Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly | Review

This novella right here is one of the reasons I so strongly believe in having a dedicated Women in Translation month. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, right here, this book, serves as such a perfect example for why I've been championing this, and why it means so much to me.

Sidebar: the cover is positively lovely in print
The reason I read literature in translation is the same reason I read sci-fi, the same reason I read fantasy, the same reason I don't like mysteries, the same reason my tastes shift every few years - it's because above all else, I seek diversity in my reading. I don't want to read formulaic novels and I don't want to read about ideas that I'm already familiar with. International literature checks off many of these boxes comfortably, because often a different upbringing and a different culture heavily influences the type of book an author is likely to write. In the same way, gender is likely to influence it as well.

So we come to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, a short fable about a hen who, yes, dreams she can escape her coop, lay an egg and fly away from the life she's lived until now. When the story opens, our hen Sprout (a name she chose herself, since of course to her human masters she's nothing more than an egg-laying hen and useless as long as she is not fulfilling that task...) is reaching the end of her egg-laying days. She can feel it coming on. And she wants, desperately, more than anything, to be a mother to a chick.

The story that continues from there is sweet. It's powerful. It's meaningful. Anyone who reads The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly will recognize the strength of the maternal theme that runs through the core of the novella. Sun-mi Hwang (ably translated by Kim Chi-Young) doesn't simply look at the ordinary desire for motherhood (and yes, I recognized while reading the book that there might be a perception of an assumption that motherhood is the default for females, though I really don't think that's the point...), but at the actual practical implications. Motherhood appears in different forms - desperate, voluntary, loving, frightening, overbearing, understanding - it's almost overwhelming. If we're ever going to discuss whether men and women write differently (which I really, really don't believe), I think this would actually serve as a good example for different styles: men writing about motherhood so warmly is fairly rare...

But The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not just about motherhood, and it's not just cheerful, plucky hens flapping around trying to get their way. The messages here about family in general, culture, belonging, and even farming as a concept stand fairly central in the story. It's a fascinating little book, one that made me think about all sorts of issues for several days after I finished it. Unique, different, pleasant, thoughtful and intelligent... what more could you ask for?

I really recommend The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. I've seen certain reviews call it a "lighter" fable as compared to something like George Orwell's Animal Farm; to be perfectly honest, I think that assessment has a bit of the "male=serious, female=fluff" mentality to it. This is a novella that packs major punch in its "domesticity" (quite literally, actually), and while it doesn't aim to represent totalitarianism or hypocrisy or anything Orwellian of the sort, its piercing and, yes, lovely focus on motherhood, love and family is equally powerful.

The writing style is very, very simple, as befits a story narrated by a chicken. Readers who like their prose a bit meatier may find the childlike style frustrating; I personally felt that it matched the story quite well. Sprout is a fascinating character (beyond her chicken-isms), and her world is one filled with messages we could all do well to remember. This is a book I'm very glad to have found, and very glad to have read. There's a lot to love here.

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