From Sisun Onward

1. Basic Information

 1) Title: From Sisun Onward

 2) Author: Serang Chung

3) Translator: Soje

4) Publication year: 2020

 5) Publisher: Munhakdongne Publishing Group

 6) Pages: 337

2. Synopsis

“Listen,” Myeong-hye wiped her glasses and put them on again. “We’re going to do the jesa ceremony in Hawaii.”

With the almost farcical premise of a South Korean family gathering in Hawai’i to perform the jesa ancestral rite of a lifetime, From Sisun Onward looks back on the tragedies and acts of resistance of the twentieth century through one woman’s remarkable life.

After her entire family was massacred during the Korean War, Shim Sisun disguised herself as a picture bride and fled to Hawai’i. When a famous German painter abused her under the guise of mentorship, she escaped with the help of friends, married a different painter, moved back to a now-divided Korea, and became a public intellectual. Ahead of her time in more ways than one, Sisun also got divorced and remarried, expanding her family and living happily ever after while continuing to fight various systems of oppression.

For nearly a decade following Sisun’s death, her children and grandchildren (thirteen including in-laws) from these two marriages had honored her wish that they not participate in the traditional jesa ceremony rooted in Confucian patriarchy. Then the eldest daughter, Myeong-hye, suddenly proposes a special jesa in Hawai’i: no traditional garb or table setting, just a fun family trip where everyone collects a memory to share with Sisun.

Each chapter begins with an excerpt of Shim Sisun’s writing—various essays, lectures,  and interviews given over decades—and shifts to the narrative present, ten years after her death. In this way, the lives of Sisun and her descendents appear in conversation, demonstrating how not only violence against Asian women but also their triumphs and joys continue to reverberate throughout time and space. Even as Sisun’s daughters and granddaughters struggle with workplace discrimination and bullying, it is clear that her fighting spirit lives on through them as they advocate for indigenous, queer, and animal rights.

Even in her realist fiction, Serang Chung doesn’t see the world just as it is; she imagines the improbable happy ending for a female artist of the twentieth century. From Sisun Onward is both a feminist fantasy and a commentary on the machinations of power in the art world and imperialism at large. Chung manages to be both clear-eyed and hopeful, inspiring us to bring ourselves closer to a more just world with biodiversity and all types of kinship.

3. About the Author

  • Serang Chung (b. 1984) is a novelist who shimmies between the worlds of literary and genre fiction—and more recently, the pages and the screen. She graduated with a degree in history education from Korea University and worked as an editor at two major publishing houses before debuting as a writer in the sci-fi and fantasy magazine Fantastique in 2010. Her novels include a frame narrative encompassing historical and science fiction (Show Me Your Snaggletooth), an environmentalist sci-fi romance (My Only One on Earth), a trio of siblings with trivial superpowers (Jaein, Jaewook, Jaehoon), and a ghost-fighting school nurse (The School Nurse Files, also adapted into a Netflix original series). Chung has also published two short collections. She received the Changbi Prize for As Close as This in 2014 and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize for Everybody Will Be Dancing in 2017.

4. Book Reviews

“Reading this book made me so happy. I didn’t want its world to end and wanted to eat pancakes with Shim Sisun’s family. Watching lively women prepare a jesa ceremony for a truly great woman, I felt like I could do this kind of jesa for life. What would Korean society look like if we all had a grandmother who wrote, read, and lived her life like Sisun? From Sisun Onward provides a positive prospect for when women unbound by patriarchy become heads of families. I hope this wonderful novel, which gave me comfort and a new genealogy, will be remembered for a long time like the classic feminist film Antonia’s Line.

– Bora Kim, director of House of Hummingbird

“Serang Chung, to me, is a synonym for effervescence. Her novels unfold the stories of lovable characters at the perfect temperature. While reading From Sisun Onward I felt as if I could smell fresh mint at the tip of my nose. I started reading while laying on my side, and I finished it without realizing my arm had fallen asleep. As I massaged my arm, I thought, Have I ever seen anyone else who so thoroughly scrutinizes modern Korean history without losing her cheerful and steadfast nature?

– Sang Young Park, author of Love in the Big City

“Serang Chung, Hawaii, and jesa! This combination of words guarantees fun, yet this book manages to far exceed expectations. Serang Chung’s ability to write about cute and funny things in a cute and funny manner while casually dropping deep insights has now reached an otherworldly level. I’m forever changed by reading this book and receiving the intense energy of the unforgettable Shim Sisun. It will probably shine on me as bright as the sun for as long as I live. I love all works by Serang Chung, but if I must choose one as my favorite, I say From Sisun Onward.”

– Kim Hana, writer and podcaster