2017 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Trauma is not linear, and the kind of trauma wrought by war especially has a way of creating a constellation of scattered memories that do not follow a coherent development or precise location. In the short story “That Girl’s House,” Park Wan-suh cleverly captures this through an abrupt, unexpected ending that shatters what appeared to be, up until that point, a linear story. Instead of using overt allegories and symbolism to depict the effects of the Korean War, Park Wan-Suh instead opts for postmodern elements of metafiction through the usage of memory, temporal disintegration, and the unreliability of the entire narrative itself to convey how Man-deuk’s life, and by extension, the Korean War in general, are series of misrepresentations.
Leading up to the ending, the author provides only one perspective and one set of assumptions, namely that of the narrator, as she befriends Man-deuk’s jealous wife decades after the Korean War. The unexpected ending, in which Man-deuk confesses that what the narrator had mistaken as longing for his childhood sweetheart Gop-dan was, in fact, longing for his North Korean hometown instead, does more than simply help the reader sympathize with Man-deuk. We come to realize the very instability of this entire story and the instability of knowing a story from one person’s point of view; we learn that the narrator is not omniscient and had gaps in her narration. The form of the story itself resists an authoritative singularity, and the ending leaves us wondering what was true and what was not, whether Man-deuk himself could have lied in the final plot twist out of shame. This narrative instability reflects the afterlife of the Korean War itself, dubbed the “Forgotten War,” as different official accounts differ on what actually happened. It is a war that continues to be neatly packaged into a sanitized narrative by one dominant voice and perspective.
The abrupt ending that breaks the illusion of a linear story also beckons us to examine more closely the central role of memory in the telling of Man-deuk’s life and the Korean War. Issues of memory are peppered throughout the story; the narrator recounts the relationship between Man-deuk and Gop-dan based on what she remembers, but ironically when she finally meets Man-deuk years later, she cannot recognize him. “Only then did the younger version of him that had been buried in my latent memory surface” (164). When the narrator confronts Man-deuk about his love for Gop-dan, he tells her that he “can’t even remember her face, to tell you the truth. If wife hadn’t persisted in reminding all the time, would have forgotten her name too” (172). The crux of the surprising ending is simply that: he does not remember Gop-dan. The point is that his body remembers and reacts, causing him to cry when he sees North Korea, and his body, which is layered with memories and experiences from the War, conflicts with the memories of the narrator. It is this disintegration of chronology that reveals the story to be metafiction, one that self-consciously alludes to its own fictionness and instability. This tension between Man-deuk’s and the narrator’s incoherent and distorted memories that reveals itself most fully in the abrupt ending also speaks to a disorienting collapse of the past and present, creating a non-linear, achronological space that seems apt when discussing the effects of war. No version of the story is correct, because each version seems to be operating under a different temporal mode.
How can you write about something so phantasmagorical and nightmarish as the Korean War, with all the spectral uncertainties and trauma it has birthed, without first overturning and interrogating the fundamental notions of time and memory? How can you possibly “survive the surviving,” in the words of Marjorie Liu, of war, in a neat, linear, chronological way? In “That Girl’s House,” Park Wan-suh addresses these questions poignantly, doing away with narrative purity and singularity of perspective, and instead offers us a story about the poetics and politics of war-induced incoherence.