discovery that leads her from a life entirely dependent on him, to one entirely separated from him, even contemptuous of him. In fact, he creates this contempt, and when the narrator concludes with a bit of semi-moralizing about what she has learned, it is the knowledge earned by the story, not the empty lecturing of Kyeonghui.

Hahn Moo-sook (available here on Wikipedia because of the awesome Wikipedia Project! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_Moo-sook)  is a canonical writer with a wide range of works. Hydrangeas (1949)is one of her lesser works.  The translation here, is also a bit clunky and the story is a bit obvious. Beginning with an obvious symbol of what is about to happen, Hydrangeas that stand for fickleness, a middle-aged wife learns that, maybe, her life with her husband is not what she thought it was. Out of Hahn’s work, it seems that this work was chosen for the book not for its literary quality, but instead for its message.

Kang Sin-jae’s The Mist (1950) is a good story of a creative wife shackled by a complete jerk of a husband. The husband is first uninterested in and destructive of his wife’s ability as a writer, and then becomes paternal and dismissive of her ability when it blossoms. In some ways the wife is a less well delineated character than the husband, but this works brilliantly as his nearly unbelievable chauvinism makes the story sparkle. This is aided by the fact that Kang includes a male character who is sympathetic, and when the narrator ends the story in a protracted scream, its genesis has already been well established.

Song Weon-Hye’s When Autumn Leaves Fall (1961) is a kind of mid-life crisis work, with a middle-aged painter facing up to her history and where it has led her. Unlike many of the other stories in this collection, it ends in a semi-optimistic way, and men and the social system are painted in shades of grey, rather than uniformly as opressors.

A Dish of Sliced Raw Fish (1979) by Yi Sun features a spectacularly judgmental narrator Chiyeong who is engaged to be married to a man from a far lower social station. Chiyeong is in some ways carrying out the message of Yi Kwang-su’s Heartless, as she marries for love, but all the way through the story she has doubts and comes across as quite snooty (at least until the end). It is interesting, in this case, to read the analysis of the story, which claims the story is “ a delightful picture scroll” and a “refreshing, uplifting perspective” (146). I think this didn’t come through at all in the translation, and so it reads quite differently, all the way up to it’s rather unexpected optimistic ending.  As in some of the other stories here, the translation can be a bit odd, the husband “unbosoms” himself (143).

Yi Seok-pong’s The Light at Dawn is a short story of a very traditionally unhappy older couple – they represent a certain kind of couple that lived through the Korean economic boom but never quite profited from it; instead staying together for children. To my mind it kind of waffles on its premise at the end – providing a semi-happy ending to a kind of marriage that almost never ends happily in reality. The theoretical analysis, also, seems a bit heavy under the burden of explaining the ending.^^

The last two stories are by two modern treasures of Korean literature, the incomparable fabulist Ch’oeYun and the stern diarist of modern unhappiness, Pak Wan-so.

Ch’oe’s  Stone in Your Heart begins in her typical lyrical way, and typically poking at the idea of what reality might be. A married woman is called to the scene of her husband’s deadly accident and everything she believed to be solid melts away in a moment. In her moment of need an aged doctor takes her under his wing, and although she continues to obsessively peck away at the ‘real’ story of her husband’s death, she finds a bit of calmness at his house. The conclusion reveals a startling incident in the doctor’s history, the ‘stone’ of the title, and end is a touching consideration of the importance of letting go.

Pak Wan-so’s Dried Flowers is a reprint of a work which I have already reviewed here.  If you haven’t read it in that volume, though, it’s worth reading for its senescent and depressing view of romantic love.

A decent collection, easy to find, and brilliant for your class in Korean Feminism.^^

3 thoughts on “Review: Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean Women

  1. Dear INP,

    If it’s Korean literature by women that you’re interested in, I’d also highly suggest Ch’oe Yun and the short stories of Park Wan-so. Ch’oe has one or two collections out there (including “There a Petal Silently Falls” http://www.amazon.com/There-Petal-Silently-Falls-Weatherhead/dp/023114296X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1322792637&sr=8-2) and Park has at least one short novella (Weathered Blossom: http://www.amazon.com/Weathered-Blossom-Modern-Korean-Stories/dp/1565912225/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322792685&sr=1-1) and a collection (http://www.amazon.com/Very-Last-Possession-Other-Stories/dp/0765604299/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322792685&sr=1-3) that I have not yet read. Her best known work is “Who Ate Up All the Singa,” but I like her short stories better.

    BTW.. I’m a fan of your blog (and sometimes presence on other blogs!), just not a commenter.^^

    Charles..

  2. Pingback: Updated: Say Charles, Where Should I Start in Korean Literature?

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