Hwang Sok Yong is one of South Korea’s most prominent, most politically engaging, authors. He’s won almost every literary award South Korea has to offer, and his name is often mentioned as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hwang visited Asia House in London last week to talk about his latest novel as part of the Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.
Princess Bari, translated to English by Sora Kim-Russell, is set between 1983 and 2005, and tells the story of a young woman’s harrowing journey from North Korea to England.
The basis of Princess Bari comes from old Korean myth and folklore. Much of Korea’s folklore was once passed on by Shamans. Once a sacred class within community, those of Shaman blood are now extremely low in societal ranks.
There are at least forty-seven known oral narratives of Princess Bari, and Hwang chose a popular North Korean version to base his novel on, a version that is even somewhat exotic to South Korean readers.
The original Korean version even uses genuine North Korean dialect, something Sora Kim-Russell admits to having struggled with being Korean American and growing up with English as her first language.
Just as here in the west we grow up with old folktales and mythology such as those we’ve seen revisited by Disney, the tale of Bari, the first ancestral Shaman and the patron of all Shamans in Korea, is one taught in schools across the country.
The seventh daughter of a North Korean family, Bari is named after the legendary Princess due to their similar starts in life. Bari’s life in North Korea is unsurprisingly hard, and the defection of an extended family member sees her father punished. Taking refuge in China Bari and her family continue to struggle, and the eventual loss of her family and beloved dog truly begin Bari’s journey into adulthood.
Eventually sold into the Snakehead gang Bari endures the long journey to London aboard a cargo ship. Her life in London brings her a job that pays off her Snakehead debt well, sees her make friends, find love and create a future. It also allows her to fully embrace the Shaman abilities inherited from her Grandmother.
When her past catches up with her Bari finds herself following the Princess’ path and seeking the fabled life-giving water her Grandmother had often told her off.
Princess Bari beautifully merges tradition and folklore with parallel themes in modern settings, with elements such as the Princess’ journey becoming a tale of smuggling and immigration for the young protagonist.
Hwang’s novel asks many questions of Korean and International society, and the identity of collectives and individuals.
With the inclusion of references to the falling of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 and 7/7 acts of terrorism and even attitudes to those of Muslim faith, international readers are able to relate their experiences or knowledge of regimes that have created feelings of animosity towards individuals and societies and greater understand feelings in the split peninsula.
Whilst discussing his novel at Asia House Hwang told many a personal story that revealed his inspirations for Princess Bari.
It is of course well documented that Hwang was imprisoned for an unauthorised visit to Pyongyang, and his interaction with North Koreans, including Kim Jong-un and numerous defectors is often source for his work.
Though Hwang told a story of his son with particular prominence. Whilst in prison his son visited him and told of his intent of marry his girlfriend, though he wanted to wait until his father was released. Knowing his incarceration would last seven years Hwang told his son he could not wait to marry for she would leave him if he didn’t commit to her.
Hwang was released after five years, due to a change in country rule and a sentence appeal, and he found his son was still not married, though the two were still together. When he asked his son why they were not married he discovered that she was born of a family of Shaman, and their social standing was looked down on.
Both Hwang’s son, and his now wife, are singers of traditional Korean music, and interestingly Hwang’s daughter-in-law performs the entirety of the Princess Bari Shaman narrative.
Princess Bari is a heart-wrenching tale, with a protagonist you can’t help but become attached to, and a novel UnitedKpop highly recommends.
Princess Bari is available in fifteen different countries, and Hollywood have just bought the film rights to the novel.
We picked up a signed copy of Hwang Sok Yong’s Princess Bari at Asia House last week, stay tuned to UnitedKpop to find out how you can enter the book giveaway!
Princess Bari is available via Amazon, both in print and for the Kindle.
Have you read Princess Bari? Or maybe you went to see Hwang at Asia House.
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