- Emergent SubjectivitiesThe Year in Korea
Some of the most significant additions to life writing works published lately in South Korea include representations of marginalized subjects in society, such as the sick, the queer, and North Korean defectors, joining those familiar texts featuring well-known politicians and celebrities and ordinary individuals, including those of the working class. Political memoirs, such as Ko Kŏn hoegorok: Kongin ŭi kil (2017) by Ko Kŏn, prime minister of Korea from 1997 to 1998 and then from 2003 to 2004, and Yi Hoe-ch'ang hoegorok: Chŏngch'iin ŭi kil (2017) by Yi Hoe-ch'ang, one of the presidential candidates from 1997 to 2007, still tend to fill up the shelves of the bookstores and other marketplaces online and off each year, showcasing their writers' political beliefs as public figures. On the other hand, in Ku Tal's Ilgaemi chasŏjŏn: chikdingdŭl iyŏ gaemigul esŏ annyŏng hasin'ga? (2017), an office worker at a publishing company represents her experience of being subjected to unfair treatment, including low salary, poor working conditions, and unreasonable dismissal by her employers, as many other workers are.
Most striking recently, however, are those life stories that give voice to those often overlooked and rejected in Korea due to their vulnerabilities, such as sickness, different sexual orientations, and the division of territory in the Korean peninsula. Kim Kuk-hyŏn's Bongsŏnhwa pulkkae p'ida: Kim Kuk-hyŏn am t'ubyŏnggi (2018) and Ha Su-yŏn's T'umyŏnghan nanaldŭl (2017) present experiences of illness and recovery that offer suggestions for self-help for patients and their families. Sin kajok ŭi t'ansaeng (2018) offers coming-out stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples and communities, and asks for rights equal to those of the heterosexual majority. Kim Su-chin's Aoji esŏ Sŏul kkaji: Pukan yŏsŏng ŭi p'yŏngbŏmhan Namhan sŏnggonggi (2017), Kim Ryŏn-hŭi's Na nŭn Taegu e sanŭn Pyŏngyang simin imnida (2017), and T'ae Yŏng-ho's 3-ch'ŭng sŏgisil ŭi amho: T'ae Yŏng-ho chŭngŏn (2018) are North Korean narratives, each somewhat political in its own way, presenting different images of North Koreans than those usually perceived in the South. Taken together, these life stories of the sick, the queer, and North Korean [End Page 77] defectors suggest that various vulnerable subjects are emerging as subjects from the margins of Korean society.
Narratives of Illness and Recovery: Agency of the Sick
T'ubyŏnggi in Korean means records of fighting illness, referring to an autobiographical story of a recovered or recovering patient or a survivor who has won over sickness. Kim's Bongsŏnhwa pulkkae p'ida and Ha's T'umyŏnghan nanaldŭl narrate the progressive stages from their illness to recovery, offering an optimistic ending to their life-and-death struggle. With detailed information about the course of their treatment and lives as patients, these stories highlight their agency and personal efforts to overcome their sickness, giving hope and encouragement to those readers in need. By doing so, they modify the common perception of patients as weak and vulnerable, presenting the alternative of empowered subjects able to run their own bodies.
Bongsŏnhwa pulkkae p'ida is a collection of Kim's diaries, kept for about five months, from the time when he began popular remedies for treatment in the countryside to some time after his partial recuperation. In July 2017, when in his early sixties, Kim was diagnosed with a recurrence of liver cancer. His diaries chronicle his daily activities and reflections, and the kinds of treatment he tried. His primary focus was on how to overcome his illness through regular exercise, natural food, and positive thinking, rather than dwelling on his bodily pain, and therefore to claim a sense of empowerment over his sick body. In addition, Kim's close attention to the vitality and permanence of the animate and inanimate objects around him in nature, such as birds, flowers, mountains, rocks, and trees...