2017 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place, adult essay division
“The house I see before all others as the day turns to dusk / I remember it with fondness,” reads Kim Yong-taek’s poem “That Girl’s House” (151-153), “...Now it no longer stands in this world / but still it exists in my heart.” These lines set the tone for Park Wan-suh’s homonymous short story That Girl’s House and incite her unnamed narrator to wistfully reflect upon her own childhood home. In the aptly-named Apricot Village where wildflowers and fruit trees bloomed, a romance between young lovers Man-deuk and Gop-dan also blossomed before being cut short by the onset of World War II. When Wan-suh’s narrator confronts an elderly Man-deuk at the end of the story, an alternative account of the fate of the Apricot Village sweethearts is exposed. In this new context, That Girl’s House reveals deeper commentary on the lingering psychological effects of war and the division of Korea.
Though Man-deuk is a primary character in the story, he is repeatedly viewed through the lenses of others who describe him only in relation to Gop-dan; “...he was Gop-dan’s and so the proper thing for us to do was not to pay him any attention,” (168) the narrator comments, later stating she “couldn’t help but think that his presence there had something to do with Gop-dan” (169) in reference to his attendance at the comfort women support group meeting. His wife Soon Ae remarks that “Gop-dan is stuck on him like a leech” (169) despite their long separation, and even the village residents “wanted to interpret Man-deuk’s every move in relation to Gop-dan” (164). It is not until Man-deuk gains his own voice at the end that he is able to free himself from this association and, in doing so, break from the past where he has been trapped for the duration of the story. “I can’t even remember her face... If my wife hadn’t persisted in reminding me all the time, I would have forgotten her name too,” he explains before asserting, “If I did miss Gop-dan, it was because of the vague, nostalgic longing for our youth that we all have” (172).
This “nostalgic longing” is indeed displayed by all the characters in That Girl’s House and, in some cases, it becomes an obsessive occupation. The narrator bonds with Soon Ae over their shared familiarity with Gop-dan; while the narrator remembers Gop-dan as a friend who could do no wrong, however, Soon Ae grows in her jealousy over the feelings that she believes Man-deuk still harbors for her. Despite admitting that Man-deuk is a good spouse, Soon Ae asserts that his “gibberish” poems must be letters to his childhood love (169), while various other instances such as the occasion in which he cried while looking toward the shore of North Korea could have only derived from heartbreak (170). Despite lacking substantial evidence and the fact that “her resentment was based on a repertoire of just a few incidents,” (170) Soon Ae remains steadfast in her suspicion until she passes away, and even then, her desire to cling to the past is evident. When the narrator observes a photo of the deceased as a young woman, she comments, “Before I knew it, I was mentally comparing the younger Soon Ae to Gop-dan... She must have spent her whole life battling a formidable rival in love—one that never aged or erred” (171).
Separated relatives or lovers are common symbols utilized in modern Korean literature to reference the divided nation. Here, the ill-fated romance between Man-deuk and Gop-dan serves to represent all that was good about life before the war and, ultimately, all that was lost; “They were like the village mascots whose happiness the villagers wanted to guard as if some misfortune would befall them if the two became unhappy” (164). This symbolism is made clear by the narrator’s position as an insider long-removed reflecting upon her youth. Lengthy descriptions of innocent courtship and conservative traditions in the “floral paradise” of Apricot Village make it easy to overlook hints of her own bias and forget her feelings of “overwhelming nostalgia and grief” (155) which were initially sparked by the Yong-taek poem. Her detailed memories of Apricot Village are striking when contrasted to Seoul, a place “...where even among relatives, wedding invitations or news of death were received with a greater sense of obligation than kinship. People with no immediate relation were bound to be forgotten before long.” (168) The capital city possesses none of the warmth characteristic of Apricot Village, however, it must be noted that the village the displaced narrator knows now only exists in memories drawn from a “permanent amnesia” (168); Her seemingly rosy retrospection, then, is comprised of fabricated, and not necessarily factual, reminders of a happier time.
Man-deuk’s account at the end of That Girl’s House allows him to become a character in the present no longer solely defined by his past relationship. Meanwhile, it exposes the obsessive nostalgia which haunts the narrator and characters like Soon Ae, while prompting consideration of the narrator’s perspective. Like her, author Park Wan-suh came of age in a unified Korea only to see it torn apart like Man-deuk and Gop-dan; much of her writing explores the loneliness and loss which characterize the post-war nation, and this story is no exception. For Man-deuk, Soon Ae, the narrator, and Wan-suh, it is evident that the cost of war can be measured not only by its casualties, but also in the “sorrow of the escapees” (173) who evade physical suffering only to be forever trapped and tormented by the past. This is not merely a tale of pining for “that girl,” but rather, as the title now more clearly implies, “that girl’s house,” a place which only exists within the collective memory of the Korean people, beautifully distorted by shared trauma and the inevitable passage of time. Yong-taek’s poem echoes this fate, “Anytime and always, my heart races there first / That house / That / girl’s / house / I dream, I dream...” (153).