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The Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong often gets called Korea’s greatest contemporary writer—or, per Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, “the most powerful voice in Asia today.” Since he released his first novel in 1970, he’s used fiction, often mixed with folktale, to criticize Korea’s rulers and to portray its common people. This mission holds across the North-South Korea border, as exemplified by the novels Princess Bari and At Dusk, both recently translated by Sora Kim-Russell. The two books are polar opposites: Princess Bari is a semi-mythic immigration story set largely in rural North Korea, while At Dusk takes place in hyper-modern and hyper-realistic Seoul. The former serves as an empathic portrait of rural workers displaced by North Korea’s 1994-1998 famine, while the latter offers equal empathy to urban South Koreans struggling not to let a boom economy leave them behind.
This summer, I spoke via Skype to Kim-Russell, who lives in Seoul, about translating these highly different novels. The commonality, to her, lies in Hwang’s outsider perspective. He writes, she told me, “from the bottom up. His characters are always working-class people struggling through life from a very specifically working-class perspective.” In Princess Bari’s case, that perspective centers on religion. Hwang’s heroine Bari grows up in a North Korean family whose women were “renowned shamans before Liberation.” Bari herself inherits that gift—she’s telepathic and can talk to ghosts. When famine strikes, Bari’s dead grandmother and a string of other ghosts guide her from North Korea to China, then to England, thus saving her from the starvation that claimed her parents and sisters.
Though ghosts are crucial to Bari’s journey, Hwang plants his narrative firmly in political as well as spiritual reality. Her parents can afford many children—she’s their seventh daughter—because “the Republic was still generous” in the 1980s: “Thanks to the country’s strong welfare system, babies were cared for in state nurseries and mothers received ample rations of powdered formula.” But that generosity dries up when famine hits in Bari’s adolescence. Again, Hwang makes sure his readers know the North Korean government advocated “the virtues of traditional farming, but all that really means is that they can’t afford to modernize.”
This tension between tradition and modernity is central to Princess Bari, and to Hwang’s extensive body of work, in which he commits himself repeatedly to representing the Koreans—on both sides of the 38th parallel—hurt or left behind by South Korea’s rapid technological and economic progress. In Princess Bari, Hwang focuses on North Korea’s inability to modernize agriculture rapidly enough to feed its citizens, or to admit the pressing need to seek help. Bari has no desire to leave her homeland or small home town, but, thanks to North Korea’s brutal post-war famine, she finds herself trekking through mountains alone, asking directions from ghosts. To Kim-Russell, those ghosts, and Bari’s communication with them, underscore the novel’s respect for tradition. “Through the lens of traditional Korean culture,” she told me, Bari’s conversations with ghosts “wouldn’t be magical. [They] would have been woven into everyday life in an older, rural Korea. Some readers experience this as magic realism, but to Hwang, it was a way to revive or represent an aspect of traditional Korean culture.”
Princess Bari does more than glance off shamanism. It centers it. Bari would be unable to leave North Korea without her grandmother’s ghost. When she moves to China, she learns massage, which brings out a new supernatural power. Massaging an early customer, she notices “the soles of her feet glowing red and blue… [As] I rubbed and thumped her feet I closed my eyes and started to see something: a car, crossing a bridge.” Soon, Bari has realized her ability to read customers’ minds makes her a better masseuse, more easily able to support herself both in China and, later, in London. Even to a reader who considers shamanism made-up or marginal, Bari’s powers are in no way marginalized in Princess Bari. Her life—and the novel—wouldn’t work without them.
Underscoring this centrality is the calm which with Bari handles spirits and ghosts. When she encounters a starved corpse on a mountainside, she barely pauses to note that “a little foam had seeped out of the corner of his mouth, and his lips and cheeks were dried stiff” before asking his spirit for directions to the nearest train station. Her poise lends calm to the image of the dead man, granting him dignity: in death, he remains a subject, not a horror to be gasped at or avoided. Later, while traveling to England, she undergoes “forty-nine days of penance,” which happen both physically—she’s in a ship’s cargo hold—and spiritually. Her soul travels to the underworld, a temporary death Bari describes as plainly as she described the dried corpse: “My spirit self watched as my flesh disappeared, and all that was left were the bones. The dark spirits snatched up my tibias and danced.”
Kim-Russell told me the simplicity of Hwang’s writing was key to successfully translating Princess Bari. Bari’s grandmother speaks in North Korean dialect in the original, but rather than invent an English equivalent, she rendered her dialogue in standard English, preferring not to “exoticize the character or make her different—we already know where she’s from.” Once Bari becomes a masseuse, Kim-Russell relied on “very clear, very plain” writing to steer readers away from suspicions or stereotypes of sex work.
Hwang uses this same tactic to steer readers away from stereotypes about North Korea. Unlike most South Korean writers, he can describe his northern neighbor first-hand, having traveled there in 1989. (The trip, which was meant to promote artistic exchange, was unsanctioned, and, despite international and domestic activism on his behalf, he served five years in South Korean prison as a result; he was pardoned, but not until a new president was elected.) Rather than exoticize or glamorize its rurality or poverty, he describes North Korea plainly, always integrating political context. During a wildfire, for example, he first shows the reader “burned-out stumps [that] illuminated the ashes around them like blocks of charcoal inside a furnace,” then notes that during the North Korean famine, so-called pointing out that so-called wildfires were, at that time, frequently deliberate: “All the crops had already been harvested from the collective farms and rations had been cut off, so people resorted to creating small slash-and-burn plots for themselves in the mountains.”
