Concerning My Daughter, the Korean bestselling novel by award-winning Korean author Kim Hye-jin, translated by Jamie Chang, concerns itself with a familiar theme for Korean contemporary culture: the often sharp divide between the traditional way of life with its focus on the family to hand down wisdom and wealth, paired with obedience to authority; and modern life that is more liberal, fast-paced, obsessed with money and consumerism, pitting individuals against each other as they compete for the same resources, and coming up against powers higher up whose authority is now contested. That the transition doesn’t always work out well for well-intentioned people is also the subject of Parasite (2019), the Oscar-winning surprise hit directed by Bong Joon Ho.
Concerning My Daughter is narrated in its entirety by the mother of the daughter in the title. This single focus, where we find ourselves reading through the wary eyes of a worn-down 70-year-old widow (who remains unnamed throughout the book), seems a poor choice, since the daughter, nicknamed Green, is lesbian and the mother happens to be a virulent homophobe. Soon enough, the mother’s prejudices begin to test the reader’s patience. The mother has some supplemental income from renting out the upper flats in her building and working at an old age home. When the daughter crashes at the home with Lane, her partner of seven years, the mother at first practices her usual strategy which is turning a blind eye to the nature of their relationship. She spurns the tender gestures of her “daughter-in-law,” who offers her home-cooked food and keeps the household spick and span.
Hye-jin’s skill is to make the mother fully realize her own foolhardiness without, at first, being able or willing to change her attitude. It’s kind of amusing in a cruel way to follow the mother’s tactics, from wishing her daughter could still go back to how she “was” as a child to wishing Lane would just leave. “When I found out that the person my daughter was calling every night and writing letters to was a girl, I left her alone. This sort of thing was common among schoolgirls. When I sensed something was amiss with her when she started college and moved out, I tried my very best not to witness any clear evidence or sign. In the meantime, she wandered so far off that I could no longer bring her back. It is likely that I whiled away a crucial period of time when I should have corrected something somehow.” The mother doesn’t give up trying to correct her daughter and trying to wield her sense of justice over her, while ironically the daughter is largely absent, absorbed in her university career. As the mother gradually comes to realize, not only her daughter, but the world is innately uncontrollable, succinctly expressed in this metaphor: “There was a time when I held that right just by virtue of having brought her into the world. The conditions of qualification are continuously renewed, and I don’t have the ability or energy to keep up with it.”
The mother’s more gentle side is revealed in her job where she is the caretaker of Jen, a “small, skinny, insignificant […] woman who has lived too long. A woman whose memories are leaking out into some unknown space. A woman for whom the gender divide between male and female is coming apart as she returns to the state of being only a human being, as she was long ago when she was born.” The mother marvels over Jen’s diplomatic career. “Never married, never had children, and yet lived a life filled with incredible scenes from all over the world that I’ve never experienced, and now she lives alone with no visitors all year. I cannot believe she is all of these things in one.” These are obvious hints of the mother’s relationship with her daughter, as it’s exactly her daughter’s not committing to a family life that worries her.
The mother’s loyalty to the childless Jen can in part be explained through her determination to make the woman’s end of life more bearable, even while failing to safeguard her own future comfort, and being unable to do anything about her daughter’s. Still, we cannot but admire her brave and humane defense of Jen, even if her own egoistic concerns are at the back of her mind. Jen’s advancing senility doesn’t make it easier for her either, at one point she almost chokes the mother to death. The mother clings to Jen’s lucid moments and stubbornly continues treating her horrific bedsore. In demanding the best care for her elderly client, the mother clashes with the home’s market-force considerations, until the final straw forces the mother’s decision to take Jen into her own home. Jen is already past frail then. While Hye-jin drives the message home in some parts of the book, in the fairytale ending we are not just invited to consider how all human beings deserve a respectful end to their lives, which is a universal problem in our individualistic, aging societies. After all, Jen isn’t a lesbian but, ended up alone, whether by choice or by chance, without kith or kin. Even if we don’t feel like philosophizing about these conundrums, the description of the dynamics in their new kind of community makes for a riveting read.
By that time, almost the novel’s final pages, the mother has made plenty of forward strides which have been galvanized by her daughter joining protests against the discriminating polities of the university that she works for. The university has been laying off lecturers who profess their LGBT affiliation. One night the protesters are attacked, and the mother, trying to locate her daughter who she’s been told is injured, gets caught in a stampede. Mother and daughter, together with Lane, and their LGBT friends, find each other in the hospital.
It’s a good place to get healing, but not in a sentimental way. This gruff, unlikable mother with her endless gripes and bodily desolations is just better able to deal with her misfortunes by the end of the book. “Labor without end. The thought that no one can save me from this exhausting work. Concern over what will happen when the moment comes when I cannot work anymore. In other words, what worries me isn’t death, but life. I must do whatever needs to be done to withstand this suffocating uncertainty that will be with me for as long as I am living. I learned this too late. Perhaps this is not about aging. Maybe it’s the malady of the times, as people say. Our times. This generation. Naturally, I am reminded of my daughter again. We have arrived at this point, her in her mid-thirties, me past seventy. And the world that she will reach, that I won’t be around for—what will it look like? Better than this? Or more relentless? […] The thought of my daughter meeting the same fate as Jen is enough to stop my heart.”
Some things that stayed with me in this book were the descriptions of Korean culture, dealing with housing, food, shopping, cleaning, care for the elderly, to the mourning rituals after Jen has passed. This novel is written, and translated, in punchy sentences that can shoot out tentacles to the present, future and past as the mother’s thoughts jump here and there. The absence of lyricism and even lots of basic information about how things look, smell and sound that are outside the body of the mother with her limited empathy make the scenes in the old-age home, outside in the rain, or during the university protest the more chilling and claustrophobic. The new, sometimes frightening world moves around the mother, but with mothers like these, dogged and unforgiving as they are, it almost feels like we’re in a safe place to navigate this fascinating novel.
JACQUELINE SCHAALJE is Translation Editor at MAYDAY.
KIM HYE-JIN is an award-winning author from Daegu, South Korea. She made her debut in 2012 when her short story “Chicken Run” won the Dong-A Ilbo New Year Literary Award. She has since then won the JoongAng Literature Award in 2013 for Joongang Station, the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature in 2018 for Concerning My Daughter, and the Daesun Literary Award in 2020 for Worker No.9.
JAMIE CHANG is a literary translator. She has translated Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo. She lives in Korea with her wife and dog.