Hwang Sok-young has been writing politically engaged fiction about contemporary South Korean life for fifty years. Only now, on a rising tide of appreciation for all things Korean—including the international success of fellow writers like Hang Kang, Lee Min Jin, and Kim Sagwa and the filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho—is his work beginning to receive more attention from English-speaking audiences. Hwang’s recent novel At Dusk, originally published in 2015 and translated into English in 2018, was longlisted for both the 2019 International Booker Prize and 2020 PEN Translation Prize.
A member of the “April 19th Generation”—named after the 1960 student revolution protesting the military dictatorship that came to power in South Korea after the Korean War—Hwang has often found his creative life imperiled by his political stances. In the 1990s, he was imprisoned for his participation in a cultural exchange with North Korea. The last twenty years, however, have been prolific ones, and three of the novels from this period are now available in English from Scribe Publications, meticulously translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
Familiar Things, Princess Bari, and At Dusk were written and published over a period of eight years, with other books coming out in between. And yet the three books, taken together, focus on key issues shaping South Korea today: diaspora, consumerism, and the rush towards Western models of modernity, all of which exist in tandem with traditional cultural values and belief systems, though not without concessions. Hwang often focuses on the most deprived in Korean society, but while his characters often feel sadness and regret, they seldom rail against their fates. It is a different vision of the Korean class struggle than the director Bong Joon-Ho presents in his recent film Parasite. Both creators grapple with gross economic inequality, but they diverge sharply in their representations of the relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Hwang has a tendency to conflate poverty with nobility, but instead of casting the wealthy as villains, he appears to pity them, too.
Familiar Things, set in the 1980s, is a coming-of age-story about a young boy, nicknamed Bugeye, who relocates with his mother to Flower Island. The name Flower Island is an ironic nod to the region’s past—in the present, it is a shantytown situated on the edge of a landfill. Bugeye’s father is in prison and, in his absence, Bugeye’s mother has taken up with a man who heads one of the many organized gangs of scavengers that mine the mountain of garbage for recyclables to sell, materials to build shelter, and all the necessities of day-to-day life, including food. Bugeye secretly refers to his new stepfather as “Baron Ashura,” after a Manga villain, which tells us everything we need to know about that relationship. The Baron’s son, Baldspot, is a good-natured child who quickly attaches himself to Bugeye, calling the older boy “hyung” (big brother). They become inseparable.
The dominant theme here is one of waste: the waste generated by mass consumption, but also wasted human potential. Like the trash they sift through, the people of Flower Island are unloved, cast away by society. Hwang ups the ante of his story by incorporating the supernatural, subtly weaving in Shamanism and ancestor worship, which still hold power in Korean culture. In one chapter, the boys leave an offering of food at a homemade shrine. Spirits approach from a distance, appearing first as small points of light, then assuming human outlines as they come closer:
Baldspot pointed wordlessly to the right. Bugeye squinted at the silver grass waving along the western edge of the river. He saw something–first one blue light, then two, then three and four. They were moving slowly. The next moment, the lights were moving quickly, then stopping, then moving again, making their way down the river away from the boys. And then, all at once, they disappeared. Baldspot swallowed hard and stood up.
“Hyung, did you see that?”
These are the souls of the people who lived in the area when it was still lush and beautiful, before it became a dumping ground. The message is not subtle. The spirits, in thanks and perhaps as a reward, lead the boys to a treasure, setting off a series of events that result in tragedy.
Shamanism also makes an appearance in Princess Bari, in which Hwang tackles displacement and the plight of undocumented workers by overlaying the life of a North Korean refugee girl in the 1990s onto that of a princess in a traditional Korean folktale. In the folktale, Bari is her parents’ unwanted seventh daughter, the “little castoff,” left to die in the forest as an infant. She is rescued by the family dog and her grandmother, who names her Bari after the mythical princess who travels to the underworld, Orpheus-like, in search of a cure for her dying parents. On her journey, Princess Bari encounters many souls suffering in hell and uses her shamanistic powers to save them.
Hwang’s Bari flees famine by crossing the North Korean border into China. Finding herself in an only minimally better situation, she decides to leave China for the promise of the West. But she and a friend are tricked by the human traffickers, “snakeheads,” who smuggle them out of the country in the hold of a cargo ship, then indenture Bari to the owner of a massage parlor to pay off her debt. (Her friend is even less fortunate, being forced into sex work.) As a masseuse, Bari discovers she, like the Princess, has shamanistic powers, which allow her to relieve her clients of their suffering and even cure disease. Hwang cleverly renders his modern-day heroine’s life translucent, revealing the structure of the folktale beneath. The twist is that contemporary Bari is fully conscious of her connection to the princess from her grandmother’s stories, as are Hwang’s Korean readers.