This rural landscape stands in total contrast to contemporary Seoul, where At Dusk takes place. At Dusk centers not spirituality but material ascendancy, combined with generational conflict. Hwang splits the story between two narrators: Park Minwoo, an aging architect winding down his successful career, and Jung Woohee, a striving young playwright barely surviving the financial pressures of life in Seoul. Their juxtaposed stories form a portrait of a city whose rapid modernization and progress have all but cut off its inhabitants’ future.
For Minwoo, Seoul was crucial to creating the life he wanted. He grew up poor after the Korean War, then clawed his way to wealth through education. For millennial Woohee, education has proven useless. She works all day at a theater and all night at a convenience store, but has to choose between buying food and making rent in Seoul. Her “tiny hope of one day being able to have a pet” seems impossible, as do bigger dreams and aspirations. How could she date, or finish writing a play, when she works twenty-hour days?
Woohee grew up outside Seoul, but Hwang tells the reader little about her childhood. She has no financial support from home, but we never hear more. Minwoo, in contrast, spends much of the novel recounting his childhood, spent mostly in a Seoul slum called Moon Hollow. There, he watched turf wars among shoeshine boys and ate in households so poor that “Rice was a sacred privilege afforded only to the head of the household responsible for keeping the family alive.” Young Minwoo grew determined not to become the head of such a household. “By the time I started my third year of high school,” he remembers, “I was absolutely certain that I had to decide on a path for myself, that I had to fight my way out of there. I’d started noticing girls around then, too, but I concentrated solely on studying for the college entrance exam.”
For Minwoo, education was a direct path to success. The same held for his father, rural civil servant whose desk was covered with “old books, yellowed and dog-eared, with titles like Compendium of the Six Major Laws and The Science of Public Administration. I’m sure it was thanks to those books that he was later able to leave the countryside for the big city and find work as a clerk in a notary office.” The disjunction between this story and Woohee’s is clear. For Woohee, education means little, but for Minwoo, college leads straight to an advantageous marriage, a stretch of time in the United States, and an architecture firm of his own, which he runs according to the principle that “money and power,” not concrete and steel, build buildings.
Minwoo is realistic about money and power, perhaps to a fault. When the novel opens, his firm is under investigation for corruption. But to him, “being ambitious means having to sift through the few values we feel like keeping and toss the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves.” He has no space in his life to design small buildings or decline shady contracts. Hwang writes this mentality with empathy, but, Kim-Russell told me, translating Minwoo was a challenge. Translating Woohee, she told me, “was immediate. Her voice came to me right away, since her life—piecing together part-time work—is one I’ve lived. With Minwoo, I couldn’t connect till I read his childhood story. That helped me understand his aspirations.”
Minwoo’s greatest aspiration is to become middle- or upper-class. Having achieved that goal, he drifts through life, unable to sustain relationships even with his wife and daughter. Kim-Russell says translating his story ultimately felt like “sitting in a bar talking to somebody about what they do for a living. There’s real confidence, but in a very casual delivery.” That casualness comes from Minwoo’s emotional detachment. He has no reason to care about the reader, having long ago forgotten how to care about his family and friends.
Woohee, meanwhile, is too exhausted to care. To her, love costs too much. Romance seems alien and frivolous. She dumps her college boyfriend because she doubts he’ll be able to provide for her, and redefines the relationship as “more like a game or passing amusement.” The only man able to hold her attention is one who she calls Black Shirt, who she admires for his fierce work ethic. “He was like a soldier with his rifle cleaned and loaded,” Hwang writes, “his eyes fixed on some distant spot, his body poised to race forward.” Black Shirt teaches Minwoo to advocate for fairer labor conditions while working part-time. When her apartment floods, he helps her. But even fierce Black Shirt cannot survive underemployment in Seoul. Discouraged and exhausted, he commits suicide—which comes as a surprise to the reader until Woohee puts his choice in rapid, dark context. To Black Shirt, South Korea offers no future. As a result, he’s lost faith in the idea of moving forward.
Hwang writes Woohee and Black Shirt’s hopelessness with the same simplicity he brought to Bari’s conversations with ghosts. Hwang once told Kim-Russell not to write her translations in “an upper-class or hyper-educated English,” and perhaps as a result, she brings a fair amount of slang to At Dusk. A woman “ditches” Minwoo on a date, for example, and he “rolls up” to work late. In a less skillful translation, this slang could sound dated or forced. Here, it serves to further the impression that the novel is overheard rather than written, a pair of lives that happen to illuminate the perils of rapid urban and economic growth.
Hwang never makes this point explicitly. Instead, he pairs every chapter in which Minwoo details his rise with a chapter in which Woohee struggles to pay rent for her waterlogged semi-basement room. Minwoo emerges as an opportunity hoarder, a man whose work directly contributed to the fact that, as he says, “Everybody’s hometown is disappearing.” So are the chances he had. Minwoo’s work changed the size and face of Seoul, helping it become a gleaming, modern city—but a city in whose hostels and shared rooms Woohee “met countless people my age who were just like me. They reminded me of the tiny mammals who cower among the beasts of prey in the jungle and must survive on their wits alone.”
At Dusk gives dual meaning to Kim-Russell’s belief that Hwang writes “from the bottom up.” In Minwoo, he writes a story of ascent. In Woohee, he writes a story of witness. At Dusk could be seen as millennial advocacy, or as a broader reminder that no matter where we live, we are surrounded by economic struggle—and ethically obligated to remember it. As Princess Bari makes space for tradition, At Dusk makes space for the young and poor, without whom not even the most modern country can hope to move forward. A country that leaves the young behind might thrive technologically, but what good is technology with no one to use it?
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. She’s a regular reviewer for NPR Books and a contributing writer for Electric Literature. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic online, Catapult, Joyland, Longreads, The New Yorker blog, the Poetry Foundation, the Sewanee Review, Tin House, and more.