On January 29th, brilliant Korean author Park Wan-suh passed away after a long fight with gallbladder cancer. An international treasure as well a national one, Park had a literary career that spanned thirty years. She wrote more than 20 novels and 100 short stories, a fair proportion of which have been translated into English.
Park was a relatively late-bloomer as a published author, writing her first novel just before she turned 40. The housewife turned into a novelist when her long story Namok (Bare Tree) won a contest organized by a female magazine run by the Donga daily newspaper. In subsequent years, Park became the Grand Dame of Korean letters, receiving the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award for her novel Mother’s Stake in 1981 and the Korean Literature Award in 1990.
Park’s early work detailed the tragedy of families separated by the Korean War, and the continuing suffering of the survivors of that conflict is demonstrated in suck works as The Naked Tree, Warm Was the Winter That Year, and Who Ate Up All the Shinga (to which Park has released a second volume, not yet published in English, titled Was the Mountain Really There). From about 1980, Park’s work centered on families, problems affecting women in Korea’s extremely patriarchal society, and biting critiques of the middle class.
Park’s work focused on traumas but in the context of family stories that alternately tugged at the heartstrings and brought smiles of recognition. Park’s indirectly political strategy means that readers who know Korean history and culture can tie her works into the implied historical context, while newcomers to Korean history can understand them within the narrower context of the family situation.
Last year Park celebrated her 40th anniversary as a novelist. Her last book was an essay on her life as an old-aged writer, named Roads Not Taken Are More Beautiful.
Park’s translated novels include Who Ate Up All the Shinga, which sold some 1.5 million copies in Korean and was well-reviewed in English translation, and Weathered Blossom, a touching story of love late in life. Park is also published in The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea.
At the time of her death, Park lived in the village of Acha, in Guri, outside of the hustle and bustle of Seoul. Her writing was touching, literary, clever and a sparkling window into Korean history and culture. She will be missed and cannot be replaced.
For more information on Park’s work, and where to find it, see ktlit.com/?p=2735.