By Kim Yideum
Translated from Korean by Jiyoon Lee
Dallas, Texas: Deep Vellum, 2019
202 pages. $12.00 (Paperback)
Before Blood Sisters, her first novel to be translated into English, Kim Yideum has published five collections of poetry. Kim is familiar with how her poetry, often discursive, disturbing, and agitating, loses an audience to find another: she says, “If you write pretty, intellectual poems, everyone likes you. But if you write poems like me, you get reactions like ‘What the hell is this?’”
Blood Sisters is a novel that embodies a poet’s sense of incredulity. One set of sense-making markers is replaced with another. In the novel, Jeong Yeoul, a college student, comes of age kicking and screaming. She suffers through life with much disinterest, and life is hard for her: she survives her stepbrother’s death, her best friend and maybe-lover’s suicide, rape by her co-worker, unstable housing, financial destitution, and parental abandonment. Yeoul is besieged by survivor’s guilt. Her own life is not worthy of observation. Instead, she reserves her reverence for art. She is often reading, remembering a poem, listening to music, singing, ruminating over visual art, and comparing moments in her life to movie scenes and art portraits (“She touches my hair like I am Juliet Binoche from The Unbearable Lightness of Being”). One could say she escapes to art. One could also say art is what allows her to remain in her life. This blinkered duality of what art does, personified through Yeoul, is what gives Blood Sisters momentum and bite — the world is cruel, and the book’s protagonist filters its horrific events through her interior, and hopefully fortified gaze.
But is it sufficient? Is it fair for Yeoul to undergo horrific violence against her as a means to build interiority?
The tragedies assigned to Yeoul can be hard to bear. In a critical scene of her own sexual assault, Yeoul is forcibly photographed by her captor. Her mind wanders while her body stays trapped in bondage. She imagines herself as the woman in Gustave Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde. She is a body part, rendered through the male gaze in the name of art, frozen in time. She observes herself through the gaze of her aggressor, “what should I do next? Should I pose like the woman in Le Dejuner sur l’Herbe? I think my head is bleeding. Should I lie on my side like Olympia, cross my leg, and look defeated?”
Her valiant attempts at agency are simultaneously horrifying and tepid. Perhaps the larger question the novel asks is if patriarchal violence is even exceptional in its horrors. Kim Yideum pushes this question as though inflating a balloon, cautiously daring it to burst. She arms her protagonist with the needle. Every time the novel veers too close to a voyeuristic, almost fetishistic fixation on female suffering, Yeoul reaches out and, prick. She erupts the bubble with her relentless hyper-consciousness. “I’m bored, like I’m listening to some informercial about a product I don’t care about,” Yeoul declares to herself, when surrounded by concerned friends in her hospital room, after barely escaping her assault.
The violence in Yeoul’s world is not just social and individual — to be a student in post-1980s Korea is to live under the shadow of a mass student massacre by an authoritarian régime. Yeoul refuses to react to this collective terror in any meaningful way. She tells Jimin, her best friend and active counter-revolutionary, “I just protested because I wanted you to like me. I have no political ideology of my own.” Her existential despair would have been maddening, if it was not also brutally reflective of a stubbornness to, once again, reject the fixed, submissive roles handed to a young woman during her time.
Most striking about Blood Sisters is how, contradictory to her own fatalism, Yeoul explodes with life. It becomes clear that her nonchalant solipsism is part performative (she eats a cold bowl of rice soaked in cold water, sitting in the dark; she laments about a flying black trash bag as majestic like a raven; she flamboyantly fantasizes about walking into traffic headlong), as she still manages to show up every day with the can-do attitude of a pulp noir heroine — to school, to her drab job at the Instant Paradise café, to avenge her best friend’s mysterious suicide (Yeoul suspects her friend was murdered, and stakes out the murders suspect, but not before buying a hammer, a crowbar, some metal wire, and a knife), to walk all night through back alleys while cursing at god (“I’m just a defeated youth, a scream, a lamentation thrust into the sky. I enjoy my excellent loser attitude”), to figure out the tricky territories of sexuality in a danger-laden world (“I’m pretending to be asleep … Am I afraid I won’t be able to release her once I hug her? I stop myself from reaching out and instead wrap my arms around myself”), and finally, to make peace with her deep sense of depravity: “it feels shameful to keep on living. But sometimes I’m proud of myself and my life. My mind changes so much. It’s like a pot of porridge that rapidly boils over and just as rapidly cools down. I feel addicted to my life, even if it is meaningless and degrading.”
When asked about the performative aspects of her poetry, Kim Yideum says, “people talk about “inner beauty,” as if what’s inside is what counts, but I think the skin, what’s exposed, is very important. The material, the physical, it is more honest than matters of the soul for me.” Blood Sisters is tactile to the very end, when Sol, with whom Yeoul has a homoerotic friendship, confronts Yeoul’s passiveness in the face of courtship by an older, paternal figure: “Are you just gonna go with him like you’re a piece of gum that got stuck to his shoes?” Yeoul immediately jumps at her jealous friend.
But later, when Yeoul reveals tenderly, and privately, her awareness of and desire for this ridiculous role play with an older man (“I’m like an injured fish that needs to spend a night in his safe aquarium”), I find myself quietly rooting for her, abruptly remembering that Blood Sisters is a bildungsroman, and all nineteen years of Yeoul’s life is only beginning to take shape.
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