- The Corporeality of Writing:Kim Hyesoon's Autobiography of Death
Autobiography of Death, the first Korean recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2019, is an extended elegy in fifty poems.1 The book can also be considered a ceremony for the dead: Each of the first forty-nine poems corresponds to a day in which the spirit of the deceased wanders before entering the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. Translated by Kim's longtime collaborator, Korean American poet Don Mee Choi (b. 1962), the book excavates the deaths of Koreans who "lost their lives under the violent force of government," including dissidents during the military dictatorships of Park Chung Hee (Pak Chŏng-hŭi, 1961–1979) and Chun Doo Hwan (Chŏn Tuhwan, 1979–1988), many of whom were students. Autobiography of Death connects the structural injustice of this loss of life during South Korea's democratization movement with the recent deaths of two hundred fifty high school students who drowned during the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 because [End Page 371] of the negligence of the Park Geun-hye government (Pak Kŭnhye, 2013–2017).2
Born in 1955 shortly after the Korean War (1950–1953) in Uljin, North Kyŏngsang Province, Kim Hyesoon (Kim Hyesun) is one of the most significant and imaginative poets of her generation. Kim made her literary debut in the influential journal Munhak kwa chisŏng (Literature and intellect) in 1979, the final year of Park Chung Hee's authoritarian regime and the year before the Kwangju Uprising during which two hundred civilians were killed. When Kim and another leading feminist poet, Ch'oe Sŭngja (b. 1952), became the first two women to publish in the journal, they were among the only female poets acknowledged in the predominantly male literary circles of the 1980s.
Kim recalls that literary critics insisted she write poetry that could "communicate and benefit society," while at the same time stating that a "woman poet is nature" who must "evoke something gentle and motherly."3 Kim rejects these criteria of "yŏryu" poetry that male writers expected from women, characteristics celebrated in poets of the 1950s and 1960s such as Hong Yunsuk (1925–2015) and Hŏ Yŏngja (b. 1938).4 Male literary demands during the 1980s could be compared, Kim contends, to "a single father who enforced a triple form of oppression on women: a father who oppressed an individual socially and politically, who crushed gender equality, and who mandated that women form their identity from the margins."5 Kim relates that even in the twenty-first century, "We are still living in a Confucian culture of the Chosŏn period" regarding the patriarchal expectations of women.6 Chŏng Myŏnggyo at [End Page 372] Yonsei University has pointed out how her poems exploit and overturn these expectations, as seen in her ironic poem "A Sublime Kitchen," in which gluttonous guests arrive to "eat the moon" to the point where they are "gagged" by food.7 The internalized gender oppression Kim experienced is harnessed in her work, which creates new possibilities for the written vernacular through explosive and fragmentary language that documents female experience through a poetry of embodied action.
Throughout her career, Kim has emphasized the corporeality of writing as a woman, an act she considers distinct from the experiences of male writers. In her 2017 essay, "Nanŭn ajik t'aeŏnaji anassŭmŭro" (As I Am Not Yet Born), Kim states,
내 몸으로 시를 쓴다는 것은, '시한다' 는 것은, 내가 내 안에서 내 몸인 여자를 찾아 헤매고, 꺼내놓으려는 지난한 출산 행위와 다름이 없다. 나에겐 신화시대부터 면면히 이어져온 이야기와 시들을 통해 의미를 주던 아버지들로부터 도망쳐 너를 사랑하면 할수록 더욱더 내 몸속에서 나오고 싶어 안달인 여자가 있다. 사랑의 욕망으로 꿈틀거리는 여자와 내 몸이 쌍둥이처럼 맞붙어 다시 태어나려는 몸짓, 그 자가(自家) 출산이 '몸하는' 시다.
To write poetry with my body, to "do poetry," is no different from undergoing an extremely difficult childbirth in which I am trying to search for the bodied woman inside me and bring her forth. I have run away from the fathers who gave me meaning through the ceaselessly, continuously transmitted stories and poems from mythical times, and the more I love you the more eager is the woman who wants to come out from my body. The woman wriggling from love's desire and [End Page 373] my body, like twins grappling with each other...