General Search  
Contents   Last Issues   Subscription Online  


Vol.11 Spring 2011 (Page 30-33)
Boys, Be Yourselves: Novelist
Eun Hee-kyung
by Cho Yeon-jung
By shedding conventional expectations of age-appropriate behavior,
author Eun Hee-kyung explores individualism and acceptance in her recent works.

Eun Hee-kyung has written 10 books since her literary debut 16 years ago. Her body of work includes four novels and six short story collections. From A Gift from a Bird (Munhakdongne, 1996), which depicts the adult world seen through the suspicious eyes of the precocious 12-year-old narrator, to Secrets and Lies (Munhakdongne, 2005), the story of two intricately interwoven families over the course of three generations, Eun has excited her readers by always experimenting and trying something new.
      While each new work betrays her past work, it is possible to identify certain unchanging principles in Eun’s fiction. She is more committed to conveying the circumstances or atmosphere than the plot itself; she focuses on the individual more than the group;
and she is more interested in examining the dark side of the world than its surface. One could conclude that Eun has preferred raising doubts to asserting her worldview. These characteristics, which she has exhibited through her elegant and sophisticated writing, attracted much attention in the Korean literary world in the context of the 1990s, a decade characterized by the collapse of meta-ideologies and increasing individualization. It would be no exaggeration to state that many of the writers who have debuted since 2000 dreamed of becoming writers as they grew up reading Eun’s novels. The literary critic Shin Hyeong-cheol once declared that “Eun Hee-kyung is her own genre.” Similarly, the novelist Kim Junghyuk has remarked that “The name Eun Hee-kyung represents a brand.” At some point, Eun had become a writer whose name alone made you pick up her book without hesitation.
      Eun has recently published her fourth novel, Let Boys Cry (Munhakdongne, 2010). The 17-year-old protagonist Yeon-wu, who lives with his freelance fashion columnist mother, meets Tae-su, who has just moved into the neighborhood; hip hop through his new friend, Yeon-wu becomes enamored with the hiphop music of a high school-age rapper by the name of G-Griffin. And he falls in love with a girl named Chae-yeong. Writing deliberately without a clear narrative, Eun has focused instead on delicately portraying the inner world of her lonely teenage characters. A mother of two adult children, Eun has managed to eliminate all adult viewpoints from her portrayal of 17-year-old students. Although Yeon-wu, who possesses a delicate, sensitive soul, might be a little different from the 17-year-olds that we are used to seeing in real life, we cannot consider him an unrealistic character. Why did Eun decide to write a story about a boy who is so unlike other boys his age?

critic Cho Yeon-jung

“Lately, there has been a shift in my thinking, no, more precisely, in my attitude. I was 35 at the time of my literary debut—not a young age— and all I cared about was finding myself while denying the world. I think I was determined not to trust the world which was shrouded in secrets.”

      “I have long been very interested in people who have broken away from social conventions and particular ideologies that are implicitly accepted by everyone. As I have grown older and more aware, I started rebelling strongly against expressions like woman-like, man-like, child-like, and adult-like, all of which demand someone to act a certain way. I wanted to put these thoughts into a novel, so in my latest work, I created characters that were divorced from the semantic definitions of our society. Yeon-wu’s mother Shin Min-a, for instance, is a mother who has nothing to do
with adultness, and Yeon-wu is a young man who has nothing to do with manliness. I didn’t set out to revise semantic definitions but rather just wanted to overturn all existing conventions. I tried to show that a mother who isn’t conventionally motherly could still be a good mother, and a young man who isn’t at all manly could be so by choice,” she responded during our interview.
      Indeed, Let Boys Cry features an unmotherly mother and an unfilial son. The relationship between the mother and the son is easygoing and natural like that between a brother and a sister. The mother does not demand anything from the son, and when she expresses her opinion, she usually just tries to plead her case and make suggestions. The son therefore does not really have any reason to rebel or hide anything. In fact, the son sometimes ends up silently comforting his immature, weak-hearted mother. There is nothing in their relationship that causes problems in their relationship. But when they are exposed to the opinions of others, problems begin to arise because they find themselves in situations where they have to act in a way that is unnatural for them like putting on ill-fitting clothes. Consciously or subconsciously, we all often have to resist our innate tendencies and act like other people. Let Boys Cry is a kind of small consolation offered by the author to people living in such ill-fitting clothes. Thus, the boy in the title can be expanded to signify “the inner world of all ‘incomplete’ people as marginal people and outsiders.” Eun explains the meaning of boy as “the anxiety, the soft, vulnerable heart and the sensitivity we all possess regardless of age or gender.”
      In many ways, Let Boys Cry has reawakened interest in A Gift

