Homesick and alone, a teenage girl has just arrived in Seoul to work in a factory. Her family, still in the countryside, is too impoverished to keep sending her to school, so she works long, sunless days on a stereo assembly line, struggling through night school every evening in order to achieve her dream of becoming a writer.
Korea’s brightest literary star sets this complex and nuanced coming-of-age story against the backdrop of Korea’s industrial sweatshops of the 1970s and takes on the extreme exploitation, oppression, and urbanization that helped catapult Korea’s economy out of the ashes of war. But it was girls like Shin’s heroine who formed the bottom of Seoul’s rapidly changing social hierarchy, forgotten and ignored. Richly autobiographical, The Girl Who Wrote Lonelinesslays bare the conflict and confusion Shin faces as she confronts her past and the sweeping social change of the past half century. Cited in Korea as one of the most important literary novels of the decade, this novel cements Shin’s legacy as one of the most insightful and exciting writers of her generation.
The book is written as a sort of memoir. The protagonist reminds the reader several times that it is both fiction and memoir. She goes travels between the present and the past and doesn’t always let us know and that can be confusing at times. It lends to the feeling that the protagonist is haunted by her past, that she can so easily drift into memories and stop seeing the world as it is around her in that moment. I loved that it gave a bigger picture of the protagonist as a person, that these events of her past still had a hold of her, but that she was working to let them go.
There is something very powerful about taking deliberate time to work through what haunts us, to let go of the shame we feel in our past, to stop letting it hurt us.
I’ll be honest, I listened to the audiobook, which was 13 hours long and read by Emily Woo Zeller. Zeller is amazing, giving the book a full performance, complete with the reverie that really let me know when she was drifting between times. Fortunately, having listened instead of read the book, I could hear the pronunciations of the beautiful names that I would have otherwise just butchered.
As far as the feminist side of things go, this is definitely one of those books that I picked it solely because of Women In Translation month and would not have found any other way. It’s proof that setting out to find diverse books to read on purpose allows me to find books that would not have otherwise been in my path and to appreciate stories that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to hear/read. It lets me step into places and history that I was never aware of, such as a sweatshop in Korea during the last century. In that same vein, it’s great to read the stories of ordinary women. I know we get caught up in the women breaking barriers and starting revolutions, but we need to remember the ordinary women too. We need to remember the ones who join unions and those who don’t, the ones who can only go to school because of work programs, the ones who finish and those who don’t, the ones who find their dreams and those who don’t.
While the content keeps this from being the kind of story that I could recommend to anyone, this is the kind of book I wish they would include in curriculum for world or Eastern literature. To use her own words to explain the importance of this:
History is in charge of putting things in order and society is in charge of defining them. The more order we achieve, the more truth is hidden behind that neat surface… Perhaps literature is about throwing into disarray what has been defined… About making a mess of things, all over again.
If diversity or feminism or women’s lives are among the things you like to read about, this is definitely a book for you. Also, check out the rest of Shin’s books here.