The personal is political in Kinuta o utsu onna [The cloth fuller]: A ‘little narrative’ by zainichi Korean writer Lee Hoe Sung
In 1971 Japan-based second-generation Korean writer Lee Hoe Sung became the first ‘foreigner’ in Japan to win the esteemed Akutagawa Prize for Belles Lettres for his semi-autobiographical novel Kinuta o utsu onna [The cloth fuller]. It recounts the life and death of a young Korean woman, Chang Suri, during the 1940s, as remembered by her son. Whilst fascism, democracy, and Korean nationalism constitute the meta-narratives that informed the lives of Lee’s generation in (post)colonial Japan between the 1940s and 1960s, the writer underscores the importance of the little narrative for exploring identity and a sense of belonging. Eschewing hyper-political approaches that attempt to explain the whole movement of history and social life or nationhood as a ‘grand narrative’, Lee’s poignant rendition of the life and death of a young woman is rather a ‘little narrative’ of personal suffering and redemption. Lee’s story functions as a sinse t’aryong (i.e., a traditional Korean form of oral lamentation and narrative storytelling), which allows him to point to ‘Korean-ness’ as an anchor. This anchor secures the listener to a solid ‘home’ or cultural place of reference that can support them in their search for a sense of identity and belonging in the context of colonialist oppression and dislocation.