2022 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place
first place, senior essay division
Renowned South Korean author Choyeop Kim once revealed in a Literature Translation Institute of Korea interview that, “Quite a few of my short novels are structured like a process of searching for answers to certain questions….” Similar to many of her novels, Kim’s dystopian short story “The Girl In The Cylinder” is structured as two characters seeking answers to the questions: “How does one find hope and joy despite limitations?” and “How does one navigate an increasingly technological world?”. Kim’s main characters, Jiyu and Noah, embody and dramatize the abstract ideas of isolation, loneliness, comfort, and friendship, specifically through their dialogue and societal conflict, and the answers they seek emerge thematically, as the characters imagine and create new possibilities for each other.
In order to initiate the search for answers, Kim uses her protagonist. Her story opens with Jiyu, a girl who must wear a cylinder-shaped protector outdoors because she is allergic to air-roids, a technology that regulates climate change and controls natural disasters (Kim 4-5). Because of air-roids’ prevalence in society, Jiyu must wear protective gear whenever outside. However, Jiyu dislikes the cylinder because she believes the device makes her lesser in status, particularly from others’ perspective. Walking down the street, she struggles with how to respond to the looks of passersby. Flummoxed, “[... Jiyu has] no idea how to react or what facial expression to make when someone on the street [looks] at her with their sad eyes full of pity” (Kim 3). Jiyu cannot connect with people because they cannot “see” past the cylinder, and Jiyu cannot “see” her way out of her current situation. Because of her disconnect with society, Jiyu makes no friends, causing her pain. Kim uses the cylinder as an ironic symbol of Jiyu’s loneliness and isolation, as the “protector” ultimately emotionally harms Jiyu, intensifying Jiyu’s desperation to find hope and joy despite her limitations.
Kim introduces the ideas of friendship and comfort in the character of Noah whose name aptly means comfort in Hebrew. Feeling especially isolated, Jiyu meets Noah, a similarly-alienated sentient clone confined to an incubator at the weather department where he manages air-roids. Jiyu has accidentally broken an air-roid, so Noah and she agree to repair it rather than tell Noah’s boss and make Jiyu pay for the sprinkler. Through this situation, Jiyu and Noah become friends. As they plan to repair the sprinkler, Jiyu realizes that, “[...For] some strange reason– she [feels] comfortable around Noah” (Kim 11). Through Noah’s and Jiyu’s dialogue, Kim dramatizes the abstract idea of comfort, enabling readers to see the characters’ burgeoning sense of what they can provide each other. After keeping the broken air-roid a secret, when the two characters converse again, they are more at ease. Jiyu even jokes with Noah, “‘What? You’re following me around just in case I break another sprinkler?’” (Kim 13). The leisurely way Noah and Jiyu banter with each other concretizes the idea of comfort. Through uniting her main characters, Kim establishes the answers to the questions about overcoming limitations and navigating a technological world. The unfamiliar feelings that are helping Jiyu diminish her isolation and loneliness are those of hope and joy, of imagination and creativity.
Through her story’s ending, Kim fully fleshes out the answers. Now aware of how Noah has helped her escape alienation and despair, Jiyu helps Noah escape the weather station. Since Noah is able to control the weather through his job, he creates a sunshower (raining while the sun is out) as a gift for Jiyu (Kim 21). Rain disables the air-roids temporarily, so Jiyu can go outside. Noah’s gift is an opportunity for Jiyu to leave the cylinder. As Jiyu experiences the downpour, she remembers, “[...] how she’d joked to Noah that she would love to step out of her protector and sunbathe one day. [...] Noah must have remembered her dream” (Kim 21). Here, Kim brings readers face to face with her theme, as Jiyu sheds the cylinder (her isolation and loneliness), as a result of friendship. Furthermore, Jiyu and Noah never meet in person, only communicating through speakers, so they do not know what the other looks like. After Jiyu frees Noah from the weather station, Noah leaves to seek out his own destiny, and Jiyu never hears from him again because he is in an unknown location. This departure makes the characters’ relationship more impactful because distance doesn’t matter. Only personality does: Jiyu is sarcastic, and Noah is easygoing. Kim accentuates the impact of human connection through the characters’ final interaction. When it becomes time for Noah to leave, Jiyu, “[... feels] happy, imagining the life that Noah [will] finally be able to live” (Kim 20). Furthermore, Jiyu understands that her friendship with Noah has given her not only a sunshower, but also hope. She, “[... begins] to believe that one day, she too [will] live in a place of her own choosing” (Kim 20). Jiyu’s epiphany is important because she believes in a future that defies her current circumstances and allows her to live with determined optimism. The way Kim portrays this special friendship punctuates the idea that more human connections are needed in order to improve one’s quality of life.
In a world where the possibility of continuously-advancing technology reaching a point where it could potentially curb or even eliminate global warming increasingly exists, Kim’s dystopian world of “The Girl In The Cylinder” resonates with readers, and the idea that such problem-solving technology could ironically create more problems resonates even more. While social media unifies, it also divides, for instance, today. Choyeop Kim holds up a future mirror for all of us to consider ourselves in the present, for all of us to acknowledge our basic feelings and desires for authentic human connection despite “progress”. When we interact with each other in the manner of Jiyu and Noah, we can form something special and positively transform each other’s life.