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Gwangju takes us down memory lane

  • Published at 04:34 pm March 14th, 2020
Asian Literature Festival 2018

Personal essay

(Translated by Arts & Letters Desk)

Colonial oppression, World War II, comfort women, divided Korea, partition of India-Pakistan, anti-Pakistan movement, Bangladesh's liberation movement of 1971, Bengali women brutally raped by Pakistani soldiers, Gwangju Uprising against military junta in South Korea, Bangladesh's anti-autocracy movement in 1990. When I was at Gwangju, time and place fell apart amid a storm brought on by memories. 

Bangladesh's history is not a neatly arranged sequence of events; dust-covered and veiled, it stands, as if, poised to fade away. The man who got shot in the 1990 mass uprising in Dhaka with “Let democracy be free/Let autocracy be over with” written on his bare chest and back—we only know his name, Noor Hossain. An intersection has been named after him. But you wouldn't find his name written on a pedestal by one of those avenues adorned with trees. These thoughts crossed my mind when visiting the Asia Culture Center building. Is it a matter of fund shortage? Or is it an attempt to make us forget the time of oppression and our glorious resistance against it? Knowingly or unknowingly, maybe we are becoming part of that oblivion.

The face of oppression looks just the same across the world. A huge pile of footwears of different sizes, bullet holes on walls, stains of dried and blackened blood on shirts, armed police brandishing batons, corpses lying face down. The only difference is: either memories of oppression, resistance and liberation movement are thrown away into the dump, or they are preserved for future generations who will realize the real worth of these events, hate war and be on the side of peace. The latter has been achieved nicely in the archives of Gwangju May, which can be an example for all to follow.

Gwangju is a city of light, of numerous souls who died upholding human dignity and the values of democracy. While at Gwangju, I came to know in great detail about the May 1980 uprising, as well as about some other movements that had happened in the past. Gwangju always shows the right path in the fight against injustice, holding out the torch of light.

In 1929 a movement launched by students of Gwangju against the education system turned into a national movement against Japanese colonial rule. The movement had started due to the so-called “pigtail accident”. The female students whose hair was grabbed by Japanese students were Park Gi-Ok and Lee Gwang-Chun; they went to Gwangju Boton High School. That photos of the two adolescent students have been preserved is indeed a praiseworthy initiative.

When as part of a program known as May 18 Walk we were marching along a road strewn with memories of the uprising, the city was full of hustle and bustle. The sunlight was bright in the autumn afternoon, and leaves on trees were colorful. Under the cool shade of trees we were walking down the road covered in fallen leaves. On both sides, there were shops and art shops. Amid all this, the guide was bringing back the history that happened 38 years ago with his commentary through a microphone. This walking tour, nearly two-hour-long, came to an end at the May 18 Democracy Square, near the Clock Tower and the Fountain beside it. The Fountain that protestors used as stage to deliver speeches was right in front of us. The story of the Clock Tower was indeed very interesting. As soon as the clock struck 5:18am it released the sweet tune of the song “Marching for our Beloved”. In 1982, Yun Sang-Wun, a martyr of the Gwangju movement, and his beloved (she, too, had died by then) were married. After this ghost marriage happened, 15 songs were composed as part of a musical drama for a program called “Comfort Soul: Wedding of Light”, and the Clock Tower song was a prominent one of them. 

In the Sangmugwan building at the May 18 Democracy Square were kept the bodies of martyrs. Citizens of Gwangju used to wrap the dead bodies in their national flags; sprinkling perfume over them they used to cry for the lost souls. That room was empty now. Only photos of some martyrs' parents were hanging from a rope. On the outside there was a food festival—visually pleasant food items are arranged beautifully. When the lights around the Square were on, the ambience of grief merged into that of festivity. 

The May 18 National Graveyard we visited on the first day of Asian Literature Festival was not merely a place for burying the dead, it was a peaceful place too. On the expanse of a valley surrounded by mountains were lying the martyrs of the May movement. Adorned with flowers and photos, the graves were covered in grass. As if to glorify the martyrs' sacrifices, autumn's pleasant sun and colorful foliage have joined hands in a festive frenzy. 

That the theme of Asian Literature Festival is “Let us sing in Asia” is indeed timely and relevant. Asia was under western colonial oppression for long. Today the fire of war stoked by the same western powers is burning vast expanses of Asia—Syria, Yemen and Palestine. One turns on the television to see the debris of high-rise buildings, skeletal children, rows of corpses, dust-mixed smog, and processions of refugees. Faced with a backdrop like this, it is really challenging for Asian writers to work out how to capture messages of peace against the nightmare of war. 

Asian Literature Festival is also important because it has specially prioritized Asian writers. I heartily welcome this initiative to promote Asian writings in the vernacular. This move will help us turn toward the east, overcoming our dependency on the west. Not through the eyes of the Orientalists, we have to look at our literature and culture from within. 

I earnestly thank the ACC for publishing a Korean translation of my novel, Talash (The Search), at the festival. In the words of translator Sing Hi-Jon, I'd like to say that Talash “is our story too.” It is not merely a story of women brutalized by Pakistani soldiers during Bangladesh's Liberation War; it is a tale of war-time violence on women in Asia. The Korean comfort women of World War II are not alive today; yet it comes as a most pleasant experience to me that my book on Bangladeshi women in the time of war will reach future generations of Korean readers.

[Original Bangla version of this article was published in Prothom Alo in 2018. This translation is carried due to its continuing relevance in today’s literary world]


Shaheen Akhtar is one of Bangladesh’s leading fiction writers. She has received the Gemcon Shahitya Puroshkar 2019 for her novel Oshukhi Din.

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