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In This Memoir, Prison Is A Place — And A State Of Mind

The Prisoner, Hwang Sok-yong's expansive memoir — incisively translated by Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell — vividly captures a South Korean writer's literal and metaphorical imprisonment. Even the cover's ascetic design poignantly evokes the ruptures in Hwang's life and work — caused by war, ideology, geography, and language — rendering the author's disembodied profile in gray against cragged zones of black and white.

Hwang, a former political prisoner and pro-democracy intellectual, maintains that every Korean, North or South, is a refugee due to historical and economic circumstances, and has for decades pushed for peaceful measures to end the peninsula's division at the 38th parallel. (As the 1953 cease-fire agreement was not considered a peace treaty, there has been no official end to the Korean War. Thus the National Security Act, enacted by South Korea when the two countries were formally separated in 1948, has been used by the South to prosecute anyone deemed to "compromise the security of the State.")

He witnessed historic turmoil in both North and South Korea

Born in 1943, Manchuria, Hwang relocated to Pyongyang, North Korea, after Korea's liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. His family later migrated to Seoul, South Korea, where Hwang witnessed the turmoil of the Korean War, then the April Revolution of 1960, when many of his student peers were assaulted or killed by military police during protests against President Rhee Syngman's dictatorship. Hwang's cohort was the first generation to be educated in Korean after liberation — which led to his aspirations for a democratic state and the eventual reunification of North and South Korea.

Hwang's political awareness was further heightened by his subsequent conscripted service in the Vietnam War and his grassroots efforts in the Gwangju Democratization Movement. From his perspective, South Korea's military regimes — supported by America's Cold War interests — employed murderous tactics in the name of anti-communism. Such hardline approach, in his view, violated the fundamental rights of South Korean citizens and further radicalized North Korea, impeding the North-South peace-building process.

The Shadow of Arms, Hwang's novel based on his Vietnam experience — which indicts America's role in Southeast Asia as well as South Korea's complicity — suffered its own rupture when a martial government suppressed the first volume's 1985 publication. Hwang managed to publish the complete novel in 1988 under a different administration, but persistent censorship caused him to question his growth as an artist. This in turn led him to visit North Korea in 1989, resulting in nearly ten years of self-exile and imprisonment — an arid period he nevertheless considers profoundly transformative. Hwang was released in March 1998, shortly after Kim Dae-jung — a pro-democracy activist — became president.

An eventful life sparks creativity — but makes things hard for his family

Cinematic, riveting, elegiac, The Prisoner captures the dialectical tensions in Hwang's life and career in a manner reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with an angel, or the haunting films of South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Born left-handed but forced to use his right hand — as Asian culture considers the left hand to be the "wrong" hand — for a long time Hwang's self was literally divided. While he used his right hand for writing, he would manifest emotional energy with his left hand — in throwing a ball, swinging a fist in anger, or pulling a woman into an embrace.

Cinematic, riveting, elegiac, 'The Prisoner' captures the dialectical tensions in Hwang's life and career in a manner reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with an angel.

Hwang draws further parallels between this mind-body paradox and his prison hunger strikes: Fasting allowed him to gain critical insights into his past, yet that stern moral stance deprived him of the prison's daily rituals — such as meal breaks — that helped make him feel alive in the present. Similarly, while Hwang's activism represents a yearning to unify the Korea body, the endeavor created painful rifts in his personal life.

Hwang acknowledges the eventful life that nurtured his literary career was also a form of exile or flight — it provided him with meaningful engagements but little space for introspection. Such a life in turn exiled his family members from safety and happiness; his accomplishments in human rights resulted in absence — he failed to see his mother before her death, and was a selfish and unreliable husband and father to his wives and children.

At first, Hwang didn't want to examine himself as closely as his fictional characters

Hwang's memoir, reflective of this protracted struggle, took years, and much prodding from his editors, to complete. At first he was reluctant to apply his fiction's prismatic lens to autobiography — since that would have meant subjecting himself to the same holistic gaze reserved for his characters — but eventually came to appreciate nonfiction's inquisitorial and cathartic appeal. The Prisoner thus expands Hwang's literary scope, uniting his life experience with the compassionate realism of his later works.

'The Prisoner' ... expands Hwang's literary scope, uniting his life experience with the compassionate realism of his later works.

Structurally, the book's "cold turkey" approach — with a serviceable editor's note, but without the translators' introduction, a map of the Korean peninsula, or a historical timeline to accompany Hwang's narrative — still allows a patient reader to gain a broad understanding of Hwang's trajectory in relation to South Korea's geopolitics. Hwang's prison account — divided into six segments — constitutes the lyrical refrain that disrupts the chronology of his life prior to incarceration. This innovative arrangement eloquently replicates the ruptures and rhythms in Hwang's life and art.

While The Prisoner acknowledges free expression's burdens and the North-South struggle's Sisyphean nature, Hwang's epilogue stands firm with his urgent yet timeless warning: "A society where artists have lost their faculty of criticism and submit unconditionally to power is well on its way to losing its democracy."

Thúy Đinh is coeditor of Da Màu and editor-at-large at Asymptote Journal. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Thúy Đinh