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Most Feminine and Feminist

Article # : 11017 

Section : BOOK WORLD
Issue Date : 11 / 1993  3,576 Words
Author : Ji Moon Suh

       Yang Guy Ja
       Seoul: Sallym Publishers, 1992
       325 pp.
       Shin Kyung Sook
       Seoul: Moonhak gwa Jisong Publishers, 1993
       304 pp.
       While male writers have maintained a tight grip on the literary stronghold, Korea's women writers have been silently carving out their territories wherever they can find them.
       The first generation of Korean women writers were brave "new" women, who dared to defy the iron rules of Confucian propriety and make themselves publicly known: They tried not only to emancipate themselves but to help their oppressed sisters find liberation and selfhood. Na Hye Sok, Kim Myung Soon, and Kang Kyung Ae were true pioneers and subversives.
       The fate of Na Hye Sok (1896-1946?) explains the circumspection of the next two or three generations of Korean women writers. Primarily a painter, Na wrote short stories in her early twenties calling on Korean women to awaken to the indignity of dependent life and urging them to seek human dignity and self-fulfillment through a hardworking, self-determining life.
       But she became more famous for her suspected sexual licenses than as a painter or a writer. Her diary shows that up to her late thirties she tried hard to remain loyal to her wifely and maternal roles in spite of the many humiliations and frustrations of her unhappy marriage. It is hard to tell what was the nature and extent of her "free love," but she came to be known as a shameless voluptuary who used her artistic pretensions as an excuse for her sexual abandon. She is believed to have died on the street, a destitute beggar.
       Na Hye Sok was often used as a warning, even a reproach, to young women with literary or artistic aspirations. "Do you want to become another Na Hye Sok?" was a frequent reprimand to daughters and younger sisters.
       Becoming a woman writer thus required tremendous courage, and to survive as one required careful strategies. One such strategy is to limit oneself to "feminine" subjects and "feminine" techniques, making only occasional forays into the "masculine" domain of political and ideological spheres. Not that the "feminine" subjects did not provide women writers ample material. Korean women in the turbulent period of national tragedy and rapidly changing mores needed spokeswomen for their hurts and confusions, and women writers supplied this need. But their predominantly feminine concerns caused them to be regarded with condescension by their male colleagues and earned them the epithet of "yoryu"--literally "female class"--writers.
       Women writers were thus relegated to secondary; supporting, decorative roles in the Korean literary world. But, of course, there have been those women writers who could not and would not disguise their insight and anger and who produced works that jeopardized their "respectability" and "charm" in the public eye.
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