LKL reports from two events involving Hwang Sun-mi at the London Book Fair in Earls Court.
So you think Hwang Sun-mi’s bestselling book The hen who dreamed she could fly is all about maternal sacrifice? Think again. It could be that you’ve been influenced by the film adaptation Leafie, a hen into the wild.
During the London Book Fair, Hwang spoke at three panel events – one in Cambridge and two at the Fair itself – and at both the London events she was at pains to ensure her audience knew the emphasis behind her most famous work.
“I didn’t mind about the name change from Sprout to Leafie,” Hwang told Maya Jaggi in a panel session with webtoonist Yoon Tae-ho (Moss) and Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. “But the change in emphasis of the story was an issue.”
Actually, the name change is significant in itself. Hwang consciously chose the name Sprout for her character (or more accurately, the character chooses it for herself) because the green shoot symbolises the potential for growth. Maybe the people chose the English title of the film simply didn’t like the seasonal vegetable which has the same name. In Korean, the title of the book and the film is the same: 마당을 나온 암탉 – roughly, the hen came out of the yard.
So what is the novel about if it is not motherhood and sacrifice? Sprout’s dream is to escape from the barn and hatch an egg for herself.
“On the surface, the egg may be a symbol for motherhood, but hatching an egg is merely a symbol for Sprout’s dreams,” she told us in her conversation with Maya Jaggi on 9 April in the PEN Literary Salon at Earls Court. “But whereas my book is all about personal growth, the film is about the sacrifice of a mother,” she continued a day later when she was joined by Yoon Tae-ho in the panel session on film adaptations.
People read other themes into the fable. Here’s what Hwang had to say about it being a feminist novel: “It’s natural to think of it as a feminist story. In Korean culture it is taken for granted that mothers will sacrifice for their children. The intention though was not to focus on that. It’s a book about ordinary people make extraordinary decisions.”
And in looking at the struggles that both Sprout and her chick have in adapting to their new environments, others think of the book as a story of an individual battling against conformity. “Yes, it is the story of an individual. In literature, you can have a grand narrative, but you can also focus on small aspects. People can encounter the very situations that Sprout encounters. Anyone can. The book has a universal theme.”
But there is something of Hwang’s family background in the novel. “When I was writing the book, it was a difficult time for me. My father had terminal cancer. Writing the book was an escape, an extravagance for me. The story told itself. I couldn’t not write it. It records my father’s ordinary life.”
And it was not just her father’s untimely death that made Hwang’s background a struggle.
I was born in 1963. It was a difficult time when people were poor. It was not a given that you could be educated. I couldn’t go to middle school. I had no choice but to work in a factory like my friends. But I had a dream, and continuously fought for it. I ran away, fought, quarrelled, and cried. I didn’t make up with my family, and had to live with that. Sprout has a lot of me in her.
I didn’t send my children to private school – I couldn’t afford it. But that was not a wrong decision, although they suffered as a result. My son asked me: ‘Why are you so worried about my future? It’s my life.’
I am not a perfect parent. When parents ask me for advice about their children, my advice is: ‘Let them play. Let them do some gardening, raise something from the ground. There is no better education than growing a seed.’
Many people have commented about the dark subject matter of the story, in a book which is marketed as a children’s book.
“Yes, the book begins darkly, but I write what and how I like. I’m not writing particularly for children. Kids aren’t unaware of darkness. They learn to deal with it and grow.”
She made the point again, in the context of the film adaptation. She was upset that the version of Leafie that was screened in Germany had a happy ending, with Sprout’s death cut from the story. “Children experience death in many ways. One film ending happily does not shield them from the pains of reality.”
Other aspects of film adaptation: Hwang wasn’t too happy with all the merchandising that went along with the film, and said she was envious of the deals that Yoon Tae-ho managed to get. For Hwang, her revenues come from her books. and she commented that when a book is adapted, the writer is the last to get paid. But she had refused to work with KBS, who had tried to negotiate a TV deal with her. “They were treating me as if they were giving me free publicity. I turned it down. We have the right to say no.”
Despite her unease about the adaptation, Hwang “didn’t meddle in the film. There was a professional adaptor – he did his best job.” Of course, the film helped to get more readers. “But the book is most beautiful in its original form.”
Hwang’s current projects involve stories to help children understand the problems in Korean society. “I have just written a book about the DMZ, and am writing one about Dokdo. Then I will write one about Jeju, Baekdusan and Seoul.”
One of the tantalising things about the London Book Fair is that we learn about an author’s other works, but we only have access to the one that has been translated so far. Despite her modest claims for it, the book has been read in so many ways (see the reviews on Goodreads). It is to be hoped that the success of The Hen will encourage further translations of her work.