South Korean literature has come of age, writes Man Booker winning translator

Young writers are addressing themes that chime with readers in a globalised world, and doing so in extraordinarily imaginative ways - a break with the narrow intellectualism of the past

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2016, 11:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 May, 2016, 12:37pm

As with most national literatures, it is both useful and not so useful to define South Korea’s current crop of new and recently emerging writers as a collective. There’s as much variety in contemporary Korean fiction as anywhere else and it’s not unusual for writers to be poles apart in terms of what and how they write.

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South Korean critics often take 1987, the year which saw the nation’s first democratic elections, as a cut-off point when defining their country’s “contemporary” writing, a choice that feeds directly into characterisation of this writing as apolitical. In this rather lazy binary, literature pre-1987 gained its purpose – and value – from being strongly yoked to the ideological goal of resisting and critiquing authoritarian rule. Therefore, once this was (seemingly) achieved, writers were left rudderless, and literature became “merely” cultural.

There are several problems with this characterisation. The first is the idea that if contemporary writers move away from established concerns and styles – which in the Korean case meant “national” themes such as ideological struggle and the trauma of division, and a staunch realism whose “journalistic” feel was intended to demonstrate the writer “facing up” to reality with a laudably unflinching gaze – this means that they are entirely sundered from, or wilfully ignoring, everything that has gone before.

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But perhaps the break demonstrates not amnesia or indifference, but precisely the opposite – a far more fraught relationship, and thus a more actively creative one. Within it, writers reject and/or repurpose tradition alongside, and as a means to, exploring new possibilities.

Also important is the realisation that what’s being broken with is the established mainstream. Thus, part of the break involves reclaiming and repurposing earlier modes of experimentalism. Han Yujoo counts among her influences Yi In-seong, now an elder statesman of the Korean avant garde, and contemporary fiction’s concern with mediated reality (video games, television news) finds a shadowy prefiguration in 1930s modernists such as Park T’ae-won and Yi Sang, who confronted the new technologies of their own time (the cinema, the shop window) with a similar mix of unease and fascination.

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Another major issue is the critics’ narrow conception of politics focused on national ideology and armed struggle. Though these themes are less pertinent for contemporary writers, their work should nevertheless by no means be dismissed as apolitical. One recent focus, particularly among very young writers, is on the politics of the “other”, which includes admirably balanced, empathetic explorations of the North Korean refugee experience as well as what is commonly recognised as multiculturalism – a new and exciting trend, given South Korea’s extreme ethnic homogeneity, albeit one that, for that same reason, doesn’t always come across so well in translation.

At the same time, younger writers are increasingly committed to themes of direct relevance to their own lives, all the more so at a time when critics (inevitably much older) are pontificating as to whether Koreans should write more with an international audience in mind. And on a larger scale, this shift in concern from Korea’s internecine struggles to its place in the globalised world is playing a big part in opening it up to that same world audience – contemporary writers from this year’s Man Booker International Prize winner Han Kang to Hwang Sok-yong, Jung Young Moon and Bae Suah are currently finding stronger readerships in translation than any previous Korean author.

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This new-found popularity stems equally from the extraordinary fecundity of the younger writers’ imaginations. The Korean reverence for intellectualism is deeply rooted in its history, as can be seen from the pre-20th-century neo-Confucian scholars to the modern obsession with education. In the literary realm it produced somewhat austere prescriptions as to what constitutes “proper” literature – a rulebook that the younger generation have been all too happy to tear up.

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Kim Young-ha and Park Min-gyu are known for blurring the boundaries of genre, the former applying a distinctly literary sensibility to tropes from spy thrillers and historical metafiction, while the latter melds sci-fi staples such as crop circles with steampunk bathyspheres, talking animals, and a fridge than can swallow China. Irreverence is the name of the game, and this is more than merely punk posturing.

In the 1990s, when these writers debuted, it was a search for a new aesthetic, in direct reaction to the dead seriousness of the 1980s. Pop culture got a look in too, with Kim Kyung-uk rattling off a string of books featuring Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung. In the 2000s, dystopia became a trend, exemplified by Pyun Hye-young’s gutted cityscapes piled up with stinking garbage and overrun by rabid dogs. In recent years, environmental apocalypse has been a concern across East Asia, and the Korean strain has thrown up such intriguing examples as the flooded countryside of Ae-ran Kim’s Goliath Underwater, where the conditions of the labouring classes and the scourge of political regionalism form an oblique but insistent background to the Hollywood-scale catastrophe.

Finally, in the time-honoured manner of teenagers frustrated by the hidebound ways of their elders, some of the younger writers are pushing against the mundan, the South Korean literary sphere. This is still a much more strictly controlled and stratified space than what writers in the UK or US are used to – for example, the practice of a writer formally “debuting” by getting a short story placed in one of the big four publishing houses’ influential quarterly journals.

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Moreover, it is a space in which the literary gatekeepers and arbiters of taste are too often older male critics, whose ideas about what literature can and ought to be haven’t changed much since they wrote their seminal books in the 1970s. It’s thrilling, then, that the past couple of decades have seen female writers rise from barely there to dominating both bestseller lists and prize shortlists – a domination which renders obsolete the need for a women-only prize.

Many of the reasons that have underpinned what diversity and dynamism can be found in modern Korean literature still hold true for its contemporary practitioners. The short story has retained the prominence it has had since the early twentieth century, and many Korean “novels” are not strictly novels at all, but linked fiction.

Han’s Booker-winning The Vegetarian is one such work, originally published as three separate novellas which were later collected and published together, with the page count still coming in at something that could, in English, be termed either a long novella or a short novel. Even her latest book, Human Acts, though given the long fiction stamp, consists of seven chapters which, though they move forward in time and involve characters responding to the same initial event, are nevertheless self-contained, distinct tone pieces that benefit from being considered alongside each other.

It would be foolish to suggest that contemporary Korean writing is uniformly outstanding. Rather a lot of it gets written in the so-called “naive first person”, in which the first-person address is adopted with barely any lively distinctness of voice, affording the character no more of a personality than a third-person narration, yet sacrificing the wider scope of the latter for an extremely narrow perspective. Particularly popular among writers in their early twenties, the first person is partly a choice to express the feeling, common to recent graduates, that their options are more limited than they’d been led to believe. Too often, though, it can be a default option excusing the need to think too much about style.

Nevertheless, some of the younger writers have also proved to be the most experimental, due in large part to an expanded range of influences. Han Yujoo, for example, adds to the domestic avant-garde of Yi In-seong through her passion for German literature, particularly that of Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard, and her work translating English-language authors such as Geoff Dyer and Michael Ondaatje.

Despite all the dynamics surrounding contemporary Korean literature, one thing seems certain: the tide has turned, and these writers have the strength to the stay the course.

First published in the Asia Literary Review,