Necessary or True Happenstances: An Introduction to the Work of Hye Young-Pyun

“O. Cuniculi” is featured in Hye Young-Pyun’s third collection of short stories, Evening Courtship, for which she was awarded the prestigious Dong-in Literature Prize last year. The story begins one night in a park when a man on temporary assignment out in the country is captivated by the red eyes of a rabbit “whose white fur had turned filthy.” The man brings the rabbit home inside his shirt. But he will soon regret it, and in the end he will not know how to get rid of it. At the conclusion of his temporary assignment the man must return to the city where he is from. Will he, like so many other city people, secretly abandon his rabbit in the middle of the night? After seeing the rabbit’s red eyes, this becomes more and more difficult for the man to contemplate. At one point the narrator notes that raising pet rabbits had been a huge fad for city children, but now it was the parents’ unpleasant duty to secretly dispose of these unwanted pets. Who are the parents of those children? From the time they get up to go to work, throughout the work day, through the hurried lunch hour, people endure the endless sameness and repetition of their urban existence. When they return home at the end of the work day there is another redundant cycle of evening meals, night, sleep, the same dreams, and once again, another day dawns the same as yesterday.  Just like the rabbit’s cage and its tomb—one and the same space.

Hye Young-Pyun’s  literary debut was in the 2000 Seoul Shinmun spring literary contest with the short story, “Shaking off the Dew.” The theme Pyun confronts repeatedly throughout her work is that of the contemporary urban condition characterized by the horror of daily repetition and sameness. She dramatizes the current irony of our lives, in which the civilized is savage and the savage civilized. But Pyun’s world is not as gloomy as the dark nighttime parks, garbage dumps, construction sites, or sewers that serve as the backdrops of her stories. She reveals to us the value of confronting the abyss. When you read her work there are profoundly uncomfortable moments, but, ultimately, after you close the book, you experience that “Ah” moment when something has been illuminated.  Pyun’s stories allow us to consider stepping forward to endure the depths.

Pyun was born in Seoul in 1972. She received her undergraduate degree in creative writing and a graduate degree in Korean Literature from Hanyang University. For the next decade, she worked at a range of office jobs—the frequent appearance of office workers in her stories comes from her experiences during that period. The “office worker” who repeats the same action is a unique feature in Pyun’s work, a new archetypal character in contemporary South Korean literature. A prominent Korean literary critic once said of Pyun that her stories presented “a risky path” in Korean literature. Now we can safely say that, in her stories, she has taken a giant step on this risky path. She takes us into a unique and concrete world, which resembles nothing else, while she maintains a keen interest in the “necessary or true happenstances” that characterize our lives.

Pyun’s works include the short-story collections AOI Garden, To the Kennels, Evening Courtship,” and the novel, Ashes and Red.  She is the winner of the 40th Korea Times Literary Award (2007), the Yi Hyo-seok Literature Prize (2009), the Today’s Young Writer Award (2010) and the Dong-in Literature Prize (2011). 

 —Jo Kyung Ran