The suffering healers

Ahead of his appearances with English PEN at the Free Word Centre and London Book Fair 2014, Hwang Sok-Yong takes us into the shamanistic past of Korean culture, and how those creation stories can be used to write about globalisation and modern suffering

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

For many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, the structure and content of a shaman ritual, which helps the passage of the souls of the dead from this world to the next, has been passed down from generation to generation, retaining a remarkably similar form given the time span involved. This exorcism tradition, generically known as
Hwangch’ŏn Muga (‘Shaman Songs of the Underworld’), includes 47 oral sub-stories 
relating specifically to ‘Princess Bari’, a shaman narrative that has been recited across the Korean peninsula with very little local variation. Much like the Greek Myth of Odysseus and the Scandinavian tales of Odin, the plot is structured around a journey to the world of the dead, undertaken in order to rescue one of the souls there. Shamans, who are female in Korean culture, consider ‘Bari’ as their foundation myth, referring to ‘Grandma Bari’ as the original ancestor of all Korean shamans. They themselves are uncertain as to why the ‘Bari’ narrative came to be included in all exorcism rituals, but it seems that through recounting the sufferings and ordeals experienced by Bari, their progenitor, shamans have been able to claim for themselves her position as a ‘suffering healer of sufferings’, one who solves various ordeals while undergoing them herself.

Together with my previous novels
The Guest and
Shim Chong,
Princess Bari presents a reality which is recognisably that of our present world using a distinctively Korean form and narrative. If the period from the fall of the Berlin wall to the beginning of the Bush administration saw the beginnings of globalisation, 9/11 was the turning point after which a more openly enforced American unilateralism led to an increase in globalisation’s reach and intensity. Now, its effects can be clearly felt not only in Korea, but in every country, resulting in polarisation between nations.

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, North Korea suffered a famine which lasted for more than ten years, peaking as the period in the late 1990s known as the ‘Arduous March’. According to a UN survey, as many as three and a half million people may have died from starvation and the side effects of malnutrition between 1994 and 1998. Meanwhile in South Korea, only a very short distance away, we had everything in abundance. While recognising the responsibility of the North Korean government and seeking to call them to account, I also repeatedly criticised the hypocritical human rights logic of the Big Powers who instituted and subsequently managed the division of Korea into North and South, with other Communist countries previously supplying the former, and US troops still stationed in the latter. The reality of life in  North Korea has been obscured by ideological arguments and strategic preparations for the (highly unlikely) possibility of a ‘North Korean collapse’. Many aspects of the situation have been widely forgotten, or else used solely in propaganda intended to vilify the North Korean regime’s anti-humanitarianism. Every victim, every refugee in today’s world, must pass through the new ‘hell’ that has been brought about by the dark side of globalisation.

For me, constructing a story overlaying the ‘movement through hell’ of present-day refugees with that of the Korean shaman myth ‘Princess Bari’ is a very symbolic act. Bari goes to the ends of the earth searching for the ‘water of life’, posing questions like: how, in this 21
st
century global village of dissolution, hatred and death, can we discover the road which leads to life? what is the real meaning of this ‘water of life’? How could a modern-day Bari go about finding such a thing? These questions were the seeds for
Princess Bari.