The change that a simple penstroke can make,
A new collection of novels written by Kwon Yeo-sun, a representative author of Korean literature
Kwon Yeo-sun, who has become a trusted name in Korean literature for the beauty of her fluid yet rigorous prose, returns with her first collection of novels after three years, Seasons of Its Own. Kwon Yeo-sun has been writing for more than a quarter of a century since her debut in 1996, and her works have remained the book of their lifetime for many people. In this new collection of novels, Kwon peers into an era, a person – delving deep into the very core of memories, emotions, and relationships. The way of life that emerges from such confrontation is never a pretty one. However, what is clear is that the process will lead us to a place where we desire a rich and vibrant life.
“Just how much did I change from the way I was meant to be?”
What do I remember, how do I remember, and why do I remember?
Kwon Yeo-sun’s deep and persistent questions seek answers to
how we came to be the people we are today
The Stag Beetle Method and Waltz of Memories, a pair of stories written around the keyword “memory,” embrace Seasons of Its Own by gracing the beginning and the end of the collection respectively. The Stag Beetle Method depicts the surprise and sadness that come from facing the truth that one has been avoiding for a long time, creating a brilliant work that takes Kwon Yeo-sun’s long-standing theme of “memory” a step further. “Jun-hee,” “Bu-young,” “Kyung-ae,” and “Jeong-won” become close friends when they enter college and live in the same boarding house, drinking together and sharing bits of their everyday life. Bu-young, the energetic leader of the group; Kyung-ae, the polite one of regular routines; Jeong-won, the kind and careful one; and Jun-hee, the narrator of the story who loves to drink and have spontaneous adventures, try to meet at least once a month and insist on celebrating one another’s birthdays, even after the years have passed and they all live in different places now. The beautiful circle of friendship is shattered, however, by Jeong-won’s sudden suicide and Kyung-ae’s betrayal. When there is no way of telling what happened to them, and nothing is clear apart from the fact that they will never go back to the way they used to be, Jun-hee starts to look back on their past in rigor and desperation – and at the heart of her memories lies “the stag beetle method.” On a trip the four of them took together a long time ago, Jung-won found a stag beetle in their lodging and asked the owner about it: Since there are insect nets, where did the stag beetle come from? The owner hesitated for a moment before replying:
They come in from wherever. (Page 21)
Answering that they come in from wherever when asked where they came from – Jun-hee and Jeong-won name this method of conversation, where the speaker takes parts of the other person’s question to answer the question, “the stag beetle method” and considers it a “magic button.” The reason why they could think that way is because Jun-hee wanted to write novels and Jeong-won wanted to do drama – in other words, pursuing what they want to do puts them in front of futures that are unclear and incomplete. With the stag beetle method, there is no need for them to elaborate on what kind of novel they want to write, or what kind of play they want to do – they can simply say “I want to write whatever novel and do whatever play,” which must have granted them some sense of freedom. However, the stag beetle method of answering questions, once so crystal clear, slowly takes on a different meaning to Jun-hee’s eyes as she looks back in the past: there is a “fearful nuance” that she could not read at that time.
Instead of stopping here, Kwon Yeo-sun takes a step further and reads into yet another meaning that must be hidden behind the stag beetle method – even if it means you end up getting hurt at the end of the journey. To quote the story, “Those who do not look directly into everything will face the consequence of missing the target” (Page 40). If that is indeed the case, perhaps you become the target when you start looking directly at things. perhaps means that you become the bullseye.
Waltz of Memories also features a character who faces the past clearly. “I” visit a restaurant located in a forest in the suburbs with my younger sibling and their spouse, only to face a forgotten memory from some 30 years ago. Back when “I” was a college student, those were the days when “I” was engrossed with the thoughts that “today is the only sure thing that I own, and this day is the only fuel I need to burn up all this time in my hands” (Page 211). “I” meet a guy of similar age named “Kyeong-seo” when “Sunbae Koo,” whom “I” met at a bar a couple of times before, calls out in the library. After striking up a conversation with Kyeong-seo, who was sitting next to Sunbae Koo, for the first time, Kyeong-seo and “I” start to become close. On an autumn day, “I” visit a restaurant in the suburbs with Kyeong-seo and Sunbae Koo on a short picnic, and the restaurant is the same place where “I” in the present visit with their younger sibling. Until then, “I” had believed that they did not harbor any special feelings for Kyeong-seo, that it was “an ambiguous love affair that could hardly be called love,” (Page 209), and that Kyeong-seo was mainly responsible for the fact that they grew apart after the picnic. But now that “I” am back at the restaurant in the forest, memories from 30 years ago resurface without the layers of error and evasion that have been caked on top of them.
