Sometimes, with a long list of e-books to read in my tablet, I take a chance and sift through my list. I read the first few sentences of a story first. If these first few sentences immediately grab my attention, I continue reading. If not, then I move on to the next possible story.
And in my nth try, this passage finally did it for me:
“Everyone was wondering – how could this happen on a farm where there isn’t even a pigsty? The gigantic hog passed in front of the barn and came dashing toward the seedbed plot. It looked, perhaps, like a wild boar, or like a horse with a full load. Surely, this was not a common pig.”
Intriguing enough, so I read on. The story then proceeds in a dream-like manner, about a hog crazily chasing after a girl named Bunnyeo, until the hog finally lays itself on top of her, preventing her from moving. After which this hog suddenly becomes a person gagging her and doing things to her, until finally, the “hog” ties back her goreum (strips of cloth used to tie traditional Korean dresses to a close) into a neat knot, and then goes away into the night, saying:
“There’s no need to be too bitter about anything. Everything will be fine as long as we keep this just between the two of us. As for who I am…whoever does it, it makes no difference.”
To which I go “Woah!” How could a lyrical, dream-like beginning take a shocking turn to what probably is every woman’s worst nightmare – in a word, rape?
In just a couple of paragraphs, author Lee Hyo-seok’s (1907-1942) “Bunnyeo” (published in 1936 and translated by Ally Hwang in 2013), managed to draw me in to a world where women are grabbed, taken, and used as men pleased.
From peers to superiors, Bunnyeo is moved from one man to another. She is violated out of desire and attraction, she is violated out of a desire for distraction from another woman, she is violated out of desire to violate just because word spreads among men like wildfire about which girl is free and easy for the taking.
And as a woman, you can’t help but feel anger at these men, and anger at Bunnyeo when she feebly accepts her own self as an object to be used and passed on, when she thinks:
“After all, she was ill-fated from the start. With Myeongjun, and in the same way with Cheonsu, she surrendered her body to force. At first, she blamed herself and cried but looking back Myeongjun, Cheonsu, and even Mangap…they were all the same. Their strength, desire, and how they made her feel. ‘Men are just men all the same,’ she thought. It was just like everyone having only one nose and two arms. Insofar as what the body knew was concerned, there was no man better or worse; there was no one to fear and no one to dislike. Once given to Myeongjun the body had nothing stopping it from being given to Mangap: what was allowed to Mangap had no reason to be kept from Cheonsu.”
So this is what happens when women feebly accept that they are an object to be used and passed on. But thank God this is in the past. And thank God this is not my first encounter with Korean culture.
As with most people, I got hooked on Korean culture through Korean TV dramas and films. And reading Bunnyeo called to mind the stark contrast between the seemingly weak and fatalistic Bunnyeo and the take-charge, strong women of Korean films I’ve seen.
I’m thinking of the film “Azooma” (Lee Ji-seung, 2013), and how the ahjumma bravely took matters into her own hands when her 10-year old daughter was brutally raped and the justice system seemed too slow in finding the molester.
I’m also thinking of the film “Hope” (Lee Joon-Ik, 2013) and how the 8-year old girl Hope showed quiet strength in overcoming the hurt and pain she suffered in the hands of a sexual molester, and of how this child inspired her parents to heal and be strong for each other and for her.
If seen from the context of today’s women, reading Bunnyeo gives readers a glimpse of how far Korean women have come in re-claiming their selves. As we can see in contemporary films, Korean women have become fighting women in the face of injustice. And that’s a huge leap forward from the days of the resigned and silent Bunnyeo in this book, surely.
“Bunnyeo” is part of a series of modern Korean novels translated into English by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. It is available as an app or a PDF online for free. To download, visit http://ebook.klti.or.kr/ebooks/m/20century.jsp.