[BOOK REVIEW]Short stories about how to be human

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[BOOK REVIEW]Short stories about how to be human

Life in South Korea has been hard and until recently unfree. These conditions at least gave South Korean writers important themes to write about ?in striking contrast to much of the short fiction produced in, say the United States, where writers probe the interior lives of their characters, sometimes to fascinating effect, but rarely to any larger social relevance. The writers collected in "Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women" hunt bigger game.

In "Scarlet Fingernails," by Kim Min-suk, a grown daughter sees her father for the first time since she was small. He was jailed as a North Korean spy and would not renounce communism, because he has another family in North Korea to protect. That created hardships for his wife and children in the South. As a young girl, the daughter fantasized that her father was secretly a heroic freedom fighter; as an adolescent she begged her mother to divorce him and tried to get her name removed from his family book. Now, at their reunion, she feels nothing for him, refuses to call him "Father." Her grandmother, surely seeing her son for the last time, is more sympathetic. "He was born at the wrong time," she says. "It was fashionable for the schoolkids to be Red then -- damned ism's."

In another story, "Human Decency," by Kong Chi-yong, a journalist has her interview assignment switched. She had been planning an article on a leader of the democracy fight, now rehabilitated after 20 years in jail. Her editor wants her to do a profile on an artist who spent the same 20 years away from Korea, building a glamorous reputation in India and Europe. The journalist knows she should not resent the artist for following her own star, but she cannot accept that those who stayed and fought have lost importance, now that we have a civilian government.

This fine collection of stories is about the most important subject of all -- how to be human.

by Hal Piper

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