The process of recalling memories is inevitably accompanied by distortion and glorification. However, Kwon Yeo-sun’s characters resist the desire to rationalize and instead, slowly, deeply, and relentlessly point out the mistakes and errors that they may have made – all as if to remove all impurities. And at the end of such a process, the memories the characters face end up giving them something more, like an unexpected gift. It is just like how in Waltz of Memories, “I” look back on the twenties that they never wanted to relive – the times when “hopes were turned into despair and life into death” (Page 241) – and recalls the comforting gestures that “I” also received from Kyeong-seo at that time. “I” can now say that “it is too early to let go of hope” (Page 241), which is also in line with “living twice (differently) by remembering, and living three times (differently) by writing” (by Kwon Yeo-sun, in the special booklet Attention Book).
Helpless in memories, helpless in emotions, helpless in relationships
Kwon Yeo-sun’s novel of seasons disarms readers once and for all
Seasons of Its Own, the title of the collection, comes from the sentence “It each takes its own strength to get through seasons of its own” (Page 114) in Soaring High and Beautiful. The piece depicts a group of churchgoers reminiscing about Mary, who passed away at the age of 72 from an illness, to reconstruct who Mary was. Churchgoers recount their memories of Mary to mourn her death, but there is a subtle exclusivity that places themselves as being better than Mary. “Bertha” is also keenly aware of such hypocrisy, thinking about “how unnoble they are, these people” (Page 91). The question then becomes, “Why do I keep meeting them, then?” (Page 91), to which the answer is powerfully illustrated towards the end of the novel. Bertha recalls a time before Mary's death when she accompanied her and was poked in the eye by a woman's parasol, and when Mary rushed up to her, she smelled bad breath and pushed her away. Recalling the scene, Bertha realizes that she could “clearly understand why she continues to meet them" (Page 114), and thinks to herself, "Not noble at all, aren’t we…” (Page 114). But perhaps that is where “nobility” starts. It starts with looking deeply into oneself with the same harsh, unforgiving gaze that judges others. And through that process, Mary will emerge as someone other than the image of someone imagined through puzzle pieces that the churchgoers put together.
The title of the book, Seasons of Its Own, can also be read as each season requiring a new set of strengths to get through that season. The same can be applied not just to seasons, but also to people. In particular, the book closely looks at a mother-daughter relationship, perhaps the strongest and the most tightly woven than any other relationship, in line with “seasons of its own.” “Ban-hee” from Strands of Weeping Willow receives a call from her daughter “Chae-woon” on a day when the gym she works in closes due to COVID-19. Chae-woon suggests going on an overnight trip to somewhere nearby, which takes Ban-hee by surprise. Since her divorce, Ban-hee has been living apart from Chae-woon since she “doesn’t want Chae-woon to become like her” and wishes to “sever all strands of resemblance invisible to the eye, even when there are several thousands of them” (Page 50). For this reason, Ban-hee has been maintaining some distance from her daughter because she wanted to keep Chae-woon and herself as unique individuals of their own, rather than binding them together in a mother-daughter relationship. When Ban-hee hesitates, Chae-woon “suddenly talks fast” and blurts out, “There’s a pension I know deep in the mountains in Gangwon Province, and we can drive there. We can cook there and there’s no need to go outside, we can hide there and go for walks around the neighborhood and stay like that for just a day. Wouldn’t that be okay?” (Pages 49 – 50), as if she had anticipated Ban-hee’s rejection. Thus, the two of them travel together for the first time and agree to call each other “Ms. Ban-hee” and “Ms. Chae-woon” rather than addressing them as mother or daughter. This act of protecting each other as individual beings rather than defining them by their domestic roles seems to signal a crisp start to their trip. However, it’s not too long before they realize that this could be a hurtful thing to do for each other. For Ban-hee, Chae-woon is not just the daughter she needs to keep an eye on, and for Chae-woon, Ban-hee is not just the mother who abandoned her as a child.
Ban-hee extinguished her cigarette and clasped her hands together. A breeze blew past, carrying with it a rich scent of earth and grass. If a nightmare is what you get from love, then let’s head into that nightmare, thought Ban-hee. Let’s dive into the nightmare that my daughter is in. If there are thousands of strands that tie the two of us together, let’s bind them into a rope and hold each other tighter. Let us become dried up together, tougher together, and grotesque together. Let our brains turn into jelly, let our hearts become fuller, and let our dreams become deformed. The thoughts that she had never had before filled her mind endlessly and Ban-hee’s heart began pounding – as if something unbelievable were about to happen. (Page 79)
Rather than severing the thousands of strands that tie the two of us, let’s bind them into a rope and tie us even tighter – this unexpected yet natural change of thought seems to resemble changing of the seasons. As the seasons change, so do the strengths required to get through the seasons. Likewise, the two of them will be able to look at each other differently. And only then will they be able to see a new season unfold before them, completely different from the past. Just like how we divide the connected passages of time into spring, summer, autumn, and winter to find the strength to close the current season and open up the next, what Kwon Yeo-sun is offering is a new season, or “seasons of our own,” that we need at the moment.
Reference: Munhakdongne. "Seasons of Its Own", https://www.munhak.com/book/view.php?dtype=brand&id=14288. accessed 1 August 2023.