Thursday, November 05, 2009

Park Wan-suh: More Ambivalence?

Also More Shinga . . .
(Image from

In a post about one month ago, I remarked upon re-reading Park Wan-suh's novel about "Shinga" that "I've become alert to small differences of the sort that signal a writer's ambivalence." In the two passages below, Park looks back over her six years of walking alone along a path across Mount Inwang to reach her elementary school within Seoul's walls, and I find a slight difference between the two. The first passage begins positively and alludes approvingly to the entertaining stories that Park had learned from her mother, but concludes on a somewhat negative note:
For six years, I had to pass over a hill to attend school, something that was quite rare in Seoul, but I never felt scared or bored. On the few occasions when someone accompanied me, I found having to make conversation a burden. It was actually more comfortable and liberating to walk alone. The stories triggered my young and hyperactive imagination, and I took pleasure in those moments of solitude. In retrospect, though, it strikes me that the way I developed emotionally was not normal. (Park Wan-suh, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? page 95)
That negative conclusion imparts to this first passage some ambivalence of its own, and that will constitute a difference from the second passages, which comes forty pages later, where Park writes similarly, but maintains a positive tone throughout, with even a positive-sounding remark in her concluding sentence:
I no longer had to skirt Mount Inwang once I began middle school; now I could take the streetcar. Initially I'd felt no affection for Seoul's bare hills, but I'd taken that mountain path regularly for six years, and I began to miss the cherry blossoms of April, the acacias of May, and the snowy landscape of winter. It dawned on me that I'd enjoyed a rare privilege for a Seoul child. Walking to school alone for six long years had a significant effect on my character. For one thing, I learned to entertain myself. Even now I prefer to go about by myself unless I'm with those so close to me that I don't have to be conscious of their presence. (Park Wan-suh, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? page 135)
The more positive concluding remark leaves the passage largely without ambivalence, making it to differ from the first passage and thereby revealing the ambivalence in her feelings, i.e., does she feel that her emotional development from walking alone was not normal because it made her into a solitary person, or does she feel that the significant effect of walking alone was positive because it made her into a solitary person?

Perhaps she considers the process abnormal but the result beneficial, for she seems to have entertained herself without interruption for the long walk by repeating the many exciting stories that her mother had so dramatically recited to her. That experience must have helped shape her as a writer, though she doesn't explicitly say so.

I suppose that I'll just have to leave my query unanswered since an interpretation on this level would require analysis of the two passages in the original Korean.

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At 6:25 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I'm currently reading an article about Pak Wanso - actually about her story "Mother stake I - in which you might be interested: Choi, Kyung-Hee: "Neither Colonial Nor National: The Making of the 'New woman' in Pak Wanso's 'Mother Stake I'". It's interesting and quite good. You can find it in the collection entitled "colonial Modernity in Korea", edited by Shin and Robinson.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I actually came across that article, or one much like it, a few weeks ago, and I've been intending to take another look. Thanks for reminding me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:27 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I just finished Choi's article, and I must revise my earlier preliminary judgment. She writes too many checks she doesn't cash, in terms both of literary and historical analysis - perhaps because she tries to force the text to bear the weight of a lot of historical speculation for which it very evidently wasn't designed and which itself doesn't have enough sand to ballast it. Then there's the feminist rhetoric. Maybe usefully suggestive, though.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

When I glanced at it a few weeks ago, I found it useful for understanding more about Park Wan-suh's "autobiographical novel" -- as the Shinga book is called.

As you say . . . "suggestive."

Jeffery Hodges

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