*I’ve been asked a few times for my successful PEN/Heim application materials; here’s the part people seem to be curious (or confused) about the most, the cover letter. You can read the sample in the Honford Star edition of Cursed Bunny (the first three stories were my sample).
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, Outline and Significance
Feminism is important. Women’s voices are important. Women’s stories are important.
These are true statements everywhere in the world, and they’re no less true in Korea. South Korea underperforms in every meaningful gender-equality index including quality employment for women, protecting women against violence, and ensuring fair participation in public life. The ongoing “Burning Sun” scandal and the intersecting issues of consent, power differentials in sexual relationships, and exploitation of women further highlight the urgent need for feminist discourse in South Korean society, especially in this era of Korea’s unprecedented, global reach in terms of film, television, and popular music—indeed, the Burning Sun scandal became worldwide news when it became clear that some of the most popular Kpop bands and Kdrama actors were involved in it. This misogynistic culture has roots that run deep, all the way through the Japanese occupation (to this day, Japan rivals Korea in its societal inequalities against women) and the centuries-long Joseon Dynasty where women were treated little better than the slave nobi class, and in some cases, even worse.
So what is Bora Chung going to do about it?
She’s going to write depressing, frightening, and oddly funny stories.
For on the other side of the darkness of these stories is a glinting humor, a glee at telling a good story well, no matter how horrifying. Cursed Bunny features ten stories, from the writer’s debut to her most recent, in different positions along a spectrum that has “scary” on one end and “funny” on the other. Chung wants the voices of women and the persecuted to be heard, and she knows how to use the darkness of humor to cushion and compel the reader to listen, think, and most of all, feel what her characters feel.
In “Cursed Bunny,” an old man enacts revenge on a merciless merchant family in a thoroughly brutal (and strangely cute) manner.
In “Head,” a woman who perhaps should not be a parent finds herself having given birth to a talking head that lives in the toilet and refuses to disappear despite how she keeps trying, over the years, to flush it away.
In “The Embodiment,” a woman tries to get her prolonged menstruation to cease, but ends up with shocking news and a desperate, if hilarious, race to find a man.
In “Cold Finger,” a teacher survives a car accident in the dark and is led by the other survivors out of the wreck, only to find that the other survivors, who are no more than voices in darkness, are not quite what they seem.
In “Goodbye, My Love,” a robot designer enters the “uncanny valley” and learns the hard way that there are no “upgrades” in love.
In “Snare,” a hunter traps a magical fox that curses his child to bleed gold, leading the hunter to exploit her in a horrifying, intergenerational tragedy of greed.
In “Scar,” a village sacrifices a little boy to appease a monster, only for that little boy to survive and grow up to become the monster itself.
In “My Lovely Home,” a woman and her family struggle to buy and manage a small building in the overheated real estate market of Seoul, and they run into a streak of good fortune—but is the good fortune a little too good?
In “Ruler of the Wind and Sand,” a courageous princess ventures into the realm of an immortal desert god to lift a curse on her fiancé but ends up lifting the curse of a bad marriage from herself instead.
In “Reunion,” an unnamed narrator—perhaps a stand-in for the author—visits Poland on an academic research trip and meets a ghost she frees from the shackles of life, leaving her wondering when she herself will be freed.
Can scary-funny-fantastical stories change the world and bring justice to those who need it the most?
I’m not sure if even Bora Chung herself thinks so; every week, I follow her on Twitter as she goes out to join the various protests at Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul’s epicenter of civil unrest since the Joseon Dynasty, where she marches for women, for queers, for trans rights, for the Sewol victims, for the labor unions, for anyone who needs to be heard through the noise of indifference. She’s out there in snow, sleet, and rain, in the height of summer and the dead of winter, cheering and tweeting and agitating for a world with more empathy. Sure, she’s an Ivy League-educated scholar and college instructor and a fiercely passionate literary translator of Russian and Polish. But to me, it’s her writing that does the most, while doing it with the least. And she does it funny.
Thank you for considering her work for the PEN/Heim translation grant.