A Psychological Impairment

The impact of the Korean Pop (K-Pop) boy group BTS has taken the world by storm. It is not only their music that is influencing many a fan, and even ordinary individuals alike. As their popularity flourishes and their fanbase multiplied, they have started acquiring a Midas touch. Nearly every product that they endorse and promote automatically goes out of stock within hours. BTS is practically a free advertisement as everything that they are seen donning or using are spotted by keen-eyed fans. It didn’t take time for BTS’ influence to reach literature. In one episode of BTS’ popular reality show, members Suga and RM were seen reading a book. It didn’t take long for the book to be identified as Sohn Won Pyung’s 아몬드. Local fans were soon flocking in droves to the bookstore, buying copies of the book originally published in 2017. An English translation, Almond, was soon released to the satisfaction of the curious international fans.

“I have almonds inside me. So do you. So do those you love and those you hate. No one can feel them. You just know they are there. This story is in short, a bout a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.”

Thus commenced Sohn’s debut novel, Almond. Set in contemporary South Korea, Almond charts the story of Yunjae. For most of his young life, he was raised by his single mother who doted on his only son. As days passed by, it was apparent that there was something different about Yunjae. Like any mother, Yunjae’s mother tried to make him smile when he was still young. But it was all for naught; he would stare blankly at her. To find answers, she consulted doctors who assured her that Yunjae was normal, that nothing was seriously wrong with him, that he was as normal as his peers. His mother’s anxieties, however, were never assuaged by these clearances.

It was when Yunjae was six-years-old when the biggest manifestation of what sets him apart became more pronounced. After witnessing a beating, he approached the nearest adult to report what he had seen. His claim was shrugged off because he was not “serious” enough. And when help came too late, Yunjae was scolded for his calmness, which was seen as obliviousness. In the end, Yunjae was diagnosed with alexithymia. In layman’s term, alexithymia pertains to the disability wherein an individual is unable or struggling to identify and express what he or she feels. To help raise her son, Yunjae’s mother finally reconnected and reconciled with her mother.

“People shut their eyes to a distant tragedy saying there’s nothing they could do, yet they didn’t stand up for one happening nearby either because they’re too terrified. Most people could feel but didn’t act. They said they sympathized, but easily forgot. The way I see it, that was not real. I didn’t want to live like that.”

~ Sohn Won-Pyung, Almond

Because of his inability to express his emotions, Yunjae grew up an outcast. His peers taunted and bullied him in the hopes of eliciting any semblance of emotional response from him. Again, it was all for naught. As days passed by, their taunting started to turn into fear of his stoic façade. His is the classic case of “we fear what we don’t understand.” Yunjae, on the other hand, was indifferent to how he was treated. To make Yunjae mesh into his environment, his mother coached him on how to react on certain occasions, on what emotions to exhibit in particular events. Their house was filled with printed notes written in hanja (Korean traditional writing), each denoting a certain emotional response. His mother’s persistence paid off as Yunjae soon learned to adjust to school life.

Yunjae’s young life was marked by two key events which were seminal in his growth and development. The first happened one Christmas Eve. To celebrate Yunjae’s 16th birthday, they all went out to dine out. As they were enjoying their naengmyeon (Korean cold noodle soup), the family of three found themselves at the center of a sudden explosion of violence that left some victim dead. The second important in Yunjae’s life is the day he met Gon, a recent transferee to his high school. Gon grew up on the streets of Seoul after he was accidentally abandoned by his parents. Together, Gon and Yunjae made up the two monsters Yunjae referred to in his opening statement. “Monster” was an affectionate nickname Yunjae’s grandmother gave him: “Monsters in books weren’t adorable. In fact, monsters were completely opposite to everything adorable. I wondered why she’d call me that.”

Both of these encounters casted a pall above the narrative, leaving graphic impressions on the reader’s mind. However, these are just two of the instances of violence that permeated in the story. The repeated demonstration of violence somehow blurred the message that Sohn was driving across. One can only surmise that violence, guised as fearlessness, was Sohn’s primary tool in underlining Yunjae’s affliction. The novel did portray some facets of the vast emotional spectrum, such as filial, romantic, and brotherly love, and loyalty but violence loomed above the story that one can’t help but conclude that it was Sohn’s only way of depicting and underscoring Yunjae’s condition.

