PEN Atlas contributor Krys Lee considers the impact of Kyung-sook Shin’s Man Asian Literary Prize win and where Korean women writers stand today
Last month, the phrase the “Asian Booker Prize” constantly popped up in the Korean media. Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Momwas awarded the Man Asian Prize for 2012, and was greeted by a local media blitz that is rarely seen in literature. While an award is always exciting, especially for smaller countries as it helps to gain recognition and a larger prospective audience of readers for local literature, Shin is only one of many Korean women writers today whose debts lie in the past.One word in the Korean language that fascinates me is the word shinyoga (new woman). This was the title of Korea’s first short-lived feminist magazine launched in March 1920 and a term used for women associated with an education, Western-style clothing and modern ideas. At a time, when men of middle-class standing and beyond commonly had concubines, while women married in their teens and lived under the unforgiving eye of their mother-in-laws, many of these earlier female intellectuals, artists and writers suffered greatly as they struggled to make a life in a society that wasn’t ready for them. Writers like Na Hye-sok, now seen as an early role model for women writers and feminists, died a divorced woman, abandoned by society, friends, and even her own family, after an alleged love affair she conducted in Paris where her husband had been stationed. It didn’t matter that men often had other women; the more she belatedly defended her position in public, the more she was ostracized. Other writers like Kim Won-ju, a friend of Na Hye-sok’s and an editor at Shinyoga, left marriage for a monk’s life. The word shinyoga came to be associated with radicalism, rebellion and being modern.Two major women writers who benefited from these predecessors were Pak Wan-seo and Park Kyeong-ni.Pak Wan-seo, who passed away in 2011, was known for writing autobiographical fiction that vividly documents aspects of her personal life as well as the life of a rapidly changing nation. Pak’s life spanned a colonized Korea under Japanese rule, the Korean War that left the country divided, and South Korea’s dramatic industrialization and democratization. In books such as her debut novel,The Naked Tree, and the autobiographicalnovel,Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, her detailed impressions of a nation as well as ordinary families living in challenging times help bring Korean history to life in a way that few writers have accomplished. In Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, in particular, the mother’s attempts to remake the main character into a shinyoga are interrupted by the Korean War. Politics, in Pak’s work, is always personal. She was known as a chronicler, a storyteller, and a compassionate individual who understood suffering. In a literary world vastly dominated by men, Pak managed to gain both attention and respect for making history personal, yet still powerful.Pak Kyung-ni, another one of South Korea’s great writers died in May 2008.Toji, or Land, is widely considered her masterpiece. The 16-volume saga follows the struggles of several generations of villagers from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century under Japanese imperialism, and includes the lives of hundreds of characters, creating a comprehensive, complex portrait of the lives of Koreans. Pak’s life was tumultuous and filled with tragedy as a direct result of Korea’s history; her work is certainly influenced by a preoccupation of how the fate of a nation influences individual lives, but her approach to fiction is less autobiographical than Pak Wan-seo’s work. She strives to comprehend a nation and its people, in all their variety in a way that few writers have the courage to attempt. Even in a school curriculum dominated by men, Pak’s Land is considered essential reading.Shinyoga in Korea have come a long way. And yet not as much has changed as one would have hoped. According to Hankyoreh newspaper, discrimination against women in Korea in the workplace today ranks 104th
worst in the world. Women score higher on most entrance exams than men but few women reach beyond mid-managerial positions. The more highly educated a woman is, the more undesirable she is considered by matchmaking agencies. Most working women are still too fearful to take their full maternity leave; the unforgiving beauty standard for women has heavily contributed to plastic surgery’s mainstream status; and unmarried women who are independent, successful, and in their thirties are treated with pity and asked almost daily, “Why aren’t you married?” Women have changed, but society is still catching up.Yet, there are writers arguing, challenging, and making space for women’s voices in a society whose patriarchal structures are largely intact. Some exciting women writers today gaining praise from critics and readers include Ch’oi Yun, Jeong Yi-hyun, Kim In-Sukand Kim Sun Woo. Younger writers such as Han Ganghave not been widely translated into English, but I expect the recognition of books such as the Man Asian Prize winner Please Look After Mom will lead to new forays into the translation of Korean women writers.
About the author
Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House recently published by Faber and Faber in the U.K. and Viking/Penguin in the U.S.. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, studied in the U.S. andEngland, and lives in Seoul. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Huffington Post and Condé Nast Traveller,UK.www.krys.lee.com
Kyung-sook Shin (1963) is the author of 6 novels in addition to Please Look After Mother, which will be published in 19 countries, and has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone. She is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, having won the Manhae Grand Prize for Literature, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Isang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. She lives in Seoul and in New York.Park Wan-seo , also Park Wan suh (1931-2011) is a household name in Korea and draws standing-room-only crowds in North American cities with substantial Korean populations. Who Ate Up All the Shinga? is a major work, being both a rare account of a woman coming of age in colonial Korea and the first book-length memoir in English by a Korean writer resident in and writing about Korea. (Bruce Fulton, University of British Columbia). Park Kyung-ni (or Pak Kyong Ni) (1926 – 2008) was a prominent South Korean novelist. She is well known for her 16-volume story The Land, an epic saga set on the turbulent history of Korea during 19th and 20th century.Na Hye-sok ( 1896 – 1948) was a Korean poeter, feminist writer and painter, educators, journalists. She was the first female Korean artist of Western painting and the second Korean artist who held an oil painting exhibition. She became well-known as a liberal feminist with her criticism against the marital institution in the early 20th century.