Korea lost two great women writers in less than three years. Park Wan-suh, who died of cancer Friday at the age of 79, will be buried in a Catholic cemetery in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, today. We are doubly saddened by her death as it so quickly followed the departure of Park Kyung-ri in May 2008.
The passing away of the two Parks who were loved by their contemporaries not only as the writers of best-selling novels but as human beings who shared the sufferings of Koreans in the turbulence of the 20th century left too big a void in the nation’s literary world. They both told the stories of people defying and succumbing to their fates living through the war and subsequent hardships, describing their sentiments with unique female sensitivity. Yet, they also produced epic works spanning generations, demonstrating their historical insights and the grasp of the spirit of the times.
Park Wan-suh published “Mimang (The Unforgettable)” in three volumes in 1990 after serializing the story of a merchant family in her hometown of Gaepung, now in North Korea, in Literary Thoughts magazine since 1985. She was apparently stimulated by Park Kyung-ri’s “Toji (The Land),” the 21-volume novel which she started writing for Modern Literature magazine in 1969 and finished in 1994.
While “Toji” was Park Kyung-ri’s representative work, Park Wan-suh put more of her literary energy on realistic portrayal of individual lives with compassion, warm humor and mild satire, which were sprinkled in her numerous short and long stories. Many of her novels contained her own life stories, just as her debut work “Namok (Naked Tree),” 1970, did. It was based on her encounter with painter Park Soo-keun at a U.S. Army PX where they both worked shortly after the war, Soo-keun as a portrait drawer for GIs and Wan-sue as a sort of salesperson for the artists.
Both Parks were big hopes for their Nobel Prize-thirsty Korean fans. Park Wan-suh’s “Eomma-eui Maldduk (Mother’s Picket)” was published in French by Actes Sud in 1993 and her collection of short stories in English was released by M.E. Sharpe under the title of “My Very Last Profession” in 1999. Yet, as in the other Park’s works, her use of a lot of colloquial words made it hard to convey the subtlety of her literature in other languages.
Her death will no doubt be followed by the flooding of bookstores with the reprint copies of her novels and collections of short stories and essays. But we will soon miss not only her new creations but the sight of the woman writer who traveled from her home in Seoul’s suburban Achiul village on subway trains to grace literary events with her innocent smile.
In her essay, “Strange Roads Are More Beautiful” published last year, she said, “The soil and seeds are inseparable. The soil embraces the seeds softly and warmly. If my body is to be laid in the soil, I won’t fear even death.” She may have been ready for her death, but it came too soon.
Twitter and other Internet sites are overflowing with eulogies to the writer from people who “felt happy for just being a contemporary of Park Wan-suh,” as one blogger remarked.