Sheri Holman: The greatest challenge I faced researching Sondok's life was the lack of material. No sources survived from the earliest period of Silla history. The Samguk Yusa, from which we get what little information that exists about Sondok, was not written until the thirteenth century, some seven hundred years after she reigned! Since so little remained, I was forced to imagine the outline of her life. I was able to gather information about royal traditions, the history of shamanism, Asian astronomy, etc. and from these facts create a world in which Sondok might live and breathe. Lack of sources gave me free reign to fashion any life I wanted for her, but I asked a Korean scholar, Jungsoo Kim, to read behind me, to make sure I stayed true to historical reality. I do not speak Korean, and so I was also dependent on sources in translation. Thank goodness for the New York Public Library. I lived there for several months before starting this book!
RFA & EST: What is the most interesting or unusual fact you discovered as you did your research?
SH: That in order for a woman to become a mudang, she must fall ill with a "shaman sickness." This illness would come upon her sometime in her adolescence and she would experience both bodily pain and mental exhaustion. According to tradition, the sufferer would hallucinate and act as a person possessed until she sought out an older priestess to act as her godmother. Under this woman's tutelage, the young girl would learn to accept her personal spirit god, she would memorize the lengthy songs and dances of the mudang, and eventually become one herself. Sources say that Sondok was a powerful prophetess, so she must have fallen ill with her own "shaman sickness." I found it especially interesting that this disease hit at adolescence when young girls are so overwhelmed by the changes in their bodies and their new roles as women.
RFA & EST: This is your first book for young people. What challenges did you face in writing for a younger audience, in writing in the journal format, and in creating the fictional adolescence of a largely unknown historical person?
SH: I think young readers are so sophisticated now, there is very little difference between writing for them and writing for adults. The main goal is to find themes that a smart adolescent will relate to -- like the pressure kids put on themselves to be perfect and to please everyone, the frustration they feel when not allowed to pursue their dreams because of something silly like prejudice or narrowly defined gender roles. I found it especially challenging, and yet extremely rewarding, to explain Silla's distant culture in diary form. Things Sondok would have taken for granted — like an ondol floor — would be completely unfamiliar to western readers. The trick is getting across what one is without a lengthy explanation of it. Imagine if you were describing something as commonplace as a television set to someone who had never seen one. You might write in your diary "Today I watched TV" but you wouldn't write: "Today I watched TV, a box in my living room upon which I watch moving pictures that are beamed to my house via satellite." I tried to work unfamiliar concepts into the context of the story, but when I had to explain something, I let Sondok use good old Grandmother... "Do you recall, Grandmother..."
RFA & EST: When you started the research for Sondok's diary you said that you didn't know much about the Korean culture but that you loved the food! If your young readers wanted to try some Korean food, what would you recommend?
SH: Kimchi, a spicy, pickled cabbage, is the quintessential, traditional Korean staple. It is eaten with rice, and is usually served as part of a series of little dishes, called banchan. I've made my own kimchi using napa cabbage, red pepper, garlic, onion juice, ginger, and salt. I packed it in a jar and let it ferment in the refrigerator for several days, and when I tried it, it was great. Traditionally, kimchi is buried in earthenware pots beneath the snow to last the winter. And of course in Sondok's day, there would have been no red pepper (it's a New World plant). They used other spices, but the pickling dates back to prehistoric times.
RFA & EST: Your description of Sondok's tapestry in the weaving competition is most vivid. What did you learn about Korean arts that inspired this?
SH: Korea has a long and venerable tradition of folk art, weaving being one of many. I loved the story of the Herd Boy and Weaving Maid, and I knew that on Hangawi (or Chusok) royal princesses led teams of their serving girls in weaving contests. It was serious work, taking a month just to prepare the hemp plants for weaving -- soaking them in clean spring water, splitting the plants into strings, spinning the strings into thread. Traditional weavers created beautiful patterns out of hemp, silk, ramie, and cotton, but I made up the pattern for Sondok to express the forces at work in her and how, if she let them, they might all be interwoven to make her a stronger and wiser person.
RFA & EST: One of the most difficult characters for Sondok to deal with was Lord Lin Fang. But he is also one of the most interesting characters whose presence is felt throughout the book. How did this character come to be? Is he a favorite of yours?
SH: I included stern Lin Fang to represent the patriarchal influence of Confucianism on Korean culture. During the time of Sondok, women enjoyed far greater freedom than they did a few centuries later. Lin Fang is a sign of things to come, when Chinese influence held greater sway on Korean culture. During the Choson Dynasty which lasted from 1392-1910, royal women were kept in the Inner Court, not allowed outside the palace, and were forbidden from holding positions of power. Lin Fang represents male dominated Confucianism while the old mudang represents female dominated Shamanism. The two can work together in the yin-yang principle if Sondok will allow them.
RFA & EST: Sondok writes as if she is talking to her grandmother. But her grandmother is a jar. What can you tell us about these ancestral jars?
SH: The Chosang tanji, or Jar of Ancestors, was a small jar placed on a high shelf in the corner of the inner room. It was one of the many gods of the household, others being the Housemaster god, which was represented by a white piece of paper hung in a corner, or the Fire god, represented by a bowl of water on a shelf above the pots and pans in the kitchen. The Chosang tanji was often referred to as "grandmother" as a term of respect, and was connected to the family's fertility and agricultural good fortune. In some localities, people put white papers into the jar, and I thought it might be interesting for Sondok to keep her diary on these slips of white paper.
RFA & EST: You include quite a bit of Korean mythology in Sondok's diary. What is your favorite Korean myth?
SH: I personally love the Princess Pari story. Princess Pari is the patron of poor, discarded mudang in Korean society. They feel they travel deep into the underworld to bring back wisdom as Pari did, and yet they are often cast out and humiliated by those they try to help. The Herd Boy and Weaving maid is also a beautiful myth, I think. I love to imagine a bridge made of rustling magpies and crows, the two lovers lightly racing across their feathery backs to have their one night a year together. Korean folklore is beautiful and I wish it were studied more in western schools.
RFA & EST: Sondok appears to be a character caught between two belief systems--the traditional Korean and Buddhism. How critical was this issue in Korea at this time?
SH: Many great Buddhist monuments were built during Sondok's reign, and yet she is best known for her three prophesies. I took her dual nature as a jumping off point for this book. Basically, Buddhism is a very accommodating philosophy that co-exists peacefully with other belief systems. It was brought to Korea from India and China and embraced by the royal court, but it did not completely supplant the native traditions that had existed on the peninsula since prehistoric times. In Sondok's day, shaman priestesses still held great influence at court, and Sondok herself was considered a powerful prophetess. As time went on, however, women held less and less power, and the mudang were pushed out. I wanted Sondok to be a girl who liked to remain in control. Being possessed and falling into a shaman trance are about as frightening as it gets to a girl like that. But she needed to understand the old and the new, the intuitive as well as the intellectual, to become an able queen.
RFA & EST: How do Koreans today feel about Sondok?
SH: Like Queen Elizabeth in England, Sondok is considered a wise and canny ruler who, through diplomacy, managed to keep Tang China, a more powerful neighbor, at bay. Ch'omsongdae, the observatory she built, still stands in modern day Kyongju and is considered one of Korea's national treasures.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars one question about the book, what would that question be?
SH: Can you strive for excellence without needing to be perfect? Can you thoughtfully incorporate what is good about all the world's traditions, accepting many different points of view to become a wise and powerful individual? If so, you will have learned the lesson the Heavens have been trying to teach us since time began.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.