Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Kim Chi-Young

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
Sun-Mi Hwang
Translated by Kim Chi-Young (from Korean)
Illustrated by Nomoco
2000, I read 2013 translation
144 pages, animal fable, motherhood
Found: Starmark, Mani Square Mall, Kolkata

Sprout has always imagined life outside of the confining walls of the egg-laying hut, raising chicks all her own. Depressed, she stops eating, and her eggs stop coming, leading the farmer to take her out to be slaughtered. But she escapes! In time, she becomes friends with an injured wild duck, Straggler, whose partner has been killed by the local weasel. With Straggler's help, Sprout incubates an abandoned egg, which turns out to be the duck couple's baby. When Straggler dies and the egg hatches, Sprout decides to care for this baby as her own - despite the challenges and the ridicule from others caused by their obvious mismatch.

The simply told story narrates Sprout's struggles to raise her baby duck - Greentop, as she calls him - in the inhospitable land outside of the farm's society. Despite the cold winter, deadly weasel, family arguments and other problems, Sprout's competent attitude and motherly perseverance give her the strength to raise Greentop and assert her own identity at the same time.

This is a beautifully told fable about independence, identity, and motherhood. Despite the similarities with children's literature (which have been emphasized by the English-language promotion of the book), Sprout's journey has more to offer people with more life experience. In Korea, it is considered to be an adult novel, and I want to emphasize that aspect.


At different points during her life, Sprout encounters a variety of restraints on her freedom and individuality. On the farm, she is kept in a cage; while she is taken care of physically she has no opportunity to assert her individuality or to follow her dream of being a mother. In fact, these dreams are thwarted daily, as each egg she lays is immediately taken from her. In this situation, the only way to protest this treatment is to starve herself, forcing her body to stop laying eggs.

This is a powerful political statement. It reminded me of, for example, the "no wash" protests undertaken by Irish Republican women imprisoned in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. When Sprout is kept in an untenable position due to her own body, she protests those conditions using her own body.

I told you this wasn't a children's book.

When Sprout finally escapes, she discovers that being outside the farm environment has its own perils. In the wilderness outside the farm, there are the real dangers of being injured or killed (and eaten) by the weasel, being unable to find food, and, not unimportant, not having any company. But when she tries to approach the free-range chickens on the farm, they refuse to let her join them in the barn. Because she is not one of them, their own discomfort with having her there is more important than keeping her from dying. She is left with little choice: society has rejected her, so she must go outside of society and use her wits and courage to survive.

When Greenback grows up, she finds herself in another difficult position: he wants to join the society of the farm, despite knowing that his mother will not be accepted there.  Although it makes her feel her rejection again, all the more keenly, she allows him to explore on his own. But then he is caught by the farmer, and Sprout must do everything she can to make sure her baby is ok. Venturing again into the hostile society that had so utterly rejected her before, she again takes the initiative to cut loose the social bonds - in this case, physically incarnated in a piece of rope tied to his foot, which she pecks apart. But the irony is that even though Greenback was kept imprisoned on the farm, he was still accepted by the farm community. His mother does not have that opportunity. After this incident, their relationship becomes ever more distant. The piece of rope tied to Greenback's foot provides a constant visual reminder of this major difference between the two of them.


Despite their differences, mother and child are connected through their love for one another. While Sprout has shown courage and creativity from the start, her efforts take on a higher purpose when Greenback comes into her life.  From then on, her own hardship is secondary to caring for her child.

Sprout's love for Greenback is a beautiful thing that changes over time. As a baby, Greenback is willing to do whatever Sprout wants him to do. But as he grows up, he discovers that he is very different from his mother. He wants to swim to the middle of the pond and eat duckweed, things that his mother cannot join him in. Although this separation is painful for Sprout, she lets him explore his interests without complaint; he is, after all, a duck, and he needs to learn how to live as a duck. She can't protect him, and she can't guide him in understanding these aspects of himself. She can only stay on the shore and watch. In the end, this is the goal of motherhood: providing safety and protection to her child for as long as he needs it, and then letting him go when he needs to leave and become his own person.

This beautifully written and illustrated fable for adults seems to be a simple story about motherhood. But it's so much more. Read it for yourself and let me know what you got out of it, based on your own life experiences. Highly recommended for mothers and other people with more life experience, who will enjoy reading a beautiful fable that is much deeper than it appears.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is available on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart, or wherever books are sold. 

Further Reading: 

"Learning How-to from the Animals" from the Korean Popular Culture blog
An interview with Sun-mi Hwang about the book and Korean literature in general (from Korean Literature in Translation

No comments:

Post a Comment