Generational and cultural differences apart, humans and their needs are not different at the core. This is the general theme you’ll notice throughout Shoko’s Smile (2021), the debut collection of the awarded South Korean writer Choi Eunyoung. Originally released in 2016, Shoko’s Smile hits the market in its English version on the 1st of June 2021, translated by Sung Ryu.
In seven short stories, Choi presents a set of characters that range in age, profession, and motivation, but share a longing for connection, or reconnection, often with themselves, but with other people too. These feelings intensify as the characters’ relationships slowly die when they grow distant from each other.
The book is opened by the homonym story “Shoko’s Smile”, first published by Choi in 2013. There is a lot to unpack here: the dilemmas of wasted youth, depression, family conflicts, loss. But Choi and her frank, sensible writing set just the right pace and put just the right weight in the storytelling, so the weight of these themes is not belittled, yet it doesn’t make for an unpleasant or overwhelming read either.
The display of the stories is interesting as well: it’s almost as if the characters’ awareness, or honesty, about their own needs is gradually increasing across the book, from the tough Shoko to the sentimental grandmother in “The Secret” (first and last stories in the book, respectively). This trait is also noticed throughout each story itself.
Such is the grace and delicacy with which the characters open up themselves that the reader can’t help but be taken by surprise whenever they’re hit with epiphanies or moments of straightforwardness, such as:
“I couldn’t stand her love, which did not reject even the ugliest of my faces. I couldn’t stand it because I had been afraid of being loved from the beginning.”
(from “A Song from Afar”)
One common arch found across all the stories is features Korean characters building lives across different countries and navigating their feelings while also traveling the world. This connection conveys that humans can be complicated to matter where they may live.
This motif is beautifully embodied in “Hanji and Youngju”, where a Korean woman and a Kenyan man meet in France while volunteering at a monastery. Despite their different temperaments and even the language barrier, as they spoke in English and Hanji is said to not be entirely fluent in it, Hanji and Youngju develop a very special connection. The distancing between the two would break the heart of the 27-year-old-woman, who found in Youngju the comfort to be vulnerable for probably the first time in her life.
I told him stories I can’t write about even here — they belong solely to him.”(from “Hanji and Youngju”)
There are also political questions intertwining with personal conflicts in Shoko’s Smile. In more or less explicit ways, Choi invites the reader to engage in feminist critical thought about women’s agency, through problematic characters like Sunbae (in “A Song from Afar”), a journalist who believes women should “lose the feminine attitude” to “fit in”; or more subtly, such as in character Michaela’s lack of interest in marriage, contrary to what is expected of women (in “Michaela”).
Perhaps the most heartbreaking moments in Shoko’s Smile are the stories of lives affected by political incidents too big to be overcome by the effort to keep love and faith alive. That Choi sets her stories within real historic facts, South Korean and global, makes her fiction even more poignant.
It’s the case of “Xin Chào, Xin Chào”, where two families cease to be each other’s comfort after heated discussions about the Vietnam War; or “Sister, My Little Sonae”, where two sisters are driven apart after one sees her husband convicted of being involved in a conspiracy to install socialism in South Korea. (This led to the “Inhyukdang incident”, a trial that sentenced innocent citizens to execution in the early 1970s).
“(…) That’s how you become an adult. No one thought the examine the bruises inside her. The incident had nothing to do with her, in other people’s lives, and not one of them suspected it had damaged her.”(from “Sister, My Little Sonae”)
The last story, “Michaela”, references the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, in which more than 300 people died or went missing (around 250 were students). This incident was barely two-years-old when Shoko’s Smile was published. Character Michaela is a probationary teacher. At the time of the incident and the book release, death benefits for the families of dead probationary teachers were not acknowledged by the Korean government).
Indeed, many are the social, cultural, generational backgrounds in the stories of Shoko’s Smile. Naturally, some of them will resonate more than others, especially to readers whose lives were affected by the same incidents that these stories are based on. However, these themes are but the ground for stories about helplessness and longing, which are universal feelings.
Choi’s writing is simple in its wording but filled with a great emotional depth that makes Shoko’s Smile an enthralling experience disguised as a fast, unchallenging read. The author has just the right sensibility to address the complexity of human relationships, especially when they are driven by circumstances that are beyond our control, as seen in excerpts like:
The attitudes they adopted out of consideration for each other slowly drove them apart, and the bond they had forged during the time they lived together could no longer sustain their relationship.(from “Sister, My Little Sonae”)
Eunyoung’s writing is pure, simple, and considerate — just what’s needed to convey complicated feelings and situations without putting unnecessary blame on any of the persons involved. Judging by this translation of Shoko’s Smile, that seems to be the merit of Eunyoung as a writer: she is wise enough to turn complicated things into an easy read and modest enough to leave room for her character’s feelings to be the true star of her stories.