2015 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: adult second place
Resilience and Humor in "Run, Dad!"

While the term “unreliable narration” can evoke sly personalities and deliberate deceit, it is equally possible to encounter a narrator who is not untrustworthy by choice. These characters may honestly be interested in imparting a true tale, but find their efforts hampered by factors beyond their control. Such is the case in Kim Aeran’s short story “Run, Dad!”, where the narrator’s youth and vivid imagination make her perspective incomplete. This is particularly evident in her perceptions of her father; though never having met the man, the narrator retains a distinct impression of him as “running resolutely somewhere” (Aeran 228). She even dreams up his specific destinations: Fukuoka, Borneo, Greenwich, Egypt, New York, and Spain (231). Yet despite the prevalence of these fantasies and the corresponding gaps in the narrative, “Run, Dad!” remains a story in which it is still possible to achieve a rich understanding of character relationships. This is because the author’s use of symbolism, structure, and dramatic irony helps to negotiate the divide between the story’s “real” events and the narrator’s colorful telling of them. Through analyzing these elements, one observes the importance of humor and resilience in shaping the way the narrator connects with others.

To begin with, the narrator’s vivid imagination, even as it suggests her youth and naïveté, actually sheds light on her genuine feelings. The repeated image of the running father functions almost like a recurring dream: not accurate in its detail, but highly symbolic of a larger emotional truth. Through it, we can gather that the narrator is more baffled than wounded by her father’s absence. Instead of viewing him as a coward or a deserter, she explains how he “cuts a comical figure” with his “luminous pink shorts” and “thin, hairy legs” (228). This image echoes the one her mother supplied when the father, many years ago, sprinted off in search of birth control pills (230). Consequently, both mother and daughter have an inclination to favor humor and resilience over self-pity. The narrator’s imaginings represent this dynamic. Similarly, her decision to equip her father with sunglasses symbolizes the achievement of great self-empowerment and acceptance. In light of his degrading existence as lawn boy for his ex-wife, the narrator experiences a surge of sympathy for her dad: “I’d forgotten that even the most rubbishy man in the world gets sick like everyone else, likes the things everyone else likes” (239). The tables have turned; the abandoned child has become the caretaker, protector, and giver. The symbolic gesture of the sunglasses is a powerful way for readers to appreciate this moment.

Narrative structure may likewise offer insight into the complex goings-on of “Run, Dad!” By layering the grandfather’s story on top of the main plotline, Aeran invites us to draw comparisons between the two father-daughter relationships. What emerges is a conception of family unbound by traditional linkages of affection and loyalty, but bound together nonetheless. Cho Chaok cannot escape her relationship with her father, any more than the narrator can stop herself wondering about hers. As the mother succinctly states, “‘A good family is very important’” (233). At the same time, both father-daughter relationships serve to undercut the traditional power of the patriarch. Chaok has chosen to reject her father’s influence, while the narrator never had any to begin with. The mother thus sets out a potential path for the daughter to follow as an autonomous woman. Once more, the message contradicts notions of self-pity and suffering. The narrator is not to blame for being curious about her father, but neither is she permitted to view herself as a victim. Chaok’s resilience in the face of her father’s dislike makes this abundantly clear.

As a final means of imparting narrative truth, Aeran uses dramatic irony to bring us suddenly in line with the narrator’s perspective. This occurs at the end of the story when the narrator lies about the contents of her half-brother’s letter: “‘Dad always felt bad…He felt guilty all his life. That’s what it says here’” (237). Because readers understand the letter in fact says nothing of the sort, they enjoy a moment of collusion with the narrator. They share a secret with her behind another character’s back. The effect is to throw into sharp relief the gap between reality and storytelling—to take the concept of unreliability and actually bring it to life within the plot. The dramatic irony also functions to show how the traditional parent-child dynamic has become subverted. Once again, the daughter dons the role of protector, as she seeks to shield her mother from the shameful details of her father’s final years. In the end, it is therefore not the father’s absence that becomes important, but rather how the narrator matures through her handling of it.

With her story “Run, Dad!” Kim Aeran has demonstrated how an unreliable narrator need not compromise the overall integrity of the text. Instead, narrative elements such as symbolism, structure, and irony can intercede to fill in the gaps in the narrator’s knowledge. Such a strategy allows for the creation of a story that appears simple, but is in reality meticulously patterned and sophisticated. It also showcases interesting flexibilities in reader-narrator relationships. Freed from their role as our steadfast guides into the world of the story, fictive narrators can behave more like real people, with secrets to hide, egos to protect, and tensions they may struggle to express.