August Book Club Meeting: “Violets” by Kyung-Sook Shin, Thursday August 25, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes; 8 minutes with questions.

After a brief rest last month, the book club is back in August with Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, first published in 2001 and translated into English by Anton Hur this year. Probably neither giant in Korean literature needs any further introduction though(!), so let me direct you post-haste to some reviews of the book instead—Books and Bao, The Guardian, Washington Independent Review of Books, Tony’s Reading List—and then, if Violets still appeals, to invite you to our meeting on Thursday August 25 at 7pm Korean time.

If you are interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.

Finally, below is a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we’ll use to loosely structure the meeting. But these are only suggestions, as I stress that the meetings are very small and informal really. And also, to help ensure that they remain as safe a space as possible, that there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

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1) One thing I really liked about this book was Kyung-Sook Shin’s knowledge of her subject, which she gained from working on a farm for six months. As I read, I was surprised at how I couldn’t help but grow more and more intrigued by the intricacies involved in the care of trees and flowers, despite my having no real interest in the subject previously.

Are there any other books that have piqued an unexpected interest for you like this? Or at least, a greater appreciation of the subject? How about just a respect for the depth of the author’s research? In my own personal recent reading history, “The Secret Lives of Dresses” by Erin McKean comes to mind for the former, and “Limitless” by Alan Glynn for the latter two. How about you?

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2) Showing my age, another thing I enjoyed was the frequent mention of using phonecards and phonebooths, something I too reluctantly spent a lot of my time and loans on as a student in the 1990s. Are there any other little time and/or setting-based details like that which you found endearing? Or put you off for that matter?

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3) Is it a fair characterization to say that the first half of the book comes across as a very contemporary and grounded story, akin to previous book club selections like “If I Had Your Face,” “Love in the Big City,” and “Shoko’s Smile”? Only then, upon San’s second meeting with the photographer, to sequeway into something much darker, psychological, and surreal, more akin to, say, “The Vegetarian”? (One reviewer mentions there are “several moments when the narrative voice takes over, appearing to have more power and agency than the characters”; another, that “at times San felt more like an abstract idea rather than a character.”)

Were any of you surprised with that shift? Or, being more familiar with her novels than I am, already knew that surrealism was characteristic of her work? Were you disappointed by the shift? Alternatively, did you not find the transition so jarring, if indeed you agree there was one at all?

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4) There are many ways in which this book explores the themes of misogyny and sexism. For example, in how San’s mother is so ostracized as a single mother after her husband’s death, and so limited in economic opportunities as a woman in rural 1970s Korea, that even with her hair salon work she still has to live with boyfriend after boyfriend in order to provide for herself, mother-in-law, and her daughter—and yet still finds that task so thankless and miserable, that she ultimately leaves them both.

Without prompting, what other examples of these themes stood out to you, or resonated with you the most? Why?

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5) But now very much with prompting, my unpopular opinion is that I’m also finding a great deal of hyperbole and exaggeration about the book’s contents, with many reviewers shoehorning various feminist themes and elements into the book which I argue simply aren’t there at all. (See The Feminist Press for an extensive collection of such blurbs.)

Let me give two specific examples. First:

I have a deep interest in how our usage of (seemingly neutral) public space is very gendered. So, when I heard from Willow in Books and Bao’s “10 Best Books of 2022 (so far…)” video, where they cover Violets from 4:35 to 6:30, and say that (starts at 5:18)…

“It looks at the ways in which men invade women’s spaces, in a very invisible way that we all just take for granted…by touching their arm, or touching their lower back as they scoot past them in a train aisle, or they all just go up to a woman and talk to her when she’s busy, because they believe they have the right to interrupt women. There’s this sense of patriarchy that what a man has to say or do is more important and more valid than what a woman is doing by herself. And there’s a lot of moments in the book that explore that.”

…then I was instantly sold. That they don’t actually mention any of those moments in that video, was of no consequence because they couldn’t in the two minutes available.

You can imagine my frustration then, as I waited in vain for those moments to appear while reading the book. Likewise, in Willow’s earlier dedicated review video below, in which they expound upon this theme of men invading women’s personal space in great length (starts from 9:00), still they ultimately give one brief instance—the goosebumps incident—from the book itself:

Simply put, I’m just not seeing what they’re seeing. And in that vein, I’m not seeing a lot of what’s claimed in the blurbs either. (Which are exaggerated in order to sell you the book, granted—but I’m finding them echoed verbatim in the reviews.)

