One Hundred Shadows

I first heard about One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon, from one of Jen Campbell‘s haul videos and it instantly grabbed my attention because I’d been reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean into English by Deborah Smith, who started Tilted Axis Press, which translated One Hundred Shadows. Whew! Did we get all that? Titled Axis Press specializes in translating works from Korean into English, and One Hundred Shadows is their second publication–I believe they plan on translating works from all over the world. Here’s a blurb from their mission statement:

Tilted Axis publishes the books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting to us – artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new.

Tilting the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins allows us to challenge that very division. These margins are spaces of compelling innovation, where multiple traditions spark new forms and translation plays a crucial role.

Source

Hwang Jungeun first published One Hundred Shadows in South Korea in 2010, and it received the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award and the Korean Booksellers’ Award. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and exhibited excellent language skills from a young age. She says, “Writing helps me be a stronger person. It helps in practically every aspect of my life.” Watch a 2 minute interview of her here. Hwang’s work has been lauded for “[using] fantasy and allegory to reconstruct the voice of social minorities. Her unique aesthetic in portraying her deep interest in social issues stands out among the major achievements of Korean literature in the 21st century.” In One Hundred Shadows, Hwang depicts a slum electronics market in Seoul. In the story, there is talk of taking down one of the buildings in which the slum resides, Building A. Seoul wants progress, yet what happens to the people who have created a home here?

There are very real examples of slums sitting tightly against the booming high rises and fancy lifestyles of some Seoul inhabitants. One slum known as Guryong Village is “the last shanty town in Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest district – whose rich inhabitants were lampooned in the pop song Gangnam Style.” Pop star Psy shows off the wealth of the Gangnam neighborhood; meanwhile, Guryong residents are unsure what will become of their home.

Two thousand people are crammed into the overcrowded Gangnam slum, a shanty town made up of a sea of ramshackle huts and corrugated iron roofs, where several families are forced to share one hole-in-the-ground toilet and even the bugs have become resistant to insect repellent.

Source

Some say that the Guryong village may be preserved, but the latest news report I could find was published in November 2015. (If anyone knows anything more, please direct me in the comments). For more information and photographs of Guryong village, click here.

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In One Hundred Shadows, Hwang’s characters live and work in a slum electronics market in Seoul. Eungyo and Mujae are both fairly young repair shop assistants who know each other through work. They slowly get to know each other throughout the course of the novel. On one of their dates, they discuss what a slum is.

Do you know what a slum is, Eungyo?

Something to do with being poor?

I looked it up in the dictionary.

What did it say?

An area in a city where poor people live. Mujae looked at me. They say the area around here is a slum.

Who?

The papers, and people.

Slum?

It’s a little odd, isn’t it?

It is odd.

Slum.

Slum.

We sat there repeating the word for a while, and then I said, I’ve heard the word, of course, but I’d never thought of this place as a slum.

Hwang, 100

So often in media our protagonists live in nice homes with no explanation of how they can afford these swanky apartments or luxurious country houses. Or, if we look at a character that comes from a “difficult background,” that tends to be his defining factor. Hwang does an amazing job of showing the reader people who happen to live in a slum. They are people–there is no benefit in making them look a certain way, tragic or heroic. They are people. Later, Eungyo says, “I wonder if they call this kind of place a slum, because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down.” Humans are good at creating ways to avoid holding themselves accountable for their beliefs and actions.

Speaking of beliefs, the novel is introduced with a description of Korean sunshower lore. This is particularly interesting to me as my mother, who is from Brazil, has always told me that when both the sun is shining and it’s raining the foxes are getting married. If you look up sunshower on Wikipedia, you’ll find that numerous countries have some folkloric explanation for this meteorological occurrence. In Korean, the word for sunshower is “Yeowoo-bi” which is literally translated as “fox rain.” The Korean tale depicts a tiger groom marrying a bride fox, and this fox kumiho, the nine-tailed fox, is a evil-intentioned character.

As I read One Hundred Shadows, I wanted to understand why the editors and author decided to put this explanation of kumiho before the story. There isn’t a specific instance of a sunshower occurring in the story, nor is there an explicit explanation of the kumiho fairy-tale in the story*. But I do think that One Hundred Shadows reads like a modern fairy-tale, so perhaps the kumiho explanation sets up a haunting lens through which the reader enters One Hundred Shadows.

*There are, however, several places Yeowoo-bi and foxes and tigers appear:

Don’t go following shadows, Mujae said, and I narrowed my eyes to bring him into focus, thinking he looked oddly hazy. Yeowoo-bi, I realized, slender as spiders’ silk.

Hwang 12

Don’t worry too much. They say you can survive as long as you keep your eyes peeled, even if you’re captured by a fox.

Isn’t it a tiger?

What do you mean, a tiger?

The saying is that you can survive as long as you keep your eyes peeled, even if you’re captured by a tiger.

A tiger, a fox, it’s all the same, Mr. Yeo said, pushing a lamp with a tin hemisphere shade right up against the board. What I’m saying is, you need to keep your eyes peeled when what’s in front of you has teeth.

Hwang 30

In my research, I found that it’s common for kumiho to shape-shift.

Most legends state that while a kumiho was capable of changing its appearance, there is still something persistently fox-like about it (i.e. a fox-like face, a set of ears, or the tell-tale nine tails) or a magical way of forcing; its countenance changes, but its nature does not. […] Although they have the ability to change forms, the true identity of a kumiho was said to be zealously guarded by the kumiho themselves. Some tales say that if a kumiho abstains from killing and eating humans for a thousand days, it can become human.

Source

This idea of the fox being able to change its shape, yet retaining a key aspect of itself–or the possibility of it transforming from a malignant magical creature into a human–stood out to me. It reminds me of the relationship characters in the book have with their shadows. Much of One Hundred Shadows is an exploration in different ways characters’ shadows have “risen.” There is no definite explanation for what it means for a shadow to rise, or what can happen if it does, or if it continues to happen. What is sure is that there is a fluidity between a person and her shadow. The question is, is the person more person than her shadow, or…?

Themes

Here are some recurring images I picked up on. Let me know which ones you found down in the comments!

  • shadows
  • light vs. darkness (literal/physical)
  • matryoshka
  • food
  • story-telling
  • whorls
  • debt

Discussion Questions

After you read the book, feel free to come back here and consider the following questions. You can use these simply as a backboard for making sense of your thoughts, or you can actually write responses to the questions and post them down below! I would love to hear what you think. If you’d like to have a more in-depth conversation about the book, please e-mail me at acofer226@gmail.com.

  • What does Yeowoo-bi (fox rain) have to do with the actual One Hundred Shadows story?
  • Why do you think the author/editors decided to leave out quotation marks? How does this affect how one reads the story?
  • How is story-telling an important aspect of One Hundred Shadows? (What are some examples of characters telling stories? What are these stories about?)
  • What does the scene with the matryoshka represent? How does it further the story or add to it?
  • What does it mean to “follow your shadow”? Why do so many advise against it?
  • What does a shadow represent? How is it separate or distinct from a person?
  • Do the shadows help Hwang explore her social commentary?
  • What is Hwang commenting on socially? Culturally?
  • What does Hwang highlight about slums? About people?
  • What is this book about?

 

Note: a change regarding “Yeowoo-bi” appearing in the One Hundred Shadows story was made on 31 August 2016. The original post suggested there was no mention of “Yeowoo-bi” in the text.

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