Literature and Experience
Pak Wan-so

When I wrote my first work, The Naked Tree, I was an ordinary housewife. I had been a passionate literature lover, but I had never practiced writing or studied literature. The Naked Tree began as non-fiction. One day I saw a posthumous show of artist Pak Su-gun, and I found myself swept by an incomprehensible confusion. He suffered from poverty all his life, but after his death, he became the artist whose works commanded the highest prices in the ROK. During the Korean war, he eked out a living by painting cheap portraits in the PX of US Forces, and I worked there trying to talk US soldiers into having their portraits made.

    In order to maintain a hand-to-mouth existence, both he and I led a life of the bottom, in which the least level of self-esteem could not be maintained. After the war, he was never free of poverty; he struggled to make a living and died at the young age of 51. When I saw that he was evaluated as the best artist in Korea and treated as such, I was swept by complicated emotions, a mixture of fury, sadness, and joy. Such feelings gradually developed into a passion that I wanted to bear witness to how he had lived. I wanted to write a good biography, which would help understand everything about him, and I wanted to shock art dealers, who were intent on making profits by trading his works at high prices without knowing anything about how he had lived. That was how I began to write a biography, hoping to apply for an annual open competition for nonfiction works held by Sindong-a, a monthly magazine.

    The deadline approached, but my writing did not progress. There were spurts of good writing, though, and in those moments I was elated.  However, next day I would read the parts that had gone particularly well, and discover that they were the lies I had made up, not real episodes. I was not supposed to make up stories in the name of writing a biography. I had no choice but to throw them away, and I would be back to the slow- progressing stage.

    In writing his biography, there was another difficulty, aside from the battle with lies. I wanted to talk about my own stories. The pictures of myself, projected here and there, made his biography impure. Not only the lies, but also the portraits of myself, which wanted to butt in, were difficult to shoo away. When I completely excluded them, I felt no enthusiasm. It was impossible to write anything without enthusiasm, whether it be pleasure or pain. I had to give up writing the biography.

    However, I could not force myself to give up on the pleasure of lying—in a more elegant term, it would be a free rein of imagination—and the desire to express myself, which I had tasted while struggling to write a biography. In particular, the stories, so far suppressed inside me, began to clamor as if they had found an outlet. That was how my first novel, The Naked Tree, was born.

    When my imagination was harnessed no longer, more closely could I create Pak Su-gun than when I described him with only the facts, and more vividly could I create the era in which he and I lived. In elementary literature theory books, it is often said that fiction is an expression of truth through imagination, and it was the period in which I personally experienced it. I could not enter the Sindong-a competition, so I applied for a novel competition by Women Tonga, whose deadline was two months later.

    Since then, I have written as if a dike has broken, but I could not write something with only my imagination. A series of works that followed The Naked Tree--Near Buddha, Camera and Walkers, We Teach Humility, The Heaviest Denture in the World, Encounter in the Evening, Mother’s Stake I and 2--deals with a sad history of my family which suffered and collapsed with the experience of war and the division of the country. Most of these works, the mainstay of my early works, are still widely read and some of them are evaluated as good works, but I would like to take this opportunity to touch on the decisive weakness of my works on the division of the country.

     A half a century has passed since the Korean war, but I am unable to push away the experiences of those days to a sufficient distance to see them in an objective light; I remember them vividly as if they had happened only yesterday. All memories are bound to retreat with the passage of time to become a distant scenery, but my memories of Korean war still follow me close on my heels. I am sick and tired of it, but I cannot do anything about it. I have to be resigned that I will not be able to write a masterpiece, which views and interprets the Korean war in its entirety, because I cannot look at the whole picture, so obsessed with my personal experience. Yet I think writing about it has had curative effects on me.

    After the war, I soon married and other people might have thought I was leading an uneventful life, but I carried a secret darkness of my own. It was unhappiness, which could not be easily described. It was a sense of guilt that I had survived when others died, it was self-hatred that I was forcing myself to live with a smiling face, having the wronged spirit of my family incarcerated in my heart. By asking “why?” about the death of my beloved family, which was treated in a wholesale manner that he was just one of the millions who had died during the Korean war, and crying that each and every one of them had been an individual who had a beautiful, unique world, individualizing their deaths as unique deaths, asserting the dignity of individual life, for no life had to die such a wrongful death, I could be free of the lonely darkness, the prison of my heart, of a long time. It may be very ambitious of me, but I dream that my stories have such healing effects on my readers. I can write because I can dream.

    Most of my early works were about my experience of war and the division of the country, but as I experienced the economic growth of the 1970s and 1980s, my works gradually changed into stories dealing with the times, depicting the higher class, which turned more and more snobbish with abundance, and the lives of common people, who were excluded from affluence. In particular, critics often evaluate that I am good at exposing the falsehood of the middle class, which I believe is my limit for having been lived as a middle class member from birth up to now.  The more recent works, classified as feminist novels by critics, were merely natural expressions of human conflicts I have experienced as a woman living in Korea. They were not influenced by feminism of the West, because I know little about it.

-Translated from the Korean by Yu Young-nan