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Drifting LandKim Soom
『Drifting Land』Author : Kim Soom
Publisher : Eunhaeng Namu
Publication date : April 27, 2020
Number of pages : 280
Format : 140x210mm
ISBN : 9791190492522
A Tender Gaze on Those Drifting in Search of Their Roots
Kim Soom, who has been embracing the marginalized and the uprooted — comfort women, adoptees, the evicted urban poor — has composed a piece for the diaspora in her new work, Drifting Land. Drifting Land is a novel inspired by a historical event. In 1937, 170,000 Koryo-saram (people of Korean descent) who had been living in the farthest Eastern outskirts of the Soviet Union were put on freight trains to be forcibly moved to central Asia. The novel expands against the bleak backdrop of a freight train on the destiny of the diaspora into a story narrated through the voices of the people on the train, especially women’s voices. It depicts, with verisimilitude and subtlety, the tragic lives and history of the Koryo-saram, who lived in an era of sorrow and longing, yearning for ages for a place to put down roots.
Fall 1937. The Soviet police swarm into Sinhanchon, where Geum-sil lives. The villagers are ordered to gather in Vladivostok’s Revolution Square within three days, bringing a week’s worth of food and some clothes to wear. To the questioning villagers, bewildered at the sudden brusque orders, the police curtly reply, “You Koreans have been ordered to move.” Eventually, Geum-sil leaves a short note for her husband, grabs her provisions and some seeds that she hopes to plant in the destined land, and gets onboard the train. The trains are freight trains, made to carry livestock, not people, and in Geum-sil’s compartment there are 27 in all. Among them are a quite unwell old man, a rather heavily pregnant woman, children full of curiosity and even a newborn infant. Thrown in dire and appalling conditions, they are in despair, overwhelmed with a great, stifling fear. Without even a window to look out of, it is impossible to tell how far they have come.
Tough sausages, salted pork, scorched rice, dried bread … They share what little food they have, eating sparingly and relying on each other to get through the dark and dreary time. The stories of their hard lives can be heard one after another through the voices of Geum-sil, Tanya, Deul-suk, In-seol and O-sun. A hospital nurse is suddenly fired due to the forced migration, a single mother whose Russian husband had heartlessly abandoned her, leaving her to board the train with just her child, a woman who had just given birth and had to get on carrying her newborn …
Born and raised in Russia, but bound, in the end, to be strangers, the land holds more meaning than simple soil for them. It is hope — that with something planted, crops will grow, wastelands will become fertile and so, one might once again settle and take root. But this hope that had been cultivated through generations is snatched from them overnight.
Through vast, meticulous research, Kim Soom turns the diasporic destiny of the Koryo-saram into a complete work. She grants them names and calls forth each of the characters in the story. In particular, the solid dialogue that fills the entire novel emits a gentle force that steers the narrative forward, at the same time bestowing each character a compact three-dimensionality. These are people who cannot cease to drift over the land — the land they had so fervently longed to take root on, but was taken away from them in the end. With Drifting Land, the author has brought into flower their firm determination to draw back the darkness draped over them and their purposeful stride to once again move toward the sultry light of the earth.
Novelist Jeon Sung-tae comments that Drifting Land “without once depriving individuals from their utterances, and at times becoming a voice without a master, sings with resonance the fate of mankind and the sufferings of women.” Kim Soom, in a composed style, illustrates the sublimity of human beings submerged in tragic history, and so, completes the story of uprooted and drifting beings. This novel is of great significance, in that it makes us recall a past that should never be repeated, and furthermore look back on the drifting lives of those around us in the margins.
Drifting Land, through realistic depiction of the plight of several families pushed on to a train for forced migration, shines light on a tragedy that occurred in 1937. It is heavily significant that Pervaya Rechka Station, where people were forced to board the train, was a station for freight cars. The stories they tell condense the 150-year history of the Koryo people that are still scattered across Russia and Central Asia. Tragedies must never be forgotten. That’s the only way to keep them from being repeated. In that sense, this book is a note of remembrance to not forget the tragedy suffered by the Koryo diaspora. — Yun Sang-won (professor in the Department of History, Jeonbuk National University)