Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Grieving a nation's rural past, through literature

The New York Times Saturday profile on September 8 featured South Korean writer, Shin Kyung-Sook.  Journalist Choe Sang-Hun discusses Shin's life, including her migration with her mother from rural Korea to Seoul at age 15 in 1978.  Choe also notes parallels between Shin's life and the novelist's poignant fiction, set against the same backdrop of the nation's rapid industrialization and the accompanying rural-to-urban migration in the 1970s and 1980s.  In short, Shin's work often grieves the nation's rural past, and what has been lost in the nation's transition to the world's 13th largest economy.  Choe writes:
Seoul-bound trains at the time, like the one mother and daughter [Shin] boarded that night, picked up many young rural South Koreans along the way--part of the migration that fueled South Korea's industrialization but forever changed its traditional family life.  
It is that social upheaval that Ms. Shin evoked in her most famous novel to date, "Please Look After Mom," which earned her the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and a commercial success attained by few other Korean writers.
Shin Soo-jeong, a professor of Korean literature at Myongji University in Seoul, is quoted:
In [Shin's] novels, readers have the chance to pause and reflect upon the other side of their society's breakneck race for economic growth, what they have lost in that pursuit and upon people who were left behind in the mad rush.
Choe's feature continues:
In "Please Look After Mom", an elderly woman from the countryside travels to Seoul to visit her children and gets lost in what is quite literally a mad rush:  the scramble to get on a Seoul subway.  Reviewers have called her disappearance a metaphor for the profound sense of loss in a society that hurtled from an agrarian dictatorship to an industrialized democracy within a single and often tumultuous generation.  
As I was searching for the digital version of this story to link to it here, I came across this May, 1971 story that highlights the Korean rural-urban divide of that time.  Indeed, the headline is "In South Korea, Urban Affluence and Rural Poverty."  Takashi Oka's story compared the lives of a skilled worker in a Kia motorcycle factory outside Seoul and a rice farmer in an isolated mountain village in southeastern South Korea.  The latter, working with his father, harvested 70 bags of rice a year with his father, without any power tillers.  The village in which he lived was without electricity though he said he was able to keep in touch with the outside world by radio.  He also noted that the lives of the villagers had been improved by better paths from their homes to the rice paddies, which permitted the use of bicycle carts to bring the harvest in.  Previously, they had accomplished using wooden A frames, strapped on their backs.  In contrast, the factory worker in Seoul owned a three-room house with a kitchen (purchased for $1600), half a mile from his factory.  The city dweller also owned a bicycle, sewing machine, record player and a radio.

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