Despite or, rather, in spite of Yunjae’s afflictions, the novel thrived on relationships. The relationship between Yunjae and his mother was one of the novel’s finer aspects. Aware of his flaws, she never gave up on her son, trying her best to help him bridge the world outside and his own world. She cast her doubts away and tried to see Yunjae’s unusual behavior in a positive light. “He’s just more fearless than other kids,” she once write in her diary. Her husband, a “punk” her mother disapproved of, died after a drunk motorbike rider crashed into his accessories stand. As she has cut ties with mother after she got pregnant, Yunjae’s mother tried to make ends meet. “Mom said everything was for my sake, calling it love. But to me, it seemed more like we were doing this out of her own desperation not to have a child that was different. Love, according to Mom’s actions, was nothing more than nagging about every little thing, with teary eyes, about how one should act such and such in this and that situation. If that was love, I’d rather neither give nor receive any.”

“Everyone thinks “ordinary” is easy and all, but how many of them would actually fit into the so-called smooth road the word implied? It sure was a lot harder for me, someone who was not born ordinary. That didn’t mean I was extraordinary. I was just a strange boy wandering around somewhere in between. So I decided to give it a try. To become ordinary.”

~ Sohn Won-Pyung, Almond

Alexithymia is one of many ailments that exist in the world. In the sphere of medicine and psychology, it is classified as a personality trait. The Greek term it was derived from loosely translates to “no words for emotions.” However, like most medical conditions, this personality trait remain mostly a mystery but statistics show that one in every ten individual exhibited symptoms of having alexithymia. Its causes remain unclear although several theories have been proposed. Research also suggest that it is linked to certain neurological diseases and injuries such as Alzheimer’s disease, dystonia, and Parkinson’s disease.

The novel’s title was derived from the almond-shaped amygdalae, a section of the brain often referred to as the body’s center of emotions. The amygdalae, derived from the Latin term for “almond”, is where emotions are defined and stored. It is also where attachments, associations, and responses to emotional memories are saved. Yunjae’s amygdalae, however, is underdeveloped, resulting to his inability to discern any emotions and emotional responses: “But for some reason, my almonds don’t seem to work well. They don’t really light up when they are stimulated. So I don’t know why people laugh or cry. Joy, sorrow, love, fear – all these things are vague ideas to me. The words “emotion” and “empathy” are just meaningless letters in print.”

Yunjae’s budding friendship with Gon, a gangster wannabe, was the concern of the novel’s second half and was also one of the novel’s better accomplishments. It formed the stern mantle upon which Yunjae’s social development flourished. Their formation also has an interesting backstory. Following the birth of daughter in the spring of 2014, Sohn Won-Pyung reflected on the meaning of unconditional love. Being a new mother was an experience foreign to her and just like most first-time mothers, she was filled with anxieties. Of the questions that creeping into her mind, one in particular lingered in her mind. Would she still be able to love the child she brought into the world even if her child grows into someone that is different from her expectations? This question, along with others, made her creative juices flow, birthing the story of Yunjae and Gon. The rest, they say, is history.

The landscape of Almond was enriched by its exploration of some facets of contemporary Korean society. Sohn subtly underscored the pressures that society place on the shoulders of Korean denizens. Korean society is popularly regarded as highly competitive, with very little tolerance for incompetence and losing. The society inculcated at a young age what most refer to as a “winning attitude”. This can be seen in the relationship between Gon and his estranged father. In one instance, a man went amok: “None of the victims had any relationship to the man. He was later discovered to be a very typical working-class citizen living an ordinary life. He had graduated from a four-year college and worked in the sales department of a small business for fourteen years before he was suddenly laid off due to the recession.” Bullying and school violence were also underscored in the narrative.

“But books were different. They had lots of blanks. Blanks between words and even between lines. I could squeeze myself in there and sit, or walk, or scribble down my thoughts. It didn’t matter if I had no idea what the words meant. Turning the pages was half the battle.”

~ Sohn Won-Pyung, Almond

The main concern in translated work is the loss of the nuances of language. The novel can easily come across as an English novel. “Lost in translation” it literally has become, resulting into a mundane storytelling. The story’s primary concern was Yunjae’s lack of emotions and his difficulties discerning them but there were several instances which showed otherwise. There was also an inconsistency in the novel’s pace. The first part of the novel had a quick pace, almost emotionally draining. The pace slowed down in the second part as the novel explored the friendship between Gon and Yunjae but then it picked up again as the story approached its conclusion. It was also in the conclusion that the entire narrative crumbled. It was too neat, too cutesy, too implausible.