That being said, I’m not saying those examples are not necessarily there. They may have just been too subtle for me, consequence of not approaching the book with the right frame of mind, and/or my baggage from a long life of unwittingly dominating my own personal space as a cishet male. If anyone could point out what went under my radar then, I would be very grateful. Similarly, is there anything you expected to see, but likewise struggled to find? Please mention them, and hopefully we can all help each other to find them!

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6) The second specific example: in the afterword written in 2021, Kyung-Sook Shin herself says (my italics):

 “This is the story of a woman unable to find a place to fit in the world, suddenly swept up into a warped desire for love that eventually breaks her; it is the story of a woman punished by violent men in a cruel city because she is unable to express her confused desire for love and connection, who then disappears into the dark.”

Which, not least because it’s coming from the author herself, sounds like a perfectly fair, uncontroversial characterization of the book, especially in light of the brutal ending. But still—would it completely unreasonable to point that except for that specific incident, almost all of the bad things that happen to San seem to be self-inflicted?

Of course, there are good reasons for San’s psychological sabotage and frail, weak, violet-like condition. Many of these reasons—most even—seem clearly related to the patriarchal circumstances of her upbringing, of her society in general, and of her present-day circumstances. But, crucially, only indirectly. So, with the proviso that in the second, more abstract half of the book I struggled to grasp what was happening most of the time, is it not fair to ask:

  • Does she literally only meet the photographer three brief times in the entire novel? The last occasion only after a gap of many months, after which he has no memory of her?
  • If true, how is her overwhelming, consuming obsession with him and his confusion—it can’t even be called rejection—his fault? Or men’s fault in general?
  • Who, other than herself, causes her to enter a fugue-like state and prostrate herself in a  on the construction site?
  • Who, other than herself, “punishes” her? Which “violent men” do so, other than her rapist in the penultimate chapter?

Again, please forgive me if I’m appearing willfully polemical and disingenuous in raising what may seem such awkward questions, but my confusion and slight misgivings about popular descriptions of the contents are genuine. So, if anyone can help address those, and/or help me look at the book in a new light, I’d be very grateful!

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7) But still with the unpopular opinions sorry(!): San’s first meeting with the photographer, in which he is not shy expressing his disdain for what he considers an aesthetically bland photo subject (violets), and by implication shows his dismissal of San’s expertise, occupation, and/or interests, is again often cited by reviewers as a powerful example of the pervasive sexism that San encounters in her daily life. And by all means, I get that vibe too. I appreciate that (most) men often act that way (knowingly or unknowingly) towards women but not men, and so women encounter it to a degree which men might find astounding.

And yet, technically, in that particular scene, can the reasons for the photographer’s attitude be unequivocally tied to his and San’s respective genders or sexes? As a long-term resident of three countries beyond my native UK so far, whose interests and opinions in each have often been decidedly non-mainstream in my host cultures, and sometimes even considered a direct challenge to perceived norms of masculinity and sexuality, I’ve often been the brunt of similar dismissive attitudes towards what I hold dear, from men and women alike. Which is why the claimed gender symbolism of San and the first photographer’s meeting rings a little hollow for me.

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8) Finally, back to Willow’s dedicated review and description of a crucial scene at the beginning of the book (from 8:20 below), in which they say…

“San and her friend [Nam-ae] in Chapter 1 have the most beautiful, romantic moment in literature that I’ve read in literature in years. It took my breath away, these two young girls, exploring their intimacy with one another.”

…and go on to describe it as an unfortunately sad, but very much life-defining moment for San. Which raises two final questions:

8a) San and Nam-ae are only ten in this scene. Ten. Do you have any similarly explosive, life-defining moments from such a young age? Romantic or otherwise?* Because without wanting to detract from anyone’s ability to interpret and enjoy a novel in any way they damn well please, personally I can’t but help but see Willow’s takeaway as a projection of a more mature sensibility onto San than her age really warrants.

(*I realize this may be too private and TMI for a book club meeting. So please don’t worry—as with any of these questions, answering is completely optional!)

8b) Lest we forget, recall we are talking about two nude ten-year old girls kissing.

Although I personally question if “romantic” is really the correct term to describe such an interaction between children, I don’t deny anyone the right to regard it as such, regardless of their age, gender, or sexuality. But do you sense a huge double-standard in who would be publicly admit it? What would be your reaction if you were at a bookish party and met someone like myself, a middle-aged cishet man, who claimed that that scene was the most romantic moment he’d read in years? That he found it so romantic in fact, that it made him cry? No, really?

See you in the meeting! ;)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

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