Bae Suah is a Korean writer who has attracted a lot of attention recently, surprisingly so for a writer who really hasn’t had a lot of her work translated into English so far (of course, this may just be the company I keep on Twitter and Facebook…). Last year, she was writer in residence at the Writer’s Centre attached to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and she has another connection to UEA, having translated a couple of W.G. Sebald books into Korean. As mentioned, there haven’t been many opportunities so far for Anglophones to sample her work, but a couple of recent publications have changed that, two novellas which definitely have me eager to try more.
The two pieces are courtesy of Amazon Crossing, both translated by Sora Kim-Russell. The first is an upcoming release, Nowhere to Be Found, a novella about a young woman trapped in a depressing family environment; the second is a shorter story which was released last year, Highway with Green Apples, one in which the protagonist has managed to shrug off some of the shackles around her. They’re both excellent stories and make for a great introduction to Bae’s work.
In Nowhere to be Found (review copy received through NetGalley), we see a young woman supporting her poor family through short-term, badly paid jobs. Her mother is an alcoholic, her elder brother a labourer scratching around for the next shift, and her younger sister is trying to get through school as best she can. Twenty-four and exhausted, the elder sister is caught in a situation she can’t get out of, and the reappearance of Cheolsu, a young man she knows from her school days might not be the break she was expecting.
The tale unfolds in a plain style for the most part, the story of a dull, crushing life unlikely to improve any time soon. However, there’s a sudden switch in pace half-way through, a few pages which suddenly sear through the woman’s grey, everyday life:
“Rain falls inside the dark abandoned house. It streams down the walls of the kitchen and front door like a waterfall. Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch. Wrap me in garbage bags and toss me in the incinerator. I’ll turn into dioxin and make my way into your lungs. Stroke my face lightly with a razor blade and suck the blood that comes seeping out. Lap it up like a cat. I want to be covered in blood. I’ll cry out in the end and weep for fear of leaving this world without ever once discovering the me inside me, the ugly something inside me.”
(Amazon Crossing, 2015)
It’s a scene that rocks the reader, a bolt from the blue – and it only really makes sense towards the end of the story. When life is closing you in, it’s up to you to find your own release, no matter how dark others might find it.
Highway with Green Apples is another story of a twenty-something, with a woman about to turn twenty five taking a road trip with a boyfriend, a man who is very soon to move on from her. The woman has run away from her family, sick of being the dutiful daughter and sister, but having escaped domestic drudgery, she’s not sure what’s supposed to happen next.
It’s a great story, an examination of the role of young women in Korean society, and it packs a lot into a relatively short space, allowing us to contrast the life the woman leads now with the patriarchal situation she has left behind:
“The sound of the nail clippers must have annoyed my brother, because he stuck his head out the door and yelled at me to be quiet. My mother, who felt nothing for my father, discovered the glass I’d broken while doing the dishes and scolded me from inside the kitchen, as if she’d finally found the proper outlet for her frustration. Crickets chirped in the corner of the yard. I asked myself over and over, When will I ever get out of here?“
(Amazon Crossing, 2014)
I’ve read a lot of books which focus on Korean families, but many concentrate on the father or (more often) the mother. This one looks at things from the view of the daughter, the dogsbody for the rest of the family, pushed around by a lazy brother and a resentful mother. In the frustration of the home environment, people react in different ways, and the choices people make lead them to very different futures.
One aspect of Highway with Green Apples I loved was the structure of the story, with a mix of time strands taking the reader back and forth in time, but gently, with the various scenes almost melting into one another. There’s a strong focus on memories and nostalgia, with some beautiful descriptive writing evoking the times described: the smell of the apples bringing back the road trip; the snowy impromptu get-together in the dark; the childhood photo on a hot day, blinding light, heat and sweat. There are hints here of (dare I say it?) Murakami at his simplest and most evocative in these scenes.
The two stories have obvious similarities, with both looking at the role of young women in Korean Society, where there’s a strong focus on family. It’s a country where you either fit in or are made to fit in, and the age of the protagonists, one of uncertainty, adds to the feeling of torment and struggle, a time where a tipping point has been reached:
“I am one week away from my twenty-fifth birthday. I hate being that age. That age is neither as fresh and full of life as fifteen years nor as jaded as the afternoon of thirty-five years. I never know what the next day will bring, so I am always uneasy.”
(Highway with Green Apples)
In both stories, the main character has choices to make, and the differences are in the way the two women decide to approach their dilemma. Both are well written and translated, with great work by Kim-Russell, but I preferred Highway with Green Apples because of the elegant style and handling of the time periods. However, as Nowhere to Be Found is, perhaps, a more coherent tale, some may disagree – see what you think ;)
These two stories make a nice start, but this is a writer who has been working for twenty years (Highway with Green Apples came out in 1995, and Nowhere to Be Found appeared three years later). In 2001, Bae moved to Germany to learn the language and broaden her horizons, and she is now a Sebald Translator. I suspect that her more recent work might be a little more sophisticated, and it’s frustrating that there isn’t the opportunity to find that out at the moment.
So, is there anything else out there? There’s a story available in English, Time in Gray, one of the Asia Publishers Bilingual Modern Korean Literature series, and I’ve heard that there are two novels in the pipeline. Both have been translated by Deborah Smith (of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian fame), The Essayists Desk and The Low Hills of Seoul, and there’s an extract of the second book over at Two Lines Press. These two should(!) be out in 2016, and it’s about time. Bae Suah is a writer whose work many people will enjoy – if they get to read it :)