Almond, the winner of the 2016 Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction novel, is no perfect work of fiction. However, Sohn’s labor of love cannot be denied. Almond was her own reflection on motherhood and the definitions of unconditional love and her voice resonated all throughout the novel, especially in the tender moments between mother and son. However, like most works of young adult fiction, it was undid by its blunders. The exploration of Yunjae’s condition was lacking and left more questions asked. The biggest lamentation, however, was the urgency and the necessity to treat Yunjae’s condition. It undid the tower of cards Sohn built. It was still an interesting read, but the story’s impact was significantly reduced as it turned into a typical young adult story – predictable, rushed, and careening towards the romantic rather than the realistic.

Ratings

61%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

While browsing through an online shopping application, one of the recommendations that popped out was Sohn Won-Pyung’s Almond. I simply ignored it for I was not familiar with Sohn nor have I read any of her works before. A couple of months later, I came across the book again but now, I got to learn about its skyrocketing popularity. Apparently, BTS member Suga were seen reading Almond in one episode of their popular reality show, In The Soop. As I not an Army, I simply shrugged it off. But, of course, the book was really persistent as I encountered it again. So fine, I will take a leap of faith and read the novel. Even though it was a young adult novel, my interest was piqued by the novel’s premise; it explores a medical condition that I have never heard of before. I never thought that there existed a malady where one finds it challenging discerning emotions. Whilst I liked the premise, I found the first part of the novel emotionally draining. I feel like Sohn tried to build the story on sheer shock factor. I also liked Gon and Yunjae’s friendship but I found this part of the narrative predictable. The ending was also rushed.

Book Specs

Author:  Sohn Won-Pyung
Translator:  Sandy Joosun Lee
Publisher: HarperVia
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 251
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Synopsis

“This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.”

Yunjae was born with a brain condition called alexithymia that makes it hard form him to feel emotions like fear or anger. He does not have – friends – the two almond-shaped neurons located deep in his brain have seen to that – but his devoted mother and grandmother provide him with a safe and content life. Their little home above his mother’s used-book store is decorated with colorful Post-it notes that remind him when to smile, when to say “thank you,” and when to laugh.

Then on Christmas Eve – Yunjae’s sixteenth birthday – everything changes. A shocking act of random violence shatters his world, leaving him alone and on his own. Struggling to cope with his loss, Yunjae retreats into silent isolation, until troubled teenager Gon arrives at his school, and they develop a surprising bond.

As Yunjae begins to open his life to new people – including a girl at school – something slowly changes inside him. And when Gon suddenly finds his life at risk, Yunjae will have the chance to step outside of every comfort zone he has created to perhaps become the hero of his own story.

In the vein of The Emissary and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Almond is a beautifully written, unique novel that is as charming as it is a tribute to how love, friendship, and persistence can change a life forever.

About the Author

Sohn Won-Pyung (손원평) was born in 1979 in Seoul, South Korea. Her father, Sohn Hakkyu, was a prominent figure in South Korean politics, having served as the governor of Gyeonng-do, the province flanking Seoul and also the most populous Korean province.

Sohn has always dreamed of becoming a professional novelist since she was in elementary school. However, she studied at Sogang University, majoring in both sociology and philosophy. Her debut in the film industry preceded her literary debut. she won a Film Criticism Award (영화평론상) from the film magazine Cine 21. Her success in filmmaking made her pursue studying film directing at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. After graduating from KAFA, she directed a number of short films which earned awards and critical acclaims alike. She also won a Best Scenario Synopsis Award at the 2006 SF Creative Writing Contest for Sunganeul mideoyo (순간을 믿어요 I Believe in the Moment).

During her college years, Sohn repeatedly applied for different literary awards. She used various nom de plumes but none of her works were successful. Years later, in 2016, she made her long-awaited literary debut with the publication of 아몬드 (Almond). Her debut novel was a critical success as it was awarded the 2016 Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction. Her second novel, 서른의 반격 (Born in 1988, 2017), won the Jeju 4.3 Peace Literary Prize. Her latest novel, 사월의 눈 (April Snow) was published in 2018.

Sohn is currently active in both film and literary industries as a film director, screenwriter, and novelist.