Saturday, April 6, 2013

Korean Literature Rocks

Let's make a test: if I tell you "lecture about Korean literature", what do you see?
. if you see a yangban scholar watching his pupils silently read in a Andong seowon, you know your classics
. if you see a cheering crowd and a Californian guy bringing the house down, you were at last Sunday's 10 Magazine Book Club meeting with Charles Montgomery

Charles Montgomery and the "Explorers Guide to Korean Literature" he prepared for the lecture.
Montgomery, who teaches at Dongguk University's English Interpretation and Translation Division, proves that you can do a lot to promote modern Korean literature without being fluent in Korean. Yes, he relies on translations, and yes, he's very much aware of the gaps they induce with the original works, but precisely: translation being the main channel trough which literature reaches new shores, you want to make sure that foreign readers enjoy to the fullest this wide array of tastes and flavors.

And nowadays, modern Korean literature is reaching new shores and levels of popularity. The literature originating from the peninsula as well as the one originating from the Korean diaspora: long before SHIN Kyung-sook won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for "Please look after mom"* (2009), Chang-rae LEE claimed the 1996 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for "Native speaker" (1995), a book written in English.

Let's hope Korean publishers won't feel tempted to follow the suicidal path of a national movie industry that relies almost exclusively on blockbusters, and completely forgets to nurture its diversity**. As long as it respects and feeds the rest of the ecosystem, "commercial" literature shouldn't be despised. Just like with Korean cinema, Korean literature managed to bloom in France without the help of airport novels or bestsellers, but in general, such driving forces do make a difference: Montgomery monitors the sales of a panel of Korean authors on Amazon, and he noticed how, each time a new hit came out, the whole community received a boost beyond the individual who wrote it.

Even if he remains a "paper book" lover, Montgomery knows the importance of ebooks (his wife already owns hundreds of them), and the power of online media. His blog-portal Korea Modern Literature in Translation (***) reviews countless pieces of fictions, sharing bios and links to online resources and texts in the public domain. But that's never a tedious journey for the readers, who are regularly entertained with jokes and anecdotes, and routinely OMGed, LOLed or ^^ed. Montgomery also shares knowledge through Wikipedia, a preferred source that optimizes the chances for web surfers to become acquainted with Korean literature.

When you think that even Korean "airport novels" can't be found in Korean airports! The most obvious entry points for Korean culture are too often overlooked, as is the case with Korean cuisine (e.g. in Seoul, only 2 international 5 star hotels have a Korean restaurant****).

Hopefully, Koreans are reconsidering and reviving their literary heritage, and as we've seen before (in "Seochon's Dead Poets Society (YI Sang, YUN Dong-gu)"), nowhere as strongly as in Seochon area, where it all began. Note that on the Friday preceding this book club meeting, there was a party for a photo expo at YI Sang's former home along Baekundongcheon (now Jahamun-ro 7-gil), and that many came dressed and hair-styled according to the theme: 1930s Seoul. Saved by Arumjigi and renamed "제비다방" / "Jebi Dabang" / "Swallow Teahouse", after the two places the author opened in Seoul, the tiny house was soon completely packed. A perfect alibi to retreat to Aux Petits Verres across the street, and to enjoy nice coffee and cakes while comfortably observing a parade that really looked like 1930s Seoul... except maybe for the fact that rickshaws that probably never set a wheel in the peninsula, and that I rather felt on the "Roaring Myeongdong" than on the "Cultural Resistance Seochon" side of the city.

Anyway, on Sunday, when Roaring Charles encompassed at a fox trot pace centuries of Korean literature, everybody danced along. Of course that didn't leave us much time to discuss the selection of short stories he recommended ahead of the meeting*****, but we came back home with stimulating reading suggestions. Feel free to add your own suggestions to his "All modern Korean literature in translation online" list, and of course to join Barry Welsh's 10 Magazine Book Club (on Facebook:!/groups/208460045872355).

If you're LOL (Literary Object Lover), that is.

Seoul Village 2013
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* not to be confused with LTI Korea, formerly KLIT (Literature Translation Institute of Korea - KTLIT on Twitter: @ktlit.
** see "Saving Korean cinema... and even Chaebolplex". BTW if you're more into movies than into books, the Korean Film Archive uploaded a collection of movies dating from the 1940s to the 1990s on its YouTube channel (, where you can watch them for free and with subtitles.
*** not to be confused with "Please look after dad's mummy", by KIM Jong-un
**** see "Korean Cuisine Aiming At World's Top Five. China is watching." And the Korean education system is also a problem for literature readership, but at least Seoul is creating new libraries (beyond the old City Hall, see "Seoul village libraries").
***** From the "colonial era" (1905-1945): "A society that drives you to drink" (HYON Chin-gon). From the "separation era" (1945-1965): "The crane" (HWANG Sung-won). From the "miracle on the Han River era": "The city of machines" (CHO Se-hui). From the "post-modern era": "Whatever happened to the guy in the elevator" (KIM Young-ha). NB: I also second Charles's motion when he recommends "The Road to Sampo" HWANG Sok-yong

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