Review: Words of Farewell (Fiction by Korean female writers)

Words of Farewell CoverOne of the best collections of Korean women’s fiction, maybe the best one, Words of Farewell, translated, like Wayfarer, By Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. It’s 278 pages with 7 stories by three authors. It is up there with Wayfarer and Questioning Minds if you’re interested in female fiction

Words of Farewell is a collection of stories by Kang Sok-kyong (two stories), Kim Chi-won (two stories, and O Chong-hui (three stories).

Days and Dreams, by Kang Sok-kyong is a series of extremely graphic sets of discussions of the lives of prostitutes, which takes place in the Monkey House, a place prostitutes are sent to treat VD. The prostitutes are presented realistically and frankly, which means this might not be a story you want youngsters to read. It contains a couple of sub-plots, including an affair between two women, which ends tragically, but the main character survives her travails and there is even a kind of happy ending. Along with America by Cho Hae-il, this is one of the few translated stories that deals with the issue of war-related prostitution.

A Room In The Woods is also by Kang Sok-kyong. This is one of those stories that may have seemed a bit better at the time, as it describes three sisters, each entirely different, who still live at home with their parents. The narrator has two sisters, Hye-Yand and So-Yang. The narrator is trying to figure out why her sister So-Yang has dropped out of college and seems depressed. So-Yang may have been a radical character when this was written in 1986, but with the developments of time, So-Yang now comes off more as an emo-goth kid, willfully choosing a different path, and/or the victim of a chemical imbalance. Of course, at the time A Room in the Woods was written, So-Yang would have been a symbol of rebellion (she even rebels against the rebellion), but times change and so do character readings.

A Certain Beginning by Kim Chi-won is the story of a recently divorced Korean woman, Yun-ja who marries another Korean Cheong-il so he can get a green card. This story reminds me of a happier version of in Krys Lee’s At The Edge of the World in Drifting House. Kim’s story begins as they “honeymoon” even though nothing is romantic. She’s effed it up once before with him by suggesting he stay over (again platonically) at her place while they were pretending to be married. It’s a lovely story and it involves little peeks into both Yun-ja and Cheong-il’s minds so the reader can see how they understand and misunderstand each other. It has a cute, nearly rom-com, if incomplete as often in Korean fiction, ending.

Kim Chi-won’s Lullaby begins with a wife as she imagines a new house will give her shelter from her always disgruntled husband. She envisages happy scenes with her daughter. The husband is a bit less convinced and he also knows the head-banging ghost story associated with the house. They husband and bride were equals in school, but now he’s gone full adjusshi and attacks her for reading books. This story is notable partly because it introduces the first version of Korean “make-up” sex that I’ve ever read about. The painful cycle continues until the wife stays outside, hallucinates a return of the “head ache” ghost story and dies in the pond. The husband is first disconsolate, then angry, and finally suicidal. Lullaby is a great story… a great ghost story and a good relationship story.

O Chong-hui, is perhaps the most talented writer in this collection. Her first story, Evening Games begins unhappy in a house, with a woman playing cards with her father. As the card game goes forward, a gothic family history is revealed, featuring birth defects and involuntary commitment to an asylum. O’s writing style is highly descriptive, and the claustrophobia in the story is intensely drawn. The daughter tries to find solace in casual sex, but of course this changes nothing. The story ends with one final semi-gothic image and no hope of shore in sight.

Chinatown is full of super-colorful descriptions and tells a kind of coming of age, cycles of life story. Chinatown ‘begins’ several pages into the story in one of those classic “moving by truck” scenes that dot Korea fiction of the era, as memorably in Yang Kwi-ja’s A Distant and Beautiful Place and Pak Wan-so’s Who Ate up All the Shinga.

The story is set in Incheon’s (once Chemulpo) famous Chinatown, and although it takes place in the post-war era, it is a coming of age / cycles of life story above all else. The heart of the story is of a nine-year old girl who comes to a greater awareness of the cycles of life, including sex and death. The girl observes the relationship, family, and eventual death of a young prostitute, Maggie; observes her own grandmother’s decline, and; the eighth pregnancy of her mother.

In fact, Chinatown does in 28 pages, what the much more well-known Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop attempts in nearly 500 pages, seeming to take three actual generations to do so. In case that sounds unfair in that Three Generations describes a lot, so does O, just in brief sharp strokes, and not wooden armadas. I should say, in this case as in the other stories, this effect also has to be considered a triumph of translation. I’m a fairly requited lover of all Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton translations, but these translations are exquisite; they are lush, severe, idiomatic, and brilliantly literary.

Words of Farewell, like O’s other stories piles on of details and light, to use a word from the first page, ‘shimmery’ descriptions. Words of Farewell tells the story of Chong-ok, the narrator, her son, and her mom, to check out mom and dad’s gravesite intertwined with the story of her husband going “out fishing” and disappearing completely in an apparent drowning. There are some difficult narrative shifts that intensify and compress as the story continues, but this is part of how O keeps the surreal tone of her work. As the narrative shifts accelerate a brilliant comparison is drawn between physical death and the departure of people, a comparison that has more than just psychological meaning in post-war Korea.

It’s a brilliant story, and it, and the other two stores by O here, make me wish that more of her work would be translated.