Monday, September 24, 2018

Hwang Sun-won - Conversation in June about Mothers (Overview)
If there were ever a more trite statement made about literature, it would be that reading stories from different literary cultures enriches people's experience of the world. However, "books take you places" isn't just another platitude rehashed by publishers, Reading teachers or something you'd find pasted on a cardboard sign in a Fox Books megastore from Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail. It's an observation, albeit somewhat hyperbolized due to its dependence on personifying books, founded on readers' escapades with every book cover opened. 

This feeling of being transported to a new kind of reality is what I sensed after reading Hwang Sun-won's "Conversation in June about Mothers", a short story born out of the Cold War which presents facets of the mystery that is motherhood. 

Feminists can cut it down from every angle possible as it depicts men's perceptions of what a mother can be or become, but to me it is an imprint of male conscience, a testament of men's relation to this sensitive topic and as such, should be read with a curious eye, not a merciless one. 

The beauty of the story lies in its multiperspectivity which presents substories of increasing tension that nail a reader to his or her seat. The final story unveils the Gordian Knot of all dilemmas (I'm tempted to say the 'mother of all dilemmas', but the play on words in relation to this story would be too kitschy), making this tale a source of infinite discussions.

As always, use this short story as a starting point for learners of English to practice their speaking skills. For those who simply love thought-provoking stories, this one fits the bill. The notes that follow can be used to frame discussions, assist students in writing an assignment or to check your understanding of it.

(Unfortunately, no online version of it could be found, so I'm afraid you'll have to get hold of a copy of The Book of Masks, the collection of stories by Hwang which includes it.)

Hwang Sun-won – Conversation in June about Mothers

  • born 1915, Pyongyang, North Korea
  • 1946 he + family moved from Northern part of Korea (occupied by Soviets) to Southern part (occupied by US troops)
  • 1950-1953 Korean civil war
  • studied in Tokyo, taught in Seoul (Kyung Hee University)
  • his literary career spans 7 decades
  • this story = written in 1965 (found in his collection of stories entitled The Book of Masks)

  • Korea, after WWII
  • June (most likely 1946 - in May of 1946 it was declared illegal to cross the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea without a permit)
  • man traveling with other men to the south (of Korea, to escape from Soviet occupation)
  • primary narrator's story (flashback 1)
    • wife just gave difficult birth
    • decision = father will leave with eldest son now; mother with 7-year-old son and baby will come later
    • as they’re leaving, boy runs back to mother without hesitation and stays with her
  • narrator talks with his traveling companions about the power of mothers (“a mother is an absolute being” ; in comparison, a father means nothing)
  • story of youngest man in group (flashback 2)
    • his mother eloped with lover when he was 7; says he hates her
    • only memory he has is asking her to light a lamp at night and she didn’t
    • she didn’t search for him after all these years
    • as a soldier, was wounded saw his mother’s face, her tongue sticking out
    • this image of her = connected to childhood memory of his: his eyes were stuck together by mucus in the mornings, so she’d lick them open
    • due to his hatred of his mother, as he lay wounded + dying, he kept seeing this image it was this that kept him alive (he kept his eyes open, stayed conscious)
    • conclusion: I don’t know if mothers are absolute beings, but there’s sth mysterious about them

  • another man’s story (flashback 3)
    • fled one night to the South; foggy; needed to cross river in boat; needed to keep silent or enemy would shoot
    • baby began to cry; mother threw it in river (to save the many, we need to sacrifice the few)
    • other traveler’ s comment: when it comes to life + death, even maternal instinct gives way to self-preservation
    • narrator: criticizes this mother
    • this story’s outcome: mother’s breasts swollen with milk; she didn’t squeeze milk out but cut her nipples with scissors herself

  • father (primary narrator)
    • surprised by the power of a woman’s voice (when he sees his son return and stay with his wife without hesitation)
    • can be seen as practical or harsh: leaves his wife and newborn baby behind to escape Soviet occupation
    • traditional value given to first-born son: leaves for the South to save him, but doesn’t wait for wife or his other children
    • quick to criticize / doesn’t consider how consequences of actions weigh on other people: last story about mother who threw baby in river

  • primary narrator's son
    • considered daddy’s boy by everyone: follows father around; eager to leave with father at beginning of story; has backpack all ready to leave with father
    • returns and stays with his mother in an instant, without thinking (this shows a mother's overwhelming influence)

  • youngest man traveling with primary narrator
    • example of how a mother can elicit hatred in son: mother must be steady figure, show love; when son feels neglected, he lashes out
    • through him reader sees that mothers have power to elicit strongest/extreme feelings + images (love, hatred, will to survive, subconscious images of them remain though we believe we remember nothing of them)

  • mothers described in flashbacks
    • powerful: voice makes children return, abandon fathers
    • memory of them is indelible in time
    • love them or hate them, you can’t escape them
    • possess instincts for good and evil
    • have power over life and death: give birth + drown their children
    • cannot escape maternal instinct (in the end, it’s just as powerful as instinct of self-preservation / to protect oneself from bodily harm)

point of view
  • not one narrator but many (multiperspectivity, multiple narrators, multinarrative)
  • result: see differing opinions (as part of argument; author lets reader draw their own conclusions)
  • tone of story isn’t didactic / moralizing
  • focus isn’t on understanding characters, but theme of motherhood and life experiences
  • point of view is effective because it wholly supports title of story
  • change of narrator maintains readers' focus: stories are brief and different so reader continues reading to reach the end of each substory
  • maternal instinct
    • not graven in stone: substories show a variety of women
      • flashback 1: strong mother figure
        • boy was more attached to her than anyone could have imagined; the boy had unequivocal trust in her 
      • flashback 2: seemingly bad motherly role model
        • young man hated his mother for neglecting his needs, abandoning him
        • woman of this substory seems self-centered, unfeeling 
        • despite her lack of maternal love, memory this young man has of her is one where she tends to him as an infant (in a way few mothers would -- imagine licking mucus off someone's eyes!)
      •  flashback 3: complex mother figure
        • there is both logic and insanity in this type of woman
        • she weighs a situation, acts based on her existence as a social being who must think of others and herself, but cannot deny her role of care-giver to her child
        • act of self-mutilation expresses her disgust at her inability to place her child's welfare over that of others (herself included)
  • mother-child relationship
    • strong bond 
    • mystery men cannot fathom
    • treads on the thin line between love + hate 
  • diversity of experiences
    • makes readers sympathetic to others' way of thinking
  • how men view motherhood


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