Stingray by Kim Joo-young, translated by Inrae You Vinciguera and Louis Vinciguerra (Library of Korean Literature, vol. 1)
At 13, Se-young is on the brink of manhood, but the person who should be his primary role model – his father – left some five years ago. Se-young’s seamstress mother works hard to support the abandoned pair in their small, remote village. Their constricted lives, however, seem merely temporary: the titular stingray – dried and preserved – hangs in the kitchen in expectant hope that Se-young’s father will someday return.
On a frozen winter night, mother and son are surprised by the intrusion of an older girl who manages to sneak into their home. Se-young’s mother fails to throw her out; instead, she eventually gives the girl a new name, Sam-rae, and grants her space in the small family. Se-young becomes especially attached to Sam-rae’s unpredictable, untamable spirit.
Sam-rae’s sudden disappearance proves devastating to Se-young, although he never stops searching for her. When a woman with a baby appears on the family’s porch, Se-young’s life is again disrupted and his relationship with his mother is irrevocably altered.
The book’s back cover quotes author Kim Joo-young’s own description of his slim novel as “‘a critical biography of my loving mother.’” As bonded as Se-young was to his mother as a young boy, his impending maturity increases the distance, both emotionally and physically. Just as Se-young gathers information about his missing father in limited snippets and passing comments, so, too, Stingray is more sparingly evocative than a detailed narrative. Emotions, reactions, suggestions, abridged conversations weave together the illuminating essence of a story about a pivotal year in a young man’s life as it expands beyond his once tightly circumscribed world of two.
Stingray is the debut volume of the “Library of Korean Literature,” a collaboration between Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, intended to present “modern classics of Korean literature in translation, featuring the best Korean authors from the late modern period through to the present day.” An “unprecedented” literary endeavor, the joint project will feature 25 novels and short story collections that “aims to introduce the intellectual and aesthetic diversity of contemporary Korean writing to English-language readers.”
In spite of my Korean heritage, I know little about my ancestral country’s literary history; unable to read Korean with fluency, I’m one of those ‘English-language readers’ who is feeling especially grateful right about now. Yes, I K-popped with the rest of Psy’s almost two billion fans, felt vindicated over Kyung-sook Shin’s 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, marveled at the Mexican journey of scattered Korean immigrants in Young-Ha Kim’s 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize-longlisted Black Flower, and joined the two-million international fans of Sun-mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. But now, thanks to an ever-shrinking global future, my Korean education is about to expand many-fold. Serendipitously, I predict 2014 is going to be my Korean year. Stay tuned … at least 24 more installments to follow.
Published: 1998, 2013 (United States)