Stripping away the defenses of Korea’s toxic patriarchy
The novel, released in 1988, the year the Olympics took place in Korea, enjoyed good sales in local bookstores.
The author used her narrative to examine domestic violence, extra marital affairs, prostitution, divorce and other dilemmas endured by working-class women and double-income couples. The book made Lee a best-selling author.
This was a time when terms like “feminism” and “women’s literature” barely existed, especially in Korea. There were some veteran women writers, but young literary celebrities like Shin Gyeong-suk or Gong Ji-young, who dominated the Korean literary scene for the next 20 years, were largely unknown.
Nearly two decades have passed since the publication of “Half Failure.” Meanwhile, Lee’s eldest daughter, who was in an elementary school when the novel was first released, has finished graduate school and left the country to study abroad. Lee’s youngest daughter also grew up and starting bringing home her own paycheck.
Lee has now written a collection of essays in the form of letters to her daughters called, “Girls, Do Not Make the Same Mistakes as Half Failure.” The first thing that I discovered from the book is that Lee has ended her marriage of 28 years.
Sometimes a writer’s personal life is irrelevant to their work; more often it’s not. In Lee’s case, it’s central, as her work and her personal life are woven together as tightly as thread in a norigae.
“My father was a typical husband from a patriarchal family who used violence in the name of love,” Lee says. “My mother submitted to his power like a slave. I planned on staying single, not to repeat the same mistakes as my mother. But somewhere in my mind, I had a fantasy about having a home.”
Lee’s marriage turned out to be similar to that of many others but, for 28 years, she did her best to make matrimony work.
“I was afraid to be on my own, free from the encircling walls of male protection,” she says. “It took me three years after my divorce before I actually found myself and knew who I was. I had firmly internalized the male-centered view of the world. I believed that a woman could never be complete if she lived alone.”
Lee had dreamed of becoming a writer since she was nine.
She left her hometown in Yangyang in Gangwon to study literature in Seoul. Her childhood dream turned into an adult passion.
Her family has described Lee “a woman who will be dead by the time she stops writing.” Lee agrees, calling herself “a natural-born writer.”
To help Lee’s career, her mother looked after the grandparents of Lee’s husband, made food and cleaned the house, while Lee cranked out one novel after another.
“I was nervous and depressed, thinking how miserable I would be if I lost my family, but I knew I would go mad if I stopped writing,” she says. “I felt empty if I didn’t write. But when I concentrated on writing, something in my domestic life would go wrong. So I tried to perform both roles as best as I could, fearful that my family would fall apart if I didn’t. But the more I tried to be perfect, the more exhausted and angry I became. My husband was gentle and decent, but he couldn’t understand my concerns.”
Lee’s dilemma is not unique to her. Most contemporary women writers have struggled with the same issues, including groundbreaking female intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, a French philosopher and writer from the first wave of the European feminist movement.
Meanwhile, men can easily integrate life and work into one.
De Beauvoir argues that as women concentrate on their work in the search for independence, they become more distant from conventional feminine values, such as loyalty to their family.
In reality, many working women now try hard to maintain the balance between work and family, but Korean society often considers these pioneers to be cruel and heartless for failing to be available to their husband and offspring at all times.
Many working mothers suffer severe guilt or depression because they have to give up their job or their family.
In her latest book Lee writes to her daughters, “Work allows you to communicate with the outside world, and only economic independence will allow you to become fully independent.
“The depression many Korean women experience is far more severe and specific than that which de Beauvoir describes in her book, because women in Korea are not welcome in their family from the moment of their birth. When a girl is born, the child’s mother and her grandmother are criticized because the child wasn’t a boy. People don’t seem to understand that male chromosomes decide a child’s sex.”
While the growing number of working women has led to important shifts in Korean society, such as a low birthrate and equal opportunities for education, Lee still believes that women will never be able to avoid being “emotional orphans” if social conditions fail to change to a radical degree, especially in terms of work and the family.
“Women become emotional orphans in Korea because they grow up constantly hearing that they will eventually leave home to become part of their husband’s family,” Lee writes. “It’s like working in a company that always treats you as someone who will eventually have to leave. Things have changed over the years, but it’s still the convention that a wife must visit her husband’s family first during major holidays. A daughter-in-law still has to give birth to a son to be truly acknowledged as part of her husband’s family. So when a woman finally gives birth to a son, she constantly identifies herself with him, thereby completely absorbing herself in the system of patriarchy.
“She gives up everything for her son, so when her son finds a wife, the mother inevitably becomes a competitor with her daughter-in-law.”
After Girls, Do Not Make the Same Mistake as Half Failure was released, I decided to read Half Failure again.
Many of the issues Lee tackles in her 1988 novel are still fresh, even after 20 years.
In “Fantasy of Blood,” her fourth novel, Lee wrote, “A woman lives in a separate world from a man, and they don’t want to know about each other’s world. Men have made a harness for women, not knowing their real essence. A woman who believes that she possesses her man is really just holding on to the end of the harness.”
Lee says that her latest book was something she had to write in order to stay sane.
“I began to see the reality that women face after I got married,” she says. “I wrote the book because I felt like I was going to burn myself to death if I didn’t. So I was like somebody screaming, ‘Fire!’ That cry was the essence of the book. I now understand why I felt like there was a fire in my mind. I can now sit calmly and observe aspects of masculinity that continue to oppress many women. Then I began to see oppressed femininity in many men as well, men who were suffering because of the life they were forced to live. The other victims in a male-dominated society are men themselves.”
If Lee was to write “Half Failure” again, she says that she would focus on revealing similarities in the conflicts experienced by men and women.
“The difference between a man and a woman is simply the issue of sexuality,” she says. “We are really the same otherwise. If you acknowledge that, a man and a woman can meet as human beings. That’s the only way for men and women to avoid half failure.”
After Half Failure was made into a TV drama it was able to move a new group of women, young and old. It is still widely read because its analysis is so astute and penetrating. That reflects the author’s polemical inspirations.
“The genesis for a novel is to be found in a question,” she says, explaining the purpose behind her writing. “The motif for a book always begins with a dilemma. For me, I wrote because I was a woman.”
She explains, though, that her other novels, apart from Half Failure and “Love and Injury,” deal with other issues beside feminism.
But in the end, they essentially reflect the lives of women.
By Jang Jeong-il Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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