1. Le cadeau de l`oiseau
Eun Hee-kyung, Kailash, 2002

2. 汉城兄弟
Eun Hee-kyung, 作家出版社, 2004

3. 鸟的礼物
Eun Hee-kyung, 人民文学出版社, 2007
from a Bird, Eun’s first full-length breakthrough novel. The latter’s protagonist Jin-hee, who was raised by her grandmother, without her parents, trains herself relentlessly to protect herself from the disapproval or pity of others. On the other hand, Yeon- wu, who lives with his mother, grows up into a lonely but honest and sensitive person. Instead of squeezing himself into the mold of the world, Yeon-wu takes a step back and laments the mold itself. Compared to Jin-hee, he is not a strong figure that actively confronts the world. He prefers to relieve his loneliness by listening to hip hop or going for a run. Could we understand such a departure from her earlier work as a transformation in the writer’s mind?
      Eun responded as follows: “Lately, there has been a shift in my thinking, no, more precisely, in my attitude. I was 35 at the time of my literary debut—not a young age—and all I cared about was finding myself while denying the world. I think I was determined not to trust the world which was shrouded in secrets. The character Jin-hee reflected my thinking at the time. Although many of my readers asked me ‘How is one supposed to live?’ I didn’t really have an answer for them because I was only focused on finding myself back then. Each novel I wrote was filled with aspects of myself that even I hadn’t known. As time passed, I began to grow tired of denying and mistrusting everything. I think I have since become relatively free of these obsessions, and the way I view the younger generation has changed as a result. Now I don’t want them to be judged by a certain standard. And I believe it’s not right for the older generation to criticize them by their
novelist Eun Hee-kyung
standards. I hope the youth will be able to express what they possess more naturally using their own criteria.”
      Perhaps this is why Eun’s story of a boy pleasantly defies our prejudice against young adult fiction written by adults, which we tend to assume are anachronistic and marked by the authors’ efforts to enlighten the reader. Not only in terms of content but also of form, one can hardly find the sophisticated sentences and abstract language characteristic of Eun’s other novels. According to her, she took great pains to use simple expressions throughout the book, in order to recreate the tone and speech of a 17-year-old boy. Eun added that while searching for the right expressions was difficult, assuming the character of Yeon-wu was not. Her explanation was that Let Boys Cry is not intended to be a story aimed at teenage readers and written at their level; rather, it is a truly honest work of fiction that freely expresses the author’s long-held critical attitudes. Eun also shared that discovering hip hop gave her a great deal of courage. Because the novel reads more like small conversations between the author and the reader rather than one grand tale told by just the author to the reader, it in fact resembles hip hop music in that sense.
      Many of Eun’s other novels have been translated into other languages. Taking into consideration the author’s opinion that “We should first show the readers abroad how far Korean culture has evolved and then introduce our unique culture,” I think Let Boys Cry should be published abroad before others. This is because all individuals, surrounded by prejudice, can be lonely at any time, whoever and wherever they are.

4. El regalo del ave
Eun Hee-kyung, Emecé, 2009

5. La stanza di mia moglie
Eun Hee-kyung, Cafoscarina, 2004

6. Ein Geschenk des Vogels
Eun Hee-kyung, Pendragon, 2005

7. Les Boîtes de ma femme
Eun Hee-kyung, Zulma, 2009

8. Secrets and Lies
Eun Hee-kyung, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2005, 318p, ISBN 8982819401

9. A Gift from a Bird
Eun Hee-kyung, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1995, 435p, ISBN 9788954613651 (reprinted in 2010)