2021 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place tie, adult essay division
Yi Sang’s “Wings” begins with a suicide note and ends with a call to revolution. The narrator’s mind has been turned upside down under colonization. While his wife seems like the perfect image of love, their marriage is revealed to be a series of false poses and he increasingly suspects her of being a tool of the regime. Fleeing further exploitation, the speaker escapes into nature where he feels removed from the limitations of colonization. In a distortion of the Goryeojang folktales, he attempts to leave himself for dead atop a remote hillside, desiring to return to the land whose terrain is uniquely Korean. Unable to die, it seems that imperialism has not only upended the present but has also marred Korea’s pre-colonial past. Freedom is hopeless for the speaker in his current form. Therefore, the end of the story serves as a call for revolution--only by returning to a pre-human form can the oppressed embrace the sky as a limitless country where they can recover a sense of identity via freedom.
The wife is transformed into a tool of the regime, proving the impossibility of love under colonization. The husband first introduces his wife as a “bright” blossom, going on to say “‘I’ survive by clinging to [that blossom]” (68). The husband often uses words like “bright”-- or “beams,” “flashed,” and “glaring”--to attribute properties of light to his wife (72, 74, 76). The quotation marks around “I” elevates the “I” to mean that the wife is responsible not just for the survival of the speaker but also his sense of self, purpose and identity. However, because the symbol of the Japanese Empire is also a sun, the husband grows suspicious of his sun-like wife. He suspects her of “conspiracy” and even fears being struck by lightning, as if light might shoot out of her to smite him (77). The warm and comforting light of what he thought was the sun, turns harsh--it becomes a false light, one that is comparable to the bright lamps used by the regime for interrogation. The distrust he feels towards his wife mirrors the distrust that many native Koreans would have felt during occupation in fear of being targeted, betrayed or conspired against. Because she takes on the role of interrogator, love becomes impossible for the speaker and his wife.
By attempting suicide on a remote hillside, the speaker intends to return to a time before colonization so that he can live freely. Motivated by his disgust of the human world, he escapes into nature by climbing to the top of a hill where he eventually takes six sleeping pills (81). While he climbs, he thinks only of the natural landscape endemic to Korea like “golden forsythias,” “skylarks'' and the hatching stones of the folktales to ease his discontent about his wife (81). In unconsciously seeking out the highest point of land possible, the husband seems to be operating under the logic that the further he is away from the bustling city and all its humanity, the more likely it is he will escape exploitation. Similarly, the further he goes into the uniquely Korean landscape the less his environment shows signs of colonial occupation. Through the act of suicide he could return to the land--which has yet to lose its essential Koreaness. In giving himself up to nature, the speaker reenacts a version of the Goryeojang folktales--simultaneously taking on the roles of abandoner and abandoned. In this way, he fully inhabits a pre-colonial past.
At the end of the story, the speaker pushes past his desire to embody a pre-colonial Korea and instead calls for a return to a pre-human state in order to recover a sense of freedom by taking to the sky. Unable to die on the hillside the speaker returns home only to be pounced on and bitten by his wife (82). Transformed into an imitation tiger, the wife becomes the human embodiment of consumption. In a distortion of the Goryeojang folktales, the husband is not devoured by nature but a false animal--his wife doing the work of the regime, disappearing anyone who is unwilling to submit. The tiger, folk symbol of Korea, has become a tool of the Japanese Empire and even ancient Korea seems overrun by imperialism. As a final recourse, the speaker trumpets a call to revolution via de-evolution to a pre-human state:
“Wings! Grow again!”
“Let’s fly! Let’s fly! Let’s fly! Let’s fly just one more time!”
“Let’s fly once again!” (84)
The use of the word “let’s” signals his desire for the collectively oppressed to rise up. The phrases “one more time” and “once again” signal a return. As he compels his wings to “grow again” it is as if he is recalling a time when humans were not humans but instead creatures with wings who could fly. Only by accessing this pre-human form does he feel hopeful of escaping his reality and the limits of the regime. He incites all those who are oppressed to embrace the limitless freedom of the sky--as if it were a new country or a land they once called home.
Yi Sang’s “Wings'' reveals the pervasiveness of colonization and how it strips those who are colonized of vital aspects of identity. Essential to one’s identity is the ability to love freely, an expression of freewill. As the image of the wife becomes distorted by fear, the speaker’s ability to love is impossible. Home is another key factor in building a sense of self. However, even the ancient past of Korea seems to be infected by imperialism. By the end of the story the speaker is stripped clean of any ties to himself. Though the suicide note acts as a preface, it seems to provide a clue to his ultimate fate--while he calls for a transformation of body so that he may reach the sky, it is very likely that he will become a “stuffed specimen” after all (66). Only in seeking the sky might he recover what’s been lost.