‘Wayfarer – New Fiction by Korean Women’, edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Review)

The next stop on my cruise through the history of Korean literature is the latest book from my recent visit to the local university library.  It’s a book which comes highly recommended (e.g. by Charles over at Korean Literature in Translation), and having read it, I can see why.  A great collection of stories, this is definitely a book more people should be aware of 🙂

*****
Wayfarer – New Fiction by Korean Women is a 1997 anthology from Women in Translation Press, edited and translated by (of course) Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.  It introduces eight female writers from South Korea, each represented by one story.  Originally released between 1974 and 1994, the stories are a representation of the influence female writers are having on Modern Korean Literature.

The title comes from a story from O Chong-hui (and an excellent one it is too) about a woman trying to rejoin society after a traumatic incident.  However, I won’t say too much about it here as it was one of the stories I featured in my post on the Modern Korean Fiction anthology earlier this year, and one that piqued my interest in female writers from the country.

Even if we overlook O’s story, though, there are several other great pieces, with a few common themes.  One of those is the struggle women have with gender roles, with So Yong-un’s excellent ‘Dear Distant Love’ being a prime example.  It features a woman obsessed with a no-good lover, a man who walks all over her (and took her daughter away soon after the birth).  Yet somehow she still feels a need to treat him as a (Korean) husband should be treated:

“Before Han-su could knock on the door, Mun-ja recognized the sound of his steps and went out to welcome him.  She helped him off with his coat, she removed his socks, she brought a basin of hot water and washed his feet, and each of these objects turned the color of gold.”
‘Dear Distant Love’, p.125 (Women in Translation Press, 1997)

It’s a twisted tale, and poor Mun-ja is a martyr to her no-good lover, a woman who believes that no sacrifice is too great for the man she has decided to devote her life to…

A shorter story is Kim Chi-won’s ‘Almaden’, which describes the life of a Korean woman at a bottle shop in New York.  The story alternates between the dull description of her work routine and her fantasies of the rugged man who comes in every day for a bottle of cheap wine.  Almaden (her name for the man, but actually the brand of wine he drinks) comes to be a symbol of escape from everyday life, representative of the life she’d like to lead if only she dared.

A more subtle approach is provided by a writer I’ve encountered a couple of times before, namely Ch’oe Yun.  In ‘The Last of Hanak’o’, a man on a business trip to Italy attempts to pluck up the courage to meet up with a female friend from his younger years.  As the story evolves, events of the past are revealed, slowly emerging from the mist:

“It is forbidden to venture near the canal railing on stormy days.  Take precautions in the fog, particularly the winter fog… Then enter the labyrinth.  And bear in mind, the more frightened you are, the more lost you will be.”
‘The Last of Hanak’o’, p.11

These words start the story, taken from a sign near the Grand Canal, but they could just as easily refer to the man’s struggles to come to grips with the past.  This one is a wonderful tale of men struggling to deal with women for who they are, a story with a nice (if fairly obvious) twist in the tail.

Not all the stories are as good, though.  Two later pieces which look at the role of housewives are the weakest of the eight (perhaps I’m not the right reader for this kind of story).  Kong Son-ok’s ‘The Flowering of Our Lives’ looks at a woman struggling to come to terms with her relationships with her mother and daughter, preferring drinking to looking after her daughter.  Meanwhile, Park Wan-suh’s ‘Identical Apartments’ provides another typical tale of a housewife dying of boredom, never satisfied, whether living with the in-laws or moving into a new apartment.  Once again, as I’ve discovered several times before, Park’s privileged whinging proves not to be to my taste…

However, the remaining stories are much better, and the final two summarised here have a more political edge.  Kong Chi-yong’s ‘Human Decency’ portrays a magazine journalist working on two different stories: one is on a former artist, a beauty who has written a book on meditation; the other deals with a recently released political prisoner.  This second assignment brings back memories of the journalist’s own time as a protester in the 1980s:

“How single-minded we children of the 1980s were to believe that right would triumph whatever the circumstances; how firmly we grew up believing that justice would win out in the end.”
‘Human Decency’, p.75

The question here is which story she should prioritise in a country that would prefer to forget the past…

There are more politics on show in Kim Min-suk’s ‘Scarlet Fingernails’.  In this one, a woman gets to meet her father for the first time after he has spent decades in prison for being a suspected spy from the North.  It’s an excellent story looking at the problem of guilt by association, an issue which was only recently resolved.  Many of the family members resent the prisoner, not because of the years he’s spent away from them, but for the shadow he has nevertheless cast over their dreams and ambitions.

Even if not all of the stories were to my taste, Wayfarer is a great collection, one I’d definitely recommend.  Some similarities in style are evident across the stories, one being the gradual reveal, switching between the present-day setting and pivotal moments of the past to colour in the whole picture (perhaps the influence of O Chong-hui on later writers).  There’s also sterling work, as always, by the Fultons, including an introduction giving a background of female writing throughout Korean history.  While I would have enjoyed more stories (eight is a fairly small selection), the overall quality is unquestionable – Wayfarer is well worth a read and a great first step into the area of female-written Korean fiction 🙂

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4 thoughts on “‘Wayfarer – New Fiction by Korean Women’, edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Review)

  1. You read it! Hooray! The more I look back on it, the more I feel like this was a much better introduction to Korean literature than any of the other books I've read recently. I'm glad to see it getting more attention.

    I also felt like the “housewife stories” were weaker, so I'm not sure it's something inherent in your taste. There was a familiarity to the stories (definitely in “Identical Apartments”, which also had an unpleasant pulse to it that I just didn't like), and they lacked some of the emotional weight of the other stories…

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  2. Meytal – Definitely a good read, but I wouldn't quite go that far – an all-female selection is just as exclusive as an all-male line-up, and there are a lot of important writers that are missed because of the gender selection. Still, some great stories here, and I'm glad you agreed on the housewife stories. In particular, Park Wan-suh is a writer whose style I just can't get to grips with, a really over-rated author in my opinion 😉

    P.S. I hope you've got something lined up for January in Japan after your Korean experience 🙂

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