2016 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
Mid-Air Suspension of Disbelief

“Why must a water strider stand on water? There is more than enough land in the world for its legs to stand safely on” (Ha 175).

Ha Seongnan’s “Waxen Wings” serves as a modern interpretation of the Greek myth of Icarus, whose death was brought about by his own ambitious overconfidence. Icarus disregarded his father’s warning – to avoid flying too close to the sun – and tragically fell into the sea when the sun’s heat melted his wax-made wings. Ha’s modern Icarus is a former gymnast nicknamed Birdie who, from her early childhood days, obsessively seeks aerial experiences that give her the sensation of flying. Though various events throughout her life warn her of the inherent danger in flying, Birdie ignores such warnings and ultimately loses a leg due to a flying-related accident. While Birdie’s story, as with the original myth of Icarus, is ultimately a tragedy, Ha deliberately steers her reader away from feeling the catharsis that is usually evoked when a protagonist meets his or her downfall. Ha achieves such narrative control by leading the reader to accept Birdie’s flawed version of the story through the suspension of disbelief, mirroring the way in which Birdie is able to ignore the truths around her and continue to believe in her own immortality.

Birdie’s continued pursuit of flight is not a result of ignorance, as she demonstrates, on multiple occasions, her awareness of the warnings given her. The story is narrated in second-person present tense – allowing the reader, as “you”, to seemingly step into Birdie’s current perspective. However, the unreliable nature of the narration is revealed during the scene when ten-year-old Birdie is first warned against flying:

"Suddenly, an uneasy thought flashes across mind. This child who wants to fly, what if she decides to take flight from the roof of the school? The teacher shakes her head as if to dislodge this disturbing thought, but in her mind you keep falling from the school roof" (Ha 165).

While the teacher’s thought is being described in great detail, the fact remains that the thought has never been explicitly expressed, suggesting that it was fabricated by Birdie in her telling of the story. Furthermore, the “uneasy” and “disturbing” nature of the thought implies that Birdie has fabricated it at a future point in time, when she is mature enough to acknowledge, if not heed, the potential repercussions of her actions. However, knowledge of the truth is not enough to deter her from her desire; even as Birdie repeatedly reminds herself of the physical limitation of gravity, she can only think about how she can defy such laws: “You believe that if people could escape the confines of gravity, they could fly like birds. But you find that even the task of simplifying the law of gravity is difficult” (Ha 166). To Birdie, defying a natural law of physics is not an impossibility, but just a difficult possibility. In these ways, Birdie shows herself to hold a highly flexible interpretation of the truth, in which she freely overlooks the limitations of the reality she is in.

Birdie’s belief in her own immortality – and the deliberate holding back of key details – become transparent only after her irreversible accident. When she ends up in the intensive care unit following a hang gliding accident, she nonchalantly describes her hospital stay and discharge: “… your injury could have been much worse – but you know it’s your long hang time that spared you… After the scars heal and a period in rehabilitation, you’re discharged” (Ha 180). Her words play down the severity of her injury, especially as she insists that her own aptitude for aerial suspension prevented her accident from having been worse. However, upon her discharge, the narrative takes a chronological step back for the story’s final scene, revealing the details of her attempt to fly while she was in the hospital: “you heard your right leg crack and out it popped from under your skirt” (Ha 181). Only in the final scene does the reader discover just how misleading Birdie has been, that Birdie is delusional enough to attempt to fly in her not-fully-recovered state. When Birdie appears satisfied that her lost limb allows “half of you now forever hang in midair” (Ha 181), what the reader once saw as a naive, possibly whimsical ambition suddenly appears to be a perverse one; it is no longer possible to trust Birdie’s judgment. However, it is not Birdie who has changed; her desire has remained the same, but the difference is that the reader has finally been exposed to the flawed nature of her point of view.

By allowing a highly unreliable narrator to tell her story in the highly ambiguous second person, Ha leads the reader to empathize with this narrator and ignore the warning signs of her possible mental instability. Only in the final scene is Birdie’s true nature revealed – a mentally ill individual who believes in her own immortality and ability to fly, and manipulates the truth around her as she sees fit. Ha has purposely caused the reader the suspend disbelief regarding the implausibility of Birdie’s story, and thus be unprepared when the truth is revealed in the final scene. In conclusion, Birdie’s exceptionally long aerial “hang time” thus serves as a metaphor for the extended “hang time” for the reader’s disbelief.