South African Melanie Steyn talks to The Korea Times about her new book “Once Around the Sun” published by Seoul Selection, which was inspired by the four distinct seasons representing four fictional family members who grow up in their individual lives.
/ Korea Times photo
by Chung Ah-young
By Chung Ah-young
When South African author Melanie Steyn first came to Korea in 2002, it was summer. Everything was shining and green. She encountered the peninsula in the southern tip of the land and found picturesque villages with hipped and gabled roofs and temples on a curved dirt road lined with trees.
Steyn, who teaches in the department of English education at Suncheon National University in South Jeolla Province, weaves all these things into her novel “Once Around The Sun” (Seoul Selection; 141 pp., $7.95 or 5,500 won).
Set in a fishing village in the area, the novel revolves around Lee Chang-joon, a fictional family man, and more concretely focuses on other members of Lee’s family in each chapter.
Consisting of four chapters ― summer (son), fall (daughter), winter (mother) and spring (grandmother), the book intriguingly associates a family member to each season.
Once Around the Sun
Melanie Steyn; Seoul Selection: 141 pp., $7.95 or 5,500 won
“I thought as you read each chapter, you get to know the family a little bit until you meet the grandmother and then you really get to know some history and see everything that they have gone through,” Steyn said in an interview with The Korea Times.
The 65-year-old started the book in her first year in Korea in 2002 and wrote the summer chapter inspired by the beautiful temples and natural landscapes in Suncheon where she has taught Korean students for eight years.
“After I have been in Korea for more years, I started understanding more and being interested in Korea and I thought why I don't write more chapters for each season because Korea has four distinct seasons,” she said.
Dong-ju, the mischievous, naive and curious 12-year-old son; Ji-young, the 16-year-old daughter, ripped from childhood and drifting to an adult world; Yun-hwa, a wife and mother who still seeks her dream that she gave up for marriage; and Kyu-ah, the grandmother who was traumatized by the Korean War (1950-53) are equally portrayed individually as they make their own way in a heart-warming point of view.
When Steyn came to Korea, she met a little boy in her “hagwon” (cram school) called Dong-ju, whose name was actually used in her novel. But the family in her story is totally imaginary and she took everything she has learned about Korea and her emotions of love.
“I was going to write a father's story. But I couldn't because I didn't have the confidence to write a man’s point of view. My friends told me this book is a little bit feminist because it's about a woman searching for herself with goals and recapturing herself after the trauma and the grandmother was such a strong woman,” she said.
“But actually, I found the father was the hero of the book. In my mind, he is a wonderful man because when he feels his wife abandons him emotionally, he doesn't leave and he doesn't go and waits. I see him as sometimes impatient but a good strong man. I am sorry I couldn't give him a season,” Steyn said jokingly.
The novel seems to narrate about an ordinary life of just an ordinary family but it touches deeply the very hearts of the individuals representing each generation searching for their egos. It is a coming-of-age story not just for children but also for adults who are locked in the present but are still “growing up.”
Steyn captures her poignant understanding of Korean family tradition, history and culture mixed with her imagination and reflects her own experiences and special attachment to Korea.
“I suppose I am trying to say that Korea is a country, for a long period, of trials and errors and succeeded it. Korea is changing. I am trying to say you must not throw away anything from the past that is valuable but at the same time, one has to be flexible and open to good changes. It is a very difficult balancing trick,” she said.
For the author, life in Korea was quite a “privilege” as a foreigner. “I have the opportunity to travel and grow as a person here. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I was grateful to Korea for these opportunities,” she said.
She also said it is a pity to see the picturesque landscape that is now disappearing in the province. “I really don't think the next generation is going to live there. The birth rate is low and young people are trained for top jobs and nobody is going to farm and I see old people are farming in South Jeolla Province.”
As an English teacher in a university English education department, she felt the need of an English book as education material. “I thought I can write something in English so that they can read the book relevant to their lives. It bridges that huge gap. That was my motivation.”
The South African author also highlights the value of family which she thinks is a place where you can be fully you, although the definition of the family is changing.
“That’s why I want Dong-ju and his grandmother to find each other because I think it's beautiful that the three generations can still find each other and give something to each other even though it is against the tendency,” the author said. “In a marriage, don't give up and don’t run away and get divorced. Keep asking yourself questions and keep trying to find love in marriage.”