Whilst Japanese and Chinese literature is internationally renowned, with a host of luminaries strutting the global stage, South Korean literature has not received the same level of attention and adulation as its East Asian neighbors. However, the tide is slowly shifting in Korean literature’s favor, with a range of new translations coming out in English, and with the London Book Fair’s decision to make Korea their market focus in 2014. Literature may become the next installment of the so-called Korean Wave, as South Korea’s cultural products spread throughout the globe.
Kim Seong-Kon, the President of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, has said that, ‘the eyes of the world are upon the 2014 London Book Fair as the event will provide a collegiate place where different cultures and books from all over the world will meet in good will. The event will also play an important role in promoting cultural understanding between Korea and the UK.’ The Literature Translation Institute of Korea has played a significant role in the recent promotion of Korean literature, and is visibly active in the patronage of Korean writers in a way that is unprecedented in the West. The London Book Fair will bring together a range of writers who reveal the richness, diversity and profundity of a cultural tradition that, buffeted on all sides by conflict and strife for many years, remains steadfastly unique.
The relative lack of international exposure of Korean writers is partly due to the lack of a transcendent figure such as Haruki Murakami or Mo Yan, whose works offer a universal appeal beyond the internal social conflicts of their respective countries. The poet Ko Un has come closest for Korea, and is regularly cited as a future Nobel laureate, but working in the rarefied world of poetry he lacks the breakthrough appeal of a novelist. Korean American writer Chang-Rae Lee has gained widespread recognition for his genre-twisting tales of immigration and identity, but his works are written in English, and are embedded in his experience of growing up in America. The writers who will represent South Korea at the London Book Fair each have the potential to bring Korean literature to new audiences, and to reveal the profundity of this literary tradition, from children’s authors to poets and novelists. We profile five of these writers:
Hwang Sun-mi is a household name in South Korea. Her novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly has remained on the best-selling list in South Korea for ten years. This modern fable recounts the story of a hen named Sprout, who dreams of freedom and the ability to hatch an egg of her own. Through this simple story Hwang elaborates complex themes of belonging, personal freedom and motherhood, bringing to mind such allegorical tales as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web. A deeply resonant tale, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly has been adapted into an animated film called Leafie, A Hen into the Wild, which became the most successful homegrown animated film ever in South Korea.
A political radical who has often courted controversy with his outspoken beliefs, Hwang Sok-yong has interrogated the political and social realities of life in Korea throughout his career. He has defined Korean identity as a ‘nationwide state of homelessness’, and sought to highlight the ways in which division and political repression define both South and North Korean society. His political inclinations were shaped by his animosity to the Park Chung-hee regime which ruled South Korea for much of the late 20th century and by his experience of conflict in the Vietnam War, in which he was forced to serve as part of Korea’s military corps. His literary works never stray too far from his political preoccupations, with novels such as The Guest and The Old Garden allegorically interrogating the divided political scene on the peninsula, and are motivated by the twin poles of conflict and reconciliation which, for Hwang, define life in Korea.
One of the most prominent South Korean writers of recent decades, Yi Mun-yol’s works explore modern manifestations of the archetypal figure of the ‘outsider’ or ‘wanderer’, which recurs throughout classical Korean literature. His take on this age-old character is often laced with personal pathos as Yi himself was branded a pariah for much of his youth because his father had defected to North Korea during the civil war. This clearly informs many of Yi’s works, and the themes of estrangement which are evident in many of his novels can be traced to this experience. He is most famous for the award-winning novel Our Twisted Hero, a tale of youthful innocence, alienation and disaffection, which resonates with Yi’s personal story.
Kyung-sook Shin is a writer who already has a major following in the West, thanks to her triumph at the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize with her novel Please Look After Mother. Whilst this brought her to the attention of the English-speaking literary world, she has been one of the most popular writers in South Korea for some time. She has also been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. Please Look After Mother, which was her first novel to appear in English, depicted the family drama that results from a mother going missing, and in doing so unravels the complex dichotomy between modernity and tradition, which still defines life in South Korea.
A distinguished poet who has redefined the boundaries of the art form in Korea, particularly with regards to femininity and the rigid patterns women are expected to follow in this tradition-bound society, Kim Hyesoon’s work incorporates and subverts such conventions, twisting the patriarchal language of traditional Korean literature into something grotesque and innovative. By doing so she has extended the limits of poetic expression in Korean. Hyesoon has sketched a new terrain in which femininity can be explored through poetry. She describes her craft as a liberating tool, and says that ‘women who have been disappeared by violence are howling. The voices of disappeared women are echoing. I sing with these voices.’ Her unwavering dedication to this cause has been recognized by the literary establishment in Korea and she has become the first woman to win the Kim Su-yong and Midang awards.
By Thomas Storey