Friday 23 February 2018

Student bookshelf by Aurelia Paul: Who Ate Up All the Shinga?

Aurelia Paul is a senior year student at Boston University, studying comparative literature and Chinese. In her fortnightly column, Student bookshelf, she shares responses to texts she's reading in her classes.

Here she discusses Who Ate Up All the Shinga? An Autobiographical Novel by Park Wan-suh.

Park Wan-suh is a best-selling and award-winning writer from Korea. She was born in 1931 in a small village near Kaesong, a protected hamlet of no more than twenty families. Park was raised believing that "no matter how many hills and brooks you crossed, the whole world was Korea and everyone in it was Korean." But then came the Japanese Occupation, complicating her day-to-day life, and her beliefs.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? Examines the ways in which collaboration, assimilation, and resistance intertwined within the Korean social fabric before, during, and after the Japanese Occupation. The novel is notable for Park's portrait of her mother, a sharp and resourceful widow who both resisted and conformed to stricture, becoming an enigmatic role model for her struggling daughter.

So, over to Aurelia...

I was particularly interested in Wan-suh's ecstatic feelings about gaining freedom from her mother.

Wan-suh writes: "leaving high school meant that escape from all types of restrictions was in the offing, but above all, liberation from my mother." Liberation is a theme that runs throughout the novel, and there are interesting parallels drawn here between the narrator's personal life and the political situation of Korea. While Wan-suh is seeking liberation from the controlled environment of her home, at this point in the novel Korea has already achieved liberation from the Japanese. However, Seoul is under the control of the ideologically repressive Republic of Korea (ROK) government, and this brings up questions about the nature of liberation. Does partial liberation constitute freedom? Park Wan-suh encourages us to think deeply about liberty. She continues: "How to use such tremendous freedom? Every option had its attractions. I could put it to good use or bad, treat it prudently or squander it." Although she is still talking about her own freedom from her mother, these questions also apply directly to the ROK government. What sorts of policies should they enact towards the newly-liberated Korea?

Wan-suh says, of her dream of leaving high school: "For me, this dream was more splendid that the May sunshine that brought the roses and lilacs and peonies into bloom." Her choice to emphasise the month of May instantly reminds us that June is approaching, when the Korean People's Army occupied Seoul. Sadly, because of this event, Wan-suh does not actually obtain freedom from living with her mother, and Korea is "liberated" by another oppressive regime.

Details: Who Ate Up All the Shinga? is published by Columbia University Press in hardback and eBook, priced in local currencies. It is translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein.