- A Hwang Sunwŏn Centennial
On March 26 of this year Hwang Sunwŏn would have turned 100. There is much to celebrate in his sixty-plus years as a creative writer. We can imagine him, somewhere in the ether, fixing with a wry smile those of us producing critical writing on Hwang the writer and his work, for he had a lifelong distrust of critics. At the same time he had a profound respect for readers—a quality that makes his works accessible in a great variety of ways.
The three story translations and two essays that follow serve several purposes. First, spanning more than forty years, the three stories offer us a glimpse of the development of arguably the most accomplished writer of short fiction in modern Korea. Each story is distinct: “The Sick Butterfly” (Pyŏngdŭn nabi, spring 1942 [date of composition]) is told from the limited third-person perspective that Hwang perfected early on; “At the School for the Blind and Mute” (Maengawŏn esŏ, May 1953) reflects his considerable insight into human psychology; and “My Tale of the Bamboo Wife” (Na ŭi chukpuin chŏn, July 1985) hints at Hwang’s gifts as a storyteller. There are similarities as well: the author’s imagination, bordering on the surreal in several of his works; the precision of his composition; and his ear for the spoken word.
Second, Heinz Insu Fenkl’s essay on Hwang’s best-known story “Sonagi” (October 1952)—indeed many readers would know [End Page 145] of Hwang by no other work—lays the groundwork for a much more nuanced understanding of Hwang’s oeuvre. The essay takes as a point of departure the conventional understanding of this story as a tale of innocent love between a country boy and a city girl and expands that reading to account for the obvious markers of a rite of passage and coming of age involving the two children. Fenkl’s essay is no less essential to an understanding of Hwang’s fiction than Yi Chae-sŏn’s seminal paper on Hwang’s initiation stories. By focusing in addition on the gendered representation of the girl in the story, Fenkl usefully contextualizes the story within a century of literary and cinematic representations of women that are rife with images of ignorance, violation, victimization, disease, and death.
Third, I hope in my own anecdotal essay on Hwang and his works not only to suggest the immense breadth of his creative vision but also to tease out some of the strands that I find extending across the years and through one or more of his eight published story collections. I also wish, at a time when writers continue to be stereotyped by labels such as “romanticist,” “satirist,” “nihilist,” “socialist,” “populist,” “committed” ad nauseam, to suggest that our most accomplished writers may display all of these labels, or none of them.
Let us hope that Hwang Sunwŏn, like a contemporary of his who was honored with a large-scale centennial observance in 2010, Yi Sang, will continue to grow in stature as his works are revisited and reevaluated.
Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton are the translators of numerous volumes of modern Korean fiction, most recently River of Fire: Stories by O Chŏnghŭi (2012) and How in Heaven’s Name: A Novel of World War II by Cho Chŏngnae (2012). They have received several awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, the first ever given for a translation from the Korean; and a residency at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the first ever awarded to translators from any Asian language. Their translations have appeared in Manōa, Seattle Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Bruce Fulton is the inaugural holder of the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary Translation, Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia.