Literature

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

A Thrilling and Confusing Initiation

Born in 1987, Kim Se-hee realistically depicts the experiences and concerns of her contemporaries. Her fiction portrays the landscape of her time, focusing on the issues confronted by young adults first entering society, such as dating and marriage or employment and housing, and expands consensus among her generation.

Kim Se-hee’s works can be classified as initiation novels in that the protagonists are at the stage of first entering the workforce or starting a new job. However, their initiation does not go smoothly in an atmosphere of celebration and welcome. The socioeconomic instability and chaos that the younger generation has experienced since the onset of this century, as well as anxiety about the future, are major features of her writing.

Before we discuss her short stories, let’s first look at her only full-length novel, “The Love of the Port,” published in June 2019. Based on the author’s own experience, the novel deals with the “pseudo-homosexuality culture” of girls in their mid- to late teens. The title refers to Mokpo, the port city where Kim Se-hee grew up. The protagonist attends a secondary school exclusively for girls, where the students write and read fanfiction featuring teen idols as same-sex couples and take fellow students as objects of love. The girls reckon that “dating a male student is like going over to the other side.” Their language claims that love between female students should be recognized as a thing on “this side” – that is, something in the realm of normality – while heterosexuality is regarded as being on “the other side,” the realm of abnormality.

© Marie Claire

The plot of the book explores the identity and meaning of the passion that capture the girls as seen from the viewpoint of the protagonist, who is now a writer looking back on that time from a dozen years later. The author realistically reproduces the world of students at all-girls’ schools in the past, stressing the need for an open view of love. With the recent publication in Korea of a number of novels dealing with homosexuality, this work is part of a trend contributing to social debate on the subject and the broadening perspective of it.

Prior to this, Kim Se-hee’s first collection of short stories, published by Minumsa in February 2019, earned her the Shin Dong-yeop Literary Award for up-and-coming writers. The opening sentence of the story that lends its title to the collection, “Easy Days,” is quite suggestive.

“On the Sunday before I went to work at my first job, I happened to meet Jae-hwa in Daehangno.”

The first word of this story in Korean is “first,” and the noun that the adjective modifies is “going to work.” However, in this novel, the company and society waiting for the protagonist (the Korean word for “company” is hoesa and that for “society” is sahoe, both composed of the same syllables but in reverse) are not at all favorable to her, although they may seem so on the surface.

She is tired because the workload is heavy, but gets recognized for her ability, and her satisfaction and sense of accomplishment in her work are high. She runs an internet blog featuring a fictional character and posts fake reviews of products from advertising sponsors. Awareness of and self-reflection on the unethical nature of this mechanism itself, hiding from an unspecified number of blog visitors the fact that the site is promoting specific products, only comes “belatedly.”

Among those who use the household disinfectants she highly praised on her blog, some cases of death and irreparable lung damage occur. This reminds us of an actual case of a toxic humidifier disinfectant that caused at least 1,500 confirmed deaths and is estimated to have led to as many as 14,000. Although this isn’t the direct reason, the protagonist eventually quits her first job and becomes reluctant to talk specifically about what she did there.

Kim Se-hee:
“In retrospect, literature has always given me the courage to cope with the things I have to cope with.”

The short story, “Vertigo,” from the same collection depicts the worries and wanderings of the young generation regarding dating, marriage and housing. Won-hee, the protagonist, has lived with her lover Sang-ryul in a studio apartment, but they have decided to move to a two-room unit because of the inconvenience caused by their different life rhythms. This is a story of two people choosing a suitable home, buying used furniture, moving and so on. In the process, problems that have been suppressed rise to the surface. The prejudice and criticism against an unmarried woman living with a man, as well as a sense of shame about the way poverty obliges Won-hee to set up house with things others have used, are typical. And such problems lead to an unexpected realization of the situation within Won-hee herself. In the novel, the word “vertigo” is used to designate all that.

“There are times when vertigo occurs, times when you have to accept reality, when a scene that has not yet been accepted, and has not yet been recognized, suddenly appears plainly as if a light has been turned on, and you want to close your eyes and turn your head away, but even that isn’t allowed. Now was just such a time.”

The novel’s title comes from this passage, and the word “vertigo” used here also recalls the literary term “epiphany” commonly used in explanations of James Joyce’s novels. However, if an epiphany refers to some kind of insight through realization and a consequent growth of the soul, the vertigo found in Kim Se-hee’s fiction is closer to the sense of confusion and frustration that comes with this insight. The last sentence of the story, “She wondered how she would remember this move and this moment in the distant future,” is apparently open to both positive and negative interpretations, but the underlying negative judgment about the current situation seems to be stronger.

In an interview, when questioned about her creative source, Kim Se-hee replied, “Something that can’t be resolved seems to develop into a novel.”

She explained: “Saying that it can’t be resolved but weighs on your mind means that there’s something there. There’s something that can’t be resolved, but I don’t know exactly what it is. So I turn those things into a story one way or another. In the process of creating, arranging and writing down stories, I sometimes discover what it is, and sometimes it seems to yield what might have been its meaning.”

In the “Author’s Note” at the end of the collection, she says, “As I was writing these stories, I was able to open myself up to all those moments. In retrospect, literature has always given me the courage to cope with the things I have to cope with.” This is probably why Kim Se-hee’s novels form a generational bond of sympathy.

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh
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