In 2011, Kyung-Sook Shin won the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize. I’ve reviewed two of her novels in translation for the Star Tribune, “Please Look After Mom,” a New York Times bestseller, and “I’ll Be Right There.”
In “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness,” Shin, a South Korean, again writes about the country’s political struggles as she did in “I’ll Be Right There.” This time she also examines the plight of female factory workers and the attempt to unionize them, the rigid nature of South Korea’s educational system and the act of writing itself.
Set in a Seoul industrial district and “on the island Jeju-do,” the narrative takes place between 1978, when the protagonist is 16 years old, and September 1995. At the beginning of this period, the country strains under the iron-fisted Yusin regime. Years later, South Koreans still suffer aftershocks from those tragic times.
By 1994, the narrator — a novelist who has avoided writing about issues such as politics and Seoul’s factory sweatshops — begins doing so at the behest of people from her past. Her isolation on Jeju-do, where she goes to write, ends during Chuseok, the harvest festival when Koreans worship ancestors and visit friends. Shin’s harvest is this affecting, though at times diffuse, novel.
How does an author write about a troubled land when her sorrow is so great? Even before the 203-day, anti-government “Seoul Spring” protests, innocent people were spirited away for “social purification training.” During the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, 1980, government forces fired on “civilians waving white flags.” Long after the period, atrocities still come to light.
Having traveled to Seoul before the Gwangju incident, the narrator and her cousin attend a night school for workers. Daytimes at Dongnam Electronics, a stereo-production company, they work on an assembly line, “attaching screws to PVC boards, without uttering a word.” Their ears ring from the constant testing of the stereos’ volume.
On the way home to a lone room in “a house of thirty-seven rooms,” narrator and Cousin observe the government’s intrusion into people’s lives. They hear about it or watch it on videotape. The entire nation fears what will come next. By these and other historical forces, a girl who writes loneliness is shaped.
In the novel’s conclusion, set on the tidal flats where the sea washes everything away, a now middle-aged author understands her country’s suffering. Although the translation is sometimes awkward, Shin’s novel provides a powerful record of the time. In a telling moment en route to Jeju-do, the narrator — trying to capture the past in order to write about it — reaches for “a fistful of air” as the train stops at Garibong Subway Station, which lies within sight of the stereo factory at “the edge of memory.”
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.