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  • Introduction to Chong Ch'u-wŏl's "Ningo"
  • Catherine Ryu (bio)

Chong Ch'u-wŏl (1944–2011; Jp. Sō Shūgetsu) is a second-generation Zainichi writer. She was born in Saga Prefecture, Kyushu. After graduating from middle school, she moved to Ikaino, Osaka—the heartland of Zainichi Korean communities in Japan. Working to support herself from age sixteen onward, she earned a living through a variety of retail and manufacturing jobs, including selling makeup and doing piecework at clothing manufacturers. Whenever she found a little time to herself, however, she wrote poems. In 1966, she enrolled in the Osaka School of Literature and studied poetry under the poet Ono Tōzaburō (1903–1996). Her first published work, Chong Ch'u-wŏl's Poetry Collection (Sō Shūgetsu shishū, 1971), marks the earliest publication of Zainichi women's poetry.1 A veritable pioneer among Zainichi women poets, Chong also penned essays, novels, and radio scripts, which are included in Ikaino Lamentations (Ikaino taryon, 1986) and I Love You (Saran he: aishitemasu, 1987). Even as an established poet and author, her main source of income was from managing bars or working at restaurants.

Chong is known for her keen poetic vision and the impassioned language with which she actively observes and vividly captures the [End Page 415] rhythms and textures of the everydayness of Zainichi existence. In particular, her poetry chronicles and animates the living voices of Zainichi women and the feminine body.2 In so doing, her versification throws into sharp relief the archetypal figure of the mother (omoni)—the omnipresent embodiment of suffering, pain, resilience, and agency in Zainichi writings—as a conduit through which to explore anew the intergenerational gaps and connections in Zainichi life experiences. Moreover, Chong's literary output, historically well informed and filtered through her acute political consciousness, chronicles in a compelling way the modes of living, feeling, knowing, and remembering specific to Zainichi Koreans, a diasporic community in Japan that has been historically marginalized and discriminated against.3

"Ningo," translated here as "A/pple," was included in the poet's first poetry collection (1971).4 While the time of its composition [End Page 416] remains unknown, another poem entitled "A Ballad of Ningo" (Ningo no oiwake), presumably an earlier draft of "Ningo," was published in 1968 in the little-known coterie magazine Shōnen no tamaki. In her second poetry collection, Ikaino, Women, Love, Poems: Chong Ch'uwŏl's Poetry Collection (Ikaino, onna, ai, uta: Sō Shūgetsu shishū, 1984), Chong published "Ningo" alongside a new supplementary note. She then reintroduced the same poem in an essay entitled "Mother Mun Ko-bun's Ningo" (Mun Kobun omoni no ningo) in Ikaino Lamentations (1986).5 Chong begins the essay with the aforementioned supplementary note, followed by the poem "Ningo" itself.6 She then depicts her encounter with Mun Ko-bun's mother, an elderly first-generation Zainichi. Through the life story and poetry of this mother, an illiterate woman-turned-poet, Chong further illuminates the figure of ningo as the symbol of the originary source for her own lifelong relationship with multiple languages—standard Korean, Cheju dialect, Ikaino-Osaka dialect, and standard Japanese. Chong presents all these languages, mixed, newly combined, and transformed, as the language of Zainichi. It is indeed the language, Chong explains, that she could not silence within herself no matter how much she tried. That is the language to which she returned after overcoming more [End Page 417] than a decade of writer's block. Significantly, Chong included this essay both in the first and second editions of Ikaino Lamentations (1986 and 2003), reflecting her intense and sustained engagement with ningo as a literary motif for nearly half a century.7

"Ningo" is, in fact, representative of the tenor of Chong's oeuvre. Arguably her signature work, this poem showcases her unique blending of the vocal, the textual, the visual, and the tactile that, in turn, generates a viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually arresting experience in her readers.

Composed as a free verse of nineteen lines, "Ningo" exhibits a tripartite structure spatially separated in the physical layout of the verse. This structure provides the overall shape to the...


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