The protagonist of At Dusk, Park Minwoo, is an architect who succeeded in pulling himself out of the poor village where he grew up. Like Kim Ki-Woo, the protagonist in Parasite, Minwoo becomes the tutor for the children of a more affluent family. Unlike Ki-Woo, he achieves that position by gaining a scholarship to university and excelling in his courses. The family he works for comes to think of him as a son, and it is through them that doors open and contacts are made, ultimately allowing him to improve his circumstances. It’s a rare success story propelled as much by luck as hard work, through which Hwang presents a worldview devoid of cynicism.
Park’s isn’t the only voice we hear, or point of view we follow, which helps to open up the novel. His memories alternate with a second, first-person narrator, Jung Woohee, a frustrated avant-garde playwright who works at a convenience store at night. Young, poor, and living in a moldy basement, she has few friends. Descriptions of her solitary urban existence contrast sharply with Park’s memories of the tight-knit village of his youth. Woohee is the inheritor of the world Park Minwoo helped create. After Woohee is befriended by a troubled young man and his widowed mother, Park and Woohee’s lives begin to overlap and converge in a surprising twist that only serves to emphasize how isolated they each are.
The novel explores the patterns of migration from rural villages to dense, urban centers. As Park Minwoo looks back on his life, he comes to see that the most meaningful relationships are not with his wife and daughter (both of whom have left him and moved to America), but the friendships he formed as a young man in the community he worked so hard to escape. Unlike Familiar Things or Princess Bari, At Dusk doesn’t reference magic or the supernatural. Hwang addresses issues specific to South Korea, including the high suicide rate and the way tall apartment buildings have transformed both the landscape and social structures. But at the most basic level, this novel is a small-town-boy-makes-good tale that, with small tweaks, could happen anywhere; a classic structure that may account for it attracting more attention from international prize judges than Hwang’s earlier books.
Their differences aside, all three novels dramatize South Korea’s grappling with the encroachment of a different way of life, and the resulting loss of traditions and cultural identity. Progress comes with economic, social, and cultural costs. Sacrifice, loss, and regret are common—some might say inevitable—outcomes to most of these tales. Hwang’s work is compelling because his preoccupations, while specifically tied to the Korean experience in his texts, speak to universal concerns. Economic inequality, the effect of hyper-consumerism on our environment, human displacement, and migration are arguably the dominant issues of the twenty-first century, as is an epidemic of loneliness. All Hwang’s characters are dealing with feelings of disenfranchisement and isolation in one form or another.
Sora Kim-Russell’s translations are clean and crisp. There’s an emotional stoicism to Hwang’s characters that might be misconstrued as flatness, but should be perceived as an idiosyncrasy of the author’s prose. The lives Hwang depicts are not easy ones, and could have been twisted into distasteful melodramas. The pain and suffering that Bari, Woohee, Minwoo, and the two brothers experience is more powerful for being muffled, filtered, as if their spirits and psyches were protected by layers of cotton wool. Bari, for example, describes the horrors she sees perpetrated around her in the hold of the container ship—but when she speaks of her own suffering, she describes herself as floating above her body, separate from it, much as we float above the words on the page. The amount and variety of tragedy she experiences in her short life appears insurmountable. (By the book’s end, Bari is only in her early twenties.) But she is representative of a collective refugee experience and, grotesquely, there are even moments during her story when we consider her “lucky,” because this is how she chooses to see herself:
Right before the boat set sail again, we were pulled out of the containers while new people were smuggled aboard. No one could walk. We crawled back to our spots and sprawled out on the floor. When the woman who’d had her head smacked against the wall for not calling her number out properly was brought out of the container, she could not stand up again; somewhere in the South China Sea, she died. The snakeheads carried her up by her head and legs and carried her out. Number Eight grew so weak that she had to be helped to the toilet each time. Xiang and I were still young, and fortunately had a little strength to spare. The people who boarded in Xiamen between the rows of containers next to ours; most of them were young, too. There seemed to be about seven or eight women among them. As the ship crossed the equator, we entered the fiery level of Hell, and thirst and starvation slowly turned people into animals.
While not entirely averse to progress, Hwang seems wary of it. There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the past, a romanticizing of poverty, in these books that ultimately rings false. In the constant reckoning of what is being sacrificed at the altar of globalization, a weighing of what has been lost versus what has been gained, the latter inevitably comes up short. Through the lives of his characters, he shows what remains important, the things and people we should value most—while acknowledging that we never have.