- Buried in a Stained Sweater:The Politics of Misogyny in Hwang Sunwŏn’s “Sonagi”
1. Introduction: Hwang as Wang
Hwang Sunwŏn wrote short fiction over a period that spans three quarters of modern Korean literary history; his prose style ranges widely—from realism, to O. Henry-esque trick endings, to avant-garde minimalism, to French-influenced surrealism—and as a counterpoint to his stylistic innovations, his work also explores the effects of industrialization, capitalism, and—more recently—cultural imperialism, on traditional Korea. Hwang’s work also implicitly addresses the major traumas of modern Korean history: the Japanese Annexation, the Korean War, and the continued bifurcation of the country into north and south.
Following his debut as a poet in 1931, he published well over a hundred short stories, seven novels, and two poetry collections; he won every major Korean literary award, including the Korean Literature Grand Prize; his works have been adapted as stage dramas and films; and, significantly, he has been translated into English more than any other Korean writer, living or dead. In fact, during his lifetime it was long the hope of certain Korean ministries that Hwang would be Korea’s first contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.1 [End Page 199]
In many respects, Hwang’s life itself made him Korea’s ideal literary representative. He was born in 1915 in rural South P’yŏngan Province, near the city of P’yŏngyang, now the capital of communist North Korea. He began publishing poetry in the P’yŏngyang newspapers in 1931, and his first book of poems, Pangga (Wayward songs), was published in 1934 during the height of the Japanese occupation. Like many Koreans of his generation, Hwang went to Japan for his higher education, and he received his degree in English Literature from Waseda University in 1939. Already by then Hwang had written most of the stories appearing in his first story collection, Hwang Sunwŏn tanp’yŏnjip (Stories by Hwang Sunwŏn, 1940), and he continued to write fiction throughout the period when the Japanese Governor General pressured Koreans to take Japanese names and made it a crime to write in the Korean language. In 1946, after Korea was liberated from Japanese rule, Hwang’s family moved south from the communist-controlled north, and during the Korean War (1950-1953), they were refugees in the port city of Pusan on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula.
Given the life experience from which Hwang had to draw, we might well imagine his works to be intensely political, but Hwang himself has consistently denied any political intent in his fiction. Literary critics have also avoided this issue. Edward Poitras, in his introduction to The Stars and Other Korean Short Stories, the first significant collection of Hwang’s stories translated into English, quotes a typical example of critical circumlocution. Poitras notes that when asked to write about Hwang, Wŏn Ŭng-sŏ, a critic and friend of Hwang, commented on the palimpsest-like nature of his drafts: [End Page 200]
One of my treasured possessions is a manuscript notebook of his, a notebook in which the manuscript is written, then erased, written over, then rubbed out again, looking like sesame seeds stuck on the page; so thoroughly blackened by ink marks that the writer himself could hardly be able to decipher what he had written there.
If anyone should ask me about the writer named Hwang Sunwŏn, instead of trying to answer I would certainly show him this manuscript notebook. It shows how his life and his work have developed in company with hard work.2
With the unstable political climate in much of South Korean history, it is often prudent for writers, scholars, and critics to avoid explicit discussion of politics and focus, rather, on issues of aesthetics. Indeed, Wŏn himself might have been pointing out, between the lines quoted above, Hwang’s ambivalence as a writer, or how carefully Hwang crafted his work in order to simultaneously mask and yet signify the various layers of political meaning. Outspoken and politically active writers in Korea may be popular and critically successful for a...