The Character’s Problem Should not be the Story’s Problem: Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan
by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee June 24, 2019
Flowers of Mold
Ha Seong-nan’s ability to set a mood is spectacular. In Flowers of Mold, she broaches unkind and unforgiving territory, such as tenants plotting revenge against a landlord or a marriage falling victim to an interloper—and she does so with ruthlessness.
But there is a darker side to the darkness. Ha’s stories are also inexcusably fatphobic and homophobic. As much as Ha Seong-nan makes known misogyny and its effect on her (skinny) female characters, she dehumanizes all else in her service to (skinny) women, thereby upholding patriarchy at its most insidious.
The characters are fatphobic and homophobic—yes, this is fine. But the characters’ problem should never be the story’s problem. The story itself should not be fatphobic and homophobic.
Ha is well known for tackling social issues in her literature. “Bluebeard’s First Wife” (not in this collection) details the story of a marriage between a Korean woman and her Korean New Zealander husband who turns out to be gay. The story examines the ways in which people are backed into their choices—she to marry him for citizenship, and he to marry her as his unknowing beard to please his parents.
The story ends with the line “I wonder what I ever did wrong”—and what’s unsaid is “to deserve a gay husband.” This, after painting a wholly negative portrayal of said gay husband. If Ha is tackling social issues, she’s doing so by upholding the status quo.
The same goes for this collection.
It’s easy to get lost in Ha’s lush prose and stark descriptions of people pigeonholed into lives for the sake of conformity. Of people isolated in these lives. Of their yearning to connect and move past the constraints of time.
But beautiful language cannot hold up an entire book. I couldn’t help but notice attractive and thin women (in this collection, they go hand in hand) described as having “not an ounce of fat.” And antagonists, dehumanized by fatphobia, such as Madam Kim whose “flesh spilling out of her clothes was like lard.” The consistency with which this inequality and distaste is applied is undeniable—as if the fat itself speaks for the entire negative character of a person. Ha means to critique conformity, but she misses the mark.
And sadly, fatphobia isn’t where this collection’s shortcomings end. Most striking is the story “Your Rearview Mirror,” wherein the gender identity of a main character is framed as The Shocking Reveal. The protagonist discovers his love interest is not female as he’d expected, at which point he suffers a concussion and “everything goes dark.” Nothing is mentioned of the transgender character again. His relationship was with the body, not the person within. Her role is gratuitous, and where Ha had an opportunity to deepen her characters and story, she balks as does the protagonist.
Again, the character’s problem should not be the story’s problem.
Ha has been known for bringing up “social issues,” and lauded for avoiding sensationalism. I beg to differ. Her topics include rape, homosexuality, sexual assault, and dysfunctional families—all which are brought up but examined with little effort except as contributions to mood and tone.
Shouldn’t a writer write whatever they want? But it’s a failure of craft to not draw three-dimensional characters, connect them to theme, develop mood as connected to theme, and provide structure to an overall narrative. A character must have more than a couple of reasons to exist in a narrative, other than as a “shock” at which to end a story.
Janet Hong’s translation is noteworthy—she stayed loyal to the author’s intent—the circumstances of modern Korean life. I sense no interference from the translator in this rendition of Ha’s stories.
The strongest stories are the first two, “Waxen Wings” and “Nightmare”—in which characters imagine a life outside their own bodies, laced with an obsessive awareness of time, complete with stopped watches and stopped clocks. Both of these stories tread traumatic landscapes—“Waxen Wings” of injury and the end of a gymnastics dream and “Nightmare” of sexual assault and gaslighting. These two stories may also be the two stories that don’t deify thin women.
It is in these stories that the mood contributes to theme contributes to character contributes to message—where time stops upon assault where assault affects a character’s wellbeing where the gaslighting responses of those around her make for complicated trauma and effective social critique.
These two stories are most cohesive—as the rest of the stories feel tenuously connected, at best. Yes, there are allusions to time, billboards, mysterious women, and shoplifting throughout, but a mention does not create a thread.
And in the end—while Ha is masterful at creating mood and tension and artful with language—she fails at making all her characters come fully to life.
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AUTHORS Ha Seong-nan Ha Seong-nan made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “Grass” won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest. Her works include the short story collections Rubin’s Vase, Flowers of Mold, Bluebeard’s First Wife, Wafers, and The Taste of Summer, the novels The Joy of Eating, A, and A Christmas Carol, and essay collections Hope, That Beautiful Strength (co-authored), and Things Still Excite Me.