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Who Ate Up All The Shinga – a critical essay by Alice Bennell

Alice Bennell, UK winner of last year’s Korean Literature Translation Institute essay contest on “There a Petal Silently Falls”, contributes her entry for this year’s competition.

Park Wan-suh
Park Wan-suh

Who Ate Up All the Shinga is an autobiographical novel chronicling the early life of the author, Park Wan-Suh. The Japanese occupation of Korea, and events leading up to the Korean War, provide a backdrop to a story of a young girl growing up in the tiny Korean village of Pakchok Hamlet. At age seven, she joins her mother and brother in Seoul to begin her formal education. Later, having just graduated high school, the sudden outbreak of the Korean War cuts short her studies at Seoul National University.

What is remarkable about Who Ate Up All the Shinga is that we witness the life events that shaped the author as an artist, alongside a backdrop of a difficult period of Korea’s modern history. As she grows into an adolescent, not only does her personal life become more complex, but Korea’s political situation darkens and culminates into full-blown civil war. The universal theme of growing up, of the turmoil of one’s developing identity during adolescence, is amplified by Korea’s own identity crisis. In a way, Park Wan-Suh grew up with Korea. Through the book, she shares with us the events that shaped her as an author, as she experienced events that shaped Korea’s recent history.

From the very beginning, Park Wan-Suh seemed destined to become an author. She developed a great love for stories from an early age, her mother being a particularly prolific story-teller:

“Mother’s storytelling talent instilled in me a love of narrative, but she of course was oblivious to the desires she had kindled.” (Page 107)

There’s a particularly poignant and poetic account of the author’s instinctual artistic sympathies as a young girl near the beginning of the book:

“It’s hard for me to describe my overwhelming sadness as I returned home alone after parting from my friends. Millet stalks swayed in the vegetable patch. They were outlined in the soft persimmon tones of twilight against the contours of the ridge… I tried to find ways to accentuate my melancholy. What could I do to make that swaying sadder, drearier? I lowered myself, tilting my head to find the correct angle, and wound up lying on the grass on my back. And I quietly waited until the sorrow welling in my heart flowed out in tears.” (Page 18)

Such an artistic response to the beauty of nature, as she drowns in her sorrow, sows the seeds of an artistic temperament.

The Shinga plant (싱아, aconogonon alpinum)

She loses herself in books, unable to tear herself away from them. As she recounts her first experience of going to a library and having to leave behind a half-read book at closing time:

“… leaving the book unfinished, I had the sense that I was leaving half of myself behind.” (Page 122)

Being the only person in her class to live outside the city gates (her mother lied about their address to be admitted to a Seoul elementary school), the author spent six of her formative years walking to school alone:

“Walking to school alone had a significant effect on my character….. I savoured those moments of solitude…. I’d turn my attention to unimportant things, letting my ideas run free, and sink into idle fancies or just observe my surroundings.” (Page 135)

She evidently relished those times alone, which allowed her to sink into her imagination, without the burden of having to strike up conversation. Though in retrospect, she admits it was an unnatural way to develop emotionally.

Within the pages of the book, Park Wan-Suh paints a fond (though sometimes harsh) portrait of her class-conscious mother. There are some comical accounts of her mother, such as her stubborn belief that Emperor Sejong created the Korean Hangul alphabet ‘overnight’ after being inspired by the shapes on a wooden door frame. She is obsessed with her daughter becoming a ‘New Woman’, with a modern education and wearing Western clothes. She looked down on her neighbours, often referring to them as ‘trash’:

“Mother was a woman of many contradictions. Although she was very polite to our neighbours and their families – the sieve seller, the chimneysweep, the plasterer, the tinker – the underlying message she conveyed was that she didn’t want to have much to do with them.” (Page 55)

Though, unbeknownst to herself, the longer she spent in Seoul, the more she was becoming like her mother:

“After half a year in the capital, I felt superior to the other children in the village and consciously tried to convey that. I’m sure I must have seemed terribly obnoxious to them…….. Although we were struggling to get by in a hovel beyond the gates of Seoul, we were determined to impress those back home. The way we strove to realize our dreams of coming home in style, with a Western dress and ice-skates, strikes me now as something out of a comedy movie.” (Pages 87 – 88)

* * *

As the author describes events leading up to full-blown civil war, much of the later part of Who Ate Up All the Shinga is reminiscent of Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls. As Park Wan-Suh describes the ridicule she had to endure from fellow citizens as a result of her family being suspected as leftist sympathisers:

“They gazed at me as though I were a beast. Vermin. I became their plaything. Their worm. I crawled for them. They were like children, amusing themselves with a disgusting insect…. I not only literally wriggled like a worm in front of them, but had mentally submitted to the violence.” (Who Ate Up All the Shinga, Pages 234 – 235)

This account strikes me as an almost parallel to the protagonist’s suffering in There a Petal Silently Falls:

“They threw rocks at me, they spit at my ugly carcass, they beat me up. But I didn’t cry. No screams, no tears. I closed my eyes, spread my arms and legs, I accepted it all like a sun-baked rice paddy soaking up water.” (There a Petal Silently Falls, Page 48)

Yet again we witness an adolescent girl being ridiculed by villagers, and we read helplessly as she submits to the violence. And yet again we see that it is not only the State that is responsible for an individual’s suffering.

Eventually, in response to the mass evacuations out of Seoul, and prospect of the People’s Army entering the city, the remaining members of the Park family escape on a rickety old wagon. Unable to continue much further beyond the Han river, they take temporary refuge in Hyonjo-dong. It is ironic they take refuge here; when earlier in the book, how they longed to escape Hyonjo-dong and move within Seoul’s city gates:

“We were the only ones left behind in all of this large city. I alone was watching this vast emptiness, and we alone would view the unfolding of the unknown in the coming days….. But an abrupt change in perspective hit me… Surely there was meaning in my being the sole witness to it all… If I were the sole witness, I had the responsibility to record it….. From all this came a vision that I would write someday, and this premonition dispelled my fear.” (Page 248)

It is interesting that the author chose to end the book at a crossroads, both in terms in of her family’s escape from Seoul, and her own artistic awakening. The book ends almost abruptly. It’s as though she is encouraging the reader’s own imagination to fill the gap in between this period, and her later life as a successful writer.

Park Wan-Suh’s fond childhood memories provide some welcome comic relief to the story, adding a human element to these historical times. She describes how, one time, waking alone in their home in Pakchok Hamlet, she sleepily enters the main room where her grandma is giving her baby cousin a bath:

“Grandmother was kneading something in a basin. “Grandma, are you killing a chicken?” I asked groggily. Mother shooed me out, trying to stifle a smile…My absurd question gave the grownups something to chuckle about for a long time to come.” (Page 86)

It is this conversational narrative style, along with the author’s stark honesty and sense of humour, that makes Who Ate Up All the Shinga such a delight to read. Amongst the confusion and deprivation of the time, Park Wan-Suh manages to retain a uniquely light-hearted, sometimes funny, narrative. It still amuses me that such an extraordinary account of Korean’s modern history begins with the sentence: “I used to go around with a runny nose.”

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