Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute publishes books! And such interesting ones too! Weatherhead Books on Asia includes books by Natsume Soseki, Zhu Wen, Abe Kōbō and more. As well as one of my all-time favourite books, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi (my thoughts).
I hadn’t heard of Park Wan-Suh before browsing their catalogue. My knowledge of Korean authors is a bit limited, but I have read books by Shin Kyung-Sook (I’ll Be Right There and Please Look After Mom), and the Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a comic series. There might be one or two more but that’s all I can recall at the moment!
But I haven’t come across any non-fiction reads from Korean authors. So I jumped at the chance to read this one!
Who Ate Up all the Shinga? is such a charming book. Park has a very personable tone to her writing. And it kind of reminded me a little of another favourite book in translation, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Chihiro Iwasaki (Illustrator), Dorothy Britton (Translator). Tott0-chan’s story sticks to her early childhood years and focuses on this very fascinating school life she had in pre-WWII Tokyo. Park’s story begins with childhood but she goes on to tell us about her teenaged years as well.
It is an account first of her childhood in a rural village with less than twenty households in the 1930s. She has a grandfather who dotes on her, the only granddaughter. And this grandfather of hers tries to uphold the image of their family as “aristocracy” although that’s not entirely the situation. Plus it’s also a bit odd as their village is such a tiny one.
I am utterly fascinated by how the kids amused themselves. From making dolls out of grass, “noodles” out of pine needles, catching dragonflies and shrimp! It is such a gentle, idyllic life.
“We were part of nature, and because nature is alive, changing, in motion, not resting a single moment, we had no time to be bored.”
Her mother was determined to raise her and her older brother in Seoul, and when Wan-Suh turns seven, they move to Seoul for school, where she first discovers what city life is like. Korea is still occupied by the Japanese and Wan-Suh is made to learn Japanese in school.
Partly because her mother discourages her from playing with the neighbourhood kids, and partly because her classmates disdain her for being a country girl, Wan-Suh’s life in Seoul isn’t a joyful one. And she was thrilled to return to the village for summer.
“All day long, you’re going to be stuck in alleyways, playing marbles or skipping rope. The best treat you’ll have are the snacks you get by begging one chon at a time off the grownups. Meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around in the country like a puppy. Everything there is alive and breathing and moving around in the breeze. Tomorrow, I’m going to get to climb up hills and walk through fields and splash in streams. I’m going to get to breathe in air that’s got the smell of grass the wild flowers and soil.”
On another level, this is a story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Not entirely a happy peaceful one as her mother is quite a character. She’s rather demanding and determined, and was relatively educated at a time when women typically were not, especially those who were from the country. The account of her haggling with a porter to carry their bags when they first arrive in Seoul is quite hilarious. She is incredibly thrifty and hardworking, and yet at times, rather extravagant.
But her mother’s determination to have her children study in Seoul seems to pay off and their family does well, that is, until the Japanese leave Korea and things fall apart all around them.
It is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse at life in Korea during the Japanese occupation and its aftermath. And while that may sound like a difficult period to be reading about, Park’s friendly, confessional tone, and her family’s moving story will capture your imagination and your heart.
Park Wan Suh was born in 1931 in Gaepung-gun in what is now Hwanghaebuk-do in North Korea. Park entered Seoul National University, the most prestigious in Korea, but dropped out almost immediately after attending classes due to the outbreak of the Korean War and the death of her brother. During the war, Park was separated from her mother and elder brother by the North Korea army, which moved them to North Korea. She lived in the village of Achui, in Guri, outside Seoul until her death. Park died on the morning of January 22, 2011, suffering from cancer.
Park wrote her first book just before she turned 40, and went on to write 20-odd novels and more than 100 short stories, winning prestigious Korean literature awards along the way.
Works in translation
My Very Last Possession: And Other Stories
The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Sketch of the Fading Sun
Three Days in That Autumn
Weathered Blossom (Modern Korean Short Stories)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel
This is the first book I read for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge