LATE 20TH CENTURY AND 21ST CENTURY KOREAN LITERATURE
Well known modern writer include Kim Tong-ni, a short story writer who explored the conflict between tradition and modernity in Korean culture and Yu Muri, an award-winning novelist. Books about Korea by English-language writers include “One Thousand Chestnut Tree: A Novel of Korea” by Mira Stout and “Lost in Seoul” by Michael Stephens
One of Korea’s most prominent novelists is Yi Moon-yol (Yi Mun-yul). He wrote 20 novels (many of them with multiple volumes) and 50 short stories, He is both popular and acclaimed in South Korea. He has sold more than 25 million books. One of his novels was made into a Broadway musical, “Last Empress.”
Yi wa born in 1947 in Seoul. He was three years old when the city was overrun by the North Korea. His father was a Communist who joined the North Korea army. Yi fled south with his mother and never saw his father again.
“The Poet” is regarded as his masterpiece. It tells the story of Kim Pyongyon—a folk hero from the 19th century known to Koreans as Kim Sakkat, or Kim “the hat,” who was condemned for a crime committed by a relative not himself who becomes a sort of Asian version of Don Quixote.
Novels in the Library of Korean Literature
Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “For American readers, literary evocations of Korea have come, for the most part, in the form of dystopian novels written by people without any direct connection to the country. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” is set in the harsh confines of North Korea; at the other extreme, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” features a futuristic South Korea-inspired “corpocracy,” a hotbed of clones, plastic surgery (“facescaping”), and insurrection. With few exceptions, novels by actual Koreans have not registered here. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]
“Kyung-sook Shin’s “Please Look After Mom” briefly appeared on the Times best-seller list in 2011. (She made headlines this year amid charges that she once plagiarized passages from a Yukio Mishima story, for which — yes — she later apologized.) Kim Young-ha’s “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” (2007) and Hwang Sok-yong’s “The Old Garden” (2009) both received a trickle of reviews, and Yi Mun-yol’s story “An Anonymous Island” appeared in these pages in 2011. That’s about it. Happily, Dalkey Archive’s series, launched in 2013, in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, provides a panoramic view of Korean fiction, in all its strangeness and variety, from the nineteen-thirties to the present.
“The most appealing novels in the Library of Korean Literature capture the existential turbulence of han while keeping a sense of humor about it. The didactic moments in Yi Kwang-su’s “The Soil,” a social-realist tome originally serialized in 1932 and 1933, are balanced with wry observations of customs and people, such as the modern man who has internalized Japanese values and looks down his nose at his country’s educational system: “Yes, there’s the Department of Korean Literature. I really don’t know what students learn there. I think literature is useless anyway. And to study Korean literature? Even worse.” (Yi, the most famous writer in the series, was one of the country’s first modernists and a leader of the Korean independence movement, though he was later tarred as a Japanese collaborator.)
When Adam Opens His Eyes
Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “The novels in the Library of Korean Literature series are populated with the broken and the dispossessed, young drifters, like Jin-man and Si-bong, looking to carve out a place for themselves in an ungraspable, shifting world. Another such character introduces himself in the first sentence of Jang Jung-il’s novel “When Adam Opens His Eyes,” translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges: “I was nineteen years old, and the things that I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch’s paintings and a turntable for playing records.” The nameless narrator (he’s called Adam by a lover, in honor of his being her first man) hasn’t scored high enough on the standardized exam to get into the university of his choice, so he plans to spend a year cramming. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]
“Naturally, he doesn’t lift a finger to accomplish that goal — which isn’t to say that he does nothing. A hundred pages later, he buys a typewriter, and with it the promise of a different, differently programmed life. “If I write a novel, I will begin by depicting the portrait of my 19th year this way,” he says, and then quotes the book’s first paragraph nearly verbatim. This seems an optimistic conclusion — the narrator has made something of himself, and we’ve just finished reading the evidence — but, on the next page, Jang violently drops us into the novel’s wildly discordant final section, “The Seventh Day.” If the book’s first stretch was a study in passivity, “The Seventh Day” is all action: sex, lots of it, between an unnamed man and woman, graphically described and mixed with literary chat. “No virgin finds climaxing easy in her first experience,” Jang deadpans. “Except that this is a porno novel.” (The transgressive 1999 film “Lies,” which might be retitled “Fifty Thousand Shades of Grey,” was based on another of Jang’s novels.) Like the coda to Don DeLillo’s “The Names” or Wong Kar-wai’s “Days of Being Wild,” the end of “When Adam Opens His Eyes” seems spliced in from a different work. Who are these nameless, insatiable characters? Maybe they are yet another product — concentrated, unbearably intense — of the narrator’s typewriter, the vision that comes with Adam’s newly gained knowledge of the world.
““When Adam Opens His Eyes” was published in 1990, before South Korea’s great pop boom; the narrator’s typewriter and cassette player are practical necessities, not ironic totems of a bygone age. But a number of more recent novels betray a certain nostalgia for an earlier, less technological time, when life didn’t have to be constantly mediated by a screen. No computers show up in “At Least We Can Apologize,” and when Jin-man and Si-bong make calls they do it strictly via pay phone.
No Writes Back
Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “A similar analog atmosphere can be found in “No One Writes Back,” by Jang Eun-jin, also published in 2009, and translated by Jung Yewon. “I left home with an MP3 player and a novel in an old backpack,” the novel begins. The speaker is Jihun, who for three years has moved from motel to motel with his late grandfather’s faithful, though blind, guide dog. He spends his time looking for places to stay, carrying on a one-sided correspondence with the people he meets on his rambles, and skirting his own vast, withheld sorrow. “I write letters because I want to convey to someone the stories of these people,” he explains, “but also because I want to let someone know that a day had existed for me as well.” One gets the sense that the immediacy of text messaging and e-mail would be too much for Jihun to handle; he wants to make contact with other people, but not at the expense of keeping his distance. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]
““No One Writes Back” is composed of short, numbered chapters, its progression echoing Jihun’s own peripatetic existence. As if to avoid the complications that could come from any budding intimacy, Jihun assigns numbers rather than names to the people he writes to. “My name is . . . ,” one of the people he encounters, a writer selling her novel on the subway, starts to tell him. He cuts her short: “ ‘I don’t want to know,’ I say, because I fear that we really will have to get to know each other once we start calling each other by name.”
“The book’s centerpiece is Jihun’s letter to his sister, who has become a cosmetic-surgery addict. “With scissors in hand, you cut up all the photos with your face in them, and even burned up the photos of your hundredth day celebration and your first birthday party,” he writes. The letter is a heartbroken critique of a society gone insane with images. Seen through Jihun’s eyes, the Korean craze for such facescaping starts to seem a sort of unconscious sacrifice: in order to be properly absorbed, the dramatic changes visited on the nation need to be visited on the body as well.
Pavane for a Dead Princess
Ed Park wrote in The New Yorker: “More recently, Park Min-gyu’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” set in the late nineteen-eighties and translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, tracks the doomed romance of its handsome narrator, a valet at a fancy shopping mall, and his co-worker, a shy, intelligent woman who is mocked for being homely — “the world’s ugliest woman.” Though she had the best grades at her vocational school, she’s never promoted; Park is blunt about the unfairness of a society wrapped up in surfaces, in which the unlovely are confined to a kind of permanent underclass, at least until they go under the knife. “Pavane” is a bildungsroman that veers into metafiction, bristling with footnotes and multiple endings. [Source: Ed Park, The New Yorker, October 19, 2015]
“There’s also plenty of comic relief, such as this sterling career advice for a new valet, turning the impulse to apologize on its head: “Now let’s suppose there’s been an accident. This is what you have to do, so listen and learn. First, take off your armband and cap. Next, run back to the office without looking back. If the supervisor’s there, knock him out. Open the second drawer of his desk and look for your employee record. Either tear that into shreds and swallow it or burn it. Then run straight home. Then start looking for another job. Is that clear?”
“When you do something wrong, flee the scene: this would be bad business for Jin-man and Si-bong, inverting the bleak social order that they aim to exploit. Later in “At Least We Can Apologize,” Jin-man and Si-bong are recaptured by the sinister caretakers of the institution; the only way for Jin-man to escape is to sacrifice his friend. “I had committed a wrong against him, but I missed him very much,” Jin-man thinks. “That was all.” Apologies are only a partial salve for wrongdoing; they acknowledge, but do not reverse, the harm that’s been done. Jin-man, it turns out, has a conscience. This discovery recalls a line from the start of the novel, the attempt by the man with the sideburns to open Jin-man and Si-bong’s eyes: “ ‘Look at you! You guys are fine and you’re locked up in here!’ ” Maybe Jin-man and Si-bong were never crazy to begin with — no crazier, in any case, than the country awaiting them outside the gates. ?
Female Korean Novelists
Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times: “Several female Korean novelists” have produced works that are “resonating at home and abroad. Some of Korea’s biggest and most celebrated literary exports in recent years have a feminist bent. Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” about a frustrated housewife who starves herself and believes she is turning into a tree, became a global best seller and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Kyung-sook Shin’s novel “Please Look After Mom,” about a woman who sacrifices everything for her family then goes missing, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and sold more than a million copies in Korea. “There is no Korean literature without women or feminism right now,” said So J. Lee, who has translated contemporary Korean poetry and fiction by women. [Source: Alexandra Alter, New York Times, April 8, 2020]
“Decades earlier, groundbreaking authors such as Oh Jung-hee, Park Wan-suh and Park Kyongni won commercial and critical acclaim in Korea, despite initially being dismissed as “yeoryu jakga” or “lady writers” by male literary critics, Lee said. Park Kyongni’s most famous work, a 16-volume novel titled “Toji,” was adapted into a movie, opera and television series.
“The new, often subversive novels by Korean women, which have intersected with the rise of the #MeToo movement, are driving discussions beyond the literary world. “These books exposed Korea’s dirty little secret, which is that despite being seemingly wealthy and modern and enlightened and cool, the social advances have fallen far, far, far behind the money,” said Euny Hong, author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.” “What’s recent in Korean feminist literature is the first-world-problem nature of it, where Korea is an extremely wealthy country, and there’s still something that’s profoundly wrong.”
Korean Best Seller About a Young Mother Driven to Insanity
Cho Nam-Joo’s novel “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” sold more than a million copies and perhaps the best example of the new feminist wave in South Korea. Euny Hong, New York Times,“I hated reading “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” the debut novel by Cho Nam-Joo, which is the opposite of saying that I hated the book itself. The story of a young stay-at-home mother driven to a psychotic break, it laid bare my own Korean childhood — and, let’s face it, my Western adulthood too — forcing me to confront traumatic experiences that I’d tried to chalk up as nothing out of the ordinary. But then, my experiences are ordinary, as ordinary as the everyday horrors suffered by the book’s protagonist, Jiyoung. This novel is about the banality of the evil that is systemic misogyny. [Source: Euny Hong, New York Times, April 14, 2020]
“Upon its publication in South Korea in 2016, the book, which sold more than a million copies, had an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” effect, propelling a feminist wave. It’s easy to see why. The novel begins with Jiyoung having a dissociative episode. One day she wakes up not as herself but, to her husband’s horror and confusion, as her mother — speaking and acting just as her mother would. Another day she claims to be a schoolmate who died in childbirth the previous year. As her psychiatrist later puts it: “Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew. No matter how you looked at it, it wasn’t a joke or prank. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person.”
“We eventually learn about the event that triggered Jiyoung’s descent into madness. On her last day as a woman in her right mind, she is sitting by herself on a park bench when a group of young office workers mock her for having the audacity to drink a cup of coffee in the middle of the day on her husband’s dime. They call her a “mum-roach” — a pejorative expression for an entitled woman of leisure.... Jiyoung, like Gregor Samsa” in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” “feels so overwhelmed by social expectations that there is no room for her in her own body; her only option is to become something — or someone — else. Of course, Jiyoung’s metamorphosis wasn’t brought on by any single incident. The seeds of her discontent were planted before she was born; she and her sister exist only because her parents kept having children (and one sex-selective abortion) until they finally produced a son. While the son gets the best of everything, Jiyoung and her sister are treated as failed rough drafts.
“Jiyoung’s life doesn’t get easier in adulthood. At her job at a marketing agency, she finds she can’t even order food without mockery. When lunching with colleagues, she orders an inexpensive dish — soybean paste with rice — prompting a male client to call her a doenjangnyeo, literally a “bean paste woman.” This snide colloquialism refers to an uppity young woman who eats the cheapest possible meals in order to save up for Prada handbags and the like. Even when she marries, quits her job and succeeds in producing a son, Jiyoung feels overwhelming social pressure to be a sufficiently loving mother, which she likens to “religious dogma.” Her husband is supportive, but this almost makes it worse: He wants to help, but can do nothing. The husband’s helplessness is a deft touch on Cho’s part, and makes an important point: If even a man can’t fight a man’s world, what’s a woman in Jiyoung’s position to do?
“Like “The Metamorphosis,” Cho’s novel is written in an unemotional, almost clinical style; by the end we realize it’s a case history narrated by Jiyoung’s male psychiatrist. It even includes footnotes to actual studies on gender inequality in South Korea. At first, the footnotes were distracting. Then I realized their purpose was to suggest the degree to which the travails of Jiyoung, a fictional character, are grounded in fact. It’s South Korea’s dirty little secret that, despite its prosperity, technological advances and coolness factor, when it comes to gender equality, it’s no Finland. As the novel points out, the Korean hoju system, in which children were registered exclusively under the patriarchal line, was not abolished until 2008. The consequences of this practice were serious: An illegitimate child was a legal nonentity, like an unbaptized child under old-school Catholic dogma.
“Of course, it’s not just in Korea that such problems occur, which may be why “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has become an international sensation. In South Korea, the book’s release led to a powerful backlash. When the K-pop singer Irene, a member of a band called Red Velvet, said in a March 2018 interview that she’d read the book, irate male netizens took to social media to announce they were burning her photo. Perhaps the novel’s international exposure will force South Korea to have another reckoning with what it plans to do about its biggest elephant in the room. I expect threats just for writing this review.
Book: “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-Joo, Translated by Jamie Chang (Liveright, 2020)
Main Character of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”
Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times: “Kim Jiyoung, the exceptionally average protagonist of Cho Nam-Joo’s novel, is 33, living on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband and infant daughter. She is exhausted by the monotony of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, and vaguely resentful that she gave up her job at a marketing agency. [Source: Alexandra Alter, New York Times, April 8, 2020]
“There’s nothing especially dramatic about her story, which is precisely Cho’s point. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang, Cho’s clinical prose is bolstered with figures and footnotes to illustrate how ordinary Jiyoung’s experience is. “In 2014, around the time Kim Jiyoung left the company, one in five married women in Korea quit their job because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child care, or the education of young children,” she writes, adding exact percentages of working women by age group, with a footnote from a 2015 study published in South Korea’s Health and Social Welfare Review.
In “Kim Jiyoung,” small disappointments and minor outrages trail Jiyoung for her entire life. When she is a child, her parents spoil her younger brother, while she and her sister have to share everything; at her all girls’ high school, male teachers grope and harass their students under the guise of examining their uniforms.
“In her first job, Jiyoung and her female colleagues are passed over for choice assignments that are given to less competent but higher paid men. When Jiyoung gets married and decides to start a family, she and her husband quickly determine that she should be the one to stay home since he makes more money, an outcome that was a foregone conclusion. “The fact that Jiyoung saw this coming did not make her feel any less depressed,” Cho writes.
Cho Nam-Joo: Author of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”
Cho Nam-Joo, author of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”, is a former television writer. Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times: “Cho wrote “Kim Jiyoung” in 2015, finishing a draft in just a few months. At the time, misogynistic trolls were becoming a greater presence online. False rumors proliferated on the internet that a South Korean woman had contributed to spreading the MERS virus in Hong Kong after refusing to be quarantined. Derogatory slang targeting housewives, like the term “mum-roach,” was becoming more prevalent. “I wanted to write about the everyday and common but nonetheless undeserved experience of women around me, about the despair, exhaustion and fear that we feel for no reason other than that we’re women,” Cho said in an email through a translator. “I also wanted this story to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.” [Source: Alexandra Alter, New York Times, April 8, 2020]
“Like her heroine, Cho experienced pervasive sexism throughout her life, she said. Born in Seoul in 1978, she studied sociology at Ewha Womans University, the nation’s top women’s college, then spent nearly a decade writing for current events TV programs. She quit to raise her child but found it difficult to restart her career — a biographical detail that informed her novel. She began gathering articles and sociological data and decided to write a fictional biography of an average Korean woman, following her from birth to the present.
“Even though her book, “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” is fiction, Cho grounded it in statistics so that its message wouldn’t be dismissed as a made-up account of one woman’s experience, she said. “I wanted to write about issues that women could not speak about before, because they were taken for granted,” Cho said last month during a Skype interview from her home in Seoul, where the streets in her neighborhood were empty because of the coronavirus outbreak. “I wanted to make this into a public debate.”
Impact of “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982”
Alexandra Alter wrote in the New York Times: “When “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” was published in Korea in 2016, it was received as a cultural call to arms. Celebrated and criticized in almost equal measure, the novel ignited a nationwide conversation about gender inequality. K-pop stars like Sooyoung of Girls’ Generation and RM of BTS praised it, delivering a major publicity boost. In 2017, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly bought copies of “Kim Jiyoung” for the entire legislative body. A politician with the left-wing Justice Party gave a copy to President Moon Jae-in with a note imploring him to look after women like Kim Jiyoung. When Seoul passed a new budget with additional money for child care, the city’s mayor promised that there would be “no more sorrow for Kim Jiyoung.” [Source: Alexandra Alter, New York Times, April 8, 2020]
“Like Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award-winning film “Parasite,” which unleashed a debate about class disparities in South Korea, Cho’s novel was treated as a social treatise as much as a work of art. It sold more 1.3 million copies in the country and was adapted into a feature film. Translation rights sold in around 20 countries, and the book took off in China, Taiwan and Japan. The English-language version, which comes out in the United States on Tuesday, has drawn praise from novelists such as Elif Batuman and Ling Ma, who wrote in a blurb that “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” “possesses the urgency and immediacy of the scariest horror thriller — except that this is not technically horror, but something closer to reportage.”
“Along with praise, the novel generated a backlash among men who opposed Cho’s feminist message. After the pop star Irene, a member of the group Red Velvet, said she was reading it, angry male fans posted videos of themselves burning photos of the singer. A crowdfunding effort began to support a parody book titled “Kim Ji-hun Born in 1990,” about a young Korean man who faces reverse discrimination for being male. Cho never expected it to drive such extreme reactions. Now that it has become a blockbuster, she has been gratified by the responses from readers who saw their experiences reflected in Kim Jiyoung’s story. “My novel made people speak out,” she said. “The novel became more complete thanks to the readers themselves.”
Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian' Wins Man Booker Fiction Prize
South Korean author Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for fiction for "The Vegetarian," an unsettling novel in which a woman's decision to stop eating meat has devastating consequences. Jill Lawless of Associated Press wrote: “Han beat literary stars including elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante and Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for the 50,000-pound (US$72,000) prize, awarded during a ceremony at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. [Source: Jill Lawless, Associated Press, May 16, 2016]
“Literary critic Boyd Tonkin, chair of the panel that chose the winner from 155 entries, said Han's book combined "tenderness and terror" in a tale of "volcanic, visceral intensity." The award is the international counterpart to Britain's prestigious Booker Prize and is open to books published in any language that have been translated into English. The prize money will be split evenly between Han and her 28-year-old translator, Deborah Smith, who only began learning Korean less than seven years ago.
“Han, 45, is the first Korean writer to be nominated for the prize, which was founded in 2005.
"The Vegetarian" is the first of her books to be translated into English. It tells the story of Yeong-hye, a dutiful wife whose decision to forego meat uproots her whole existence. Han said the book was inspired by the idea of "a woman who desperately didn't want to belong to the human race any longer" and built on her 1997 short story about "a woman who actually turns into a fruit." The author said she wanted to explore "human violence, and also (ask) a question about human dignity."
Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After Mom” Becomes U.S. Bestseller
Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After Mom”, a poignant novel of family love, sold 1.7 million copies in South Korea and then made it on the New York Times Bestseller list in April 2011. It was the first time a Korean novel has made it on the list domestically. At that time there were plans to publish the novel in 24 countries. [Source: AFP, April 20, 2011]
AFP reported: “Shin, 48, is one of South Korea's most acclaimed novelists but “Please Look After Mom” is her first book to appear in English. Now she hopes she's set a globalising trend for other Korean writers. “I am getting all these congratulatory messages but it (the success) doesn't feel so real yet,” she said. “But, if I think about it, it's marvellous and I feel like I have achieved something new in a different world.”
“The book tells the story of an elderly, disorientated and illiterate mother from the countryside who gets separated from her husband at Seoul's busy train station and goes missing. Her grown-up children distribute fliers and search the city for her, racked with guilt that none of them went to the station to meet their parents. The story is told from the different perspectives of the husband, the children and the mother herself.
Shin attributes her US success partly to its universal theme and partly to the meticulous translation by Chi-Young Kim. “I tried to understand and analyse the mother as another human being, the same as all of us, and to portray the burden everyone might have as being a mother to someone else,” she said. “Everyone has a mother, and their mothers have mothers, so I think the sentiment and symbolic meaning behind the mother-figure was commonly shared.”—AFP
Well-Received Books by Korean Writers
On “Once the Shore: Stories” by Paul Yoon (Sarabande Books, 2009), Joan Silber wrote in the New York Times: “In Paul Yoon’s first story collection, “Once the Shore,” characters move in a haunted stillness. A South Korean island is the setting, and residents either have jobs in modern tourism — waiter, hotel manager, gift-store owner — or persist in the traditional work of fishing, farming, diving. For better and worse, they lead lives of restraint and patience. A girl made unmarriageable by a limp (the result of a childhood stumble with her drunken father) explains her homebound life: “We keep each other company. We do our best.” War and the attractions of a seaside resort bring visitors, with their own disturbances and demands; one of the best stories, set in 1947, involves an AWOL American soldier hiding in a village, while another features a veteran’s widow from upstate New York re-evaluating half-truths. [Source: Joan Silber, New York Times, April 23, 2009]
Yoon’s prose is spare and beautiful. He can describe the sea more ways than seem possible without losing freshness, and his characters’ world is often quietly dazzling. Here’s a group of farmers seeing a couple climb a forested hill: “They followed the paleness of two shirts, like candle flames moving along that rise of land. They watched as one would watch a flock of geese.” Yoon’s landscape often verges. [Book: Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon (Sarabande Books, 2009)]
On “The Calligrapher's Daughter”, Sybil Steinberg wrote in the Washington Post: “Eugenia Kim's sensitive first novel, which depicts 30 years of Korea's modern history in light of its ancient past, is an illuminating prequel to present-day events. Set from 1915 to 1945, it's an intrinsically interesting account of the collisions of cultures: the strict traditions of the aristocratic (yangban) class gradually superseded by the inevitable changes of modernity and the attempted erasure of Korean language and traditions by the occupying Japanese. Against this dark background, Kim recounts a poignant family history, much of it based on her own mother's life. [Source: Sybil Steinberg, Washington Post, August 26, 2009]
“Najin Han, the daughter of a brilliant classical "literati-scholar-artist" and calligrapher, is the protagonist and narrator of much of the story. Born in 1910 during the initial years of the Japanese annexation of her homeland, she is constricted by her stern, strictly conservative father's ideas about filial respect and the subjugation of women and also by the punitive laws imposed on the Korean people by their conquerors. When Najin's father decides to marry her off at age 14, her mother defies him by sending their spirited, intelligent and ambitious daughter to Seoul, where she becomes a companion to the young Princess Deokhye during the waning days of the centuries-old dynasty.
Later, a determined Najin attends Ewha Women's College in Seoul. At age 22, when the Japanese close the rural school where she is the principal, she finds, to her surprise, that she can love her parents' new choice of a husband. He is Calvin Cho, who is about to embark for America, where he'll study for the ministry. A vista of further education and intellectual independence opens to Najin.
Until this point, the narrative is keenly and often lyrically observed but somewhat slow to develop dramatic momentum. However, the sweep of fate that destroys Najin's hopes injects tragic intensity into the story. The day after her wedding, Najin is denied a passport. She spends the next decade separated from her husband, first in servitude to her lower-class in-laws, then in a penurious existence with her parents as the war in Asia flares and Japan robs Korea of its rice and its population.
Kim's account acquires depth and immediacy as she draws vivid pictures of wartime poverty and hardship. Throughout the narrative, she gradually reveals many facets of Korean identity, especially the role of religion, where devout Christianity exists in harmony with Confucian belief and ritual. As Najin begins to question Christian doctrine about the sanctity of suffering and sacrifice, her conflicting emotions add dimension to her character. [Book: The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim (Henry Holt, 2009]
Japanese Novels in South Korea
Akira Tateno, a Japanese writer and publishing representative, wrote: “Kyobo Book Centre, one of the largest bookstore in Seoul's Gwanghwamun, is always busy with people. Although there is a separate section for translated works, Japanese literature (Japanese novels translated into Korean) receives special treatment, with a big table and shelf of its own. The sheer variety — even if here is only translated books — matches up to major bookstores in Japan. This section always attracts young women. [Source: Akira Tateno, 2011]
“The Japanese literature section carries a varied selection of books. It starts with Japanese classics, including The Tale of Genji and Manyoshu, and the works of great masters of Japanese literature, such as Basho, Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori, Kenji Miyazawa, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki, and goes on to a collection of well-known contemporary writers, such as Yasushi Inoue, Ayako Miura, and Kenzaburo Oe, as well as representative works and new releases of those popular in Japan, such as Haruki Murakami, Keigo Higashino, Kaori Ekuni, Hideo Okuda, Banana Yoshimoto, Jiro Asada, Miyuki Miyabe, and Junichi Watanabe. I even found a book by a young woman writer I had never heard of before.
“As South Korean readers are not accustomed to Japanese Bunkobon, or portable paperbacks, these Japanese novels are published in larger hardcover sizes with a strong presence in the bookstore. Their beautiful binding and covers are well received by Korean women. Japanese literature is so prominently featured because it has achieved wide acceptance and bestselling status in South Korea. The fact that other major South Korean bookstores, including Youngpoong Bookstore, Bandi & Luni's, and Books Libro, also have similar Japanese literature sections proves that the special treatment is not unique to Kyobo Book Centre.
“Over 800 translated Japanese literature books released a year. The increased popularity of Japanese literature, especially of novels, can also be seen in publication statistics. In South Korea, about 40,000 titles were released from January to December 2010, of which literature accounted for 20.3 percent (8,192 titles). That is, one in five new releases fell under the category of literature. Translated books accounted for 28.3 percent of literature, with a total of 2,323 titles. The percentage is very high, considering that it is less than 8 percent in Japan.
Another interesting statistic is the ranking of translated literature books published in South Korea by country of origin. The top country was Japan with 832 titles (35.8 percent), leaving far behind the U.S. (21.4 percent), the U.K. (12.5 percent), and France. In other words, Japanese books accounted for a significant 10.2 percent of all literature, meaning one in 10 newly-released literature books was translated from Japanese. The 832 Japanese literature books published in 2010 compares to a peak of 886 in 2009. From 2001 to 2010, the total amounts to as many as 5,680. Novels account for 78.2 percent of Japanese literature, which means other genres are included. But still, Japanese novels enjoy great popularity in Korea. Only 260 translated works of Japanese literature were published in 2001. In 2006, however, there were more than 500, and the number jumped to 700, then 800, in 2007 and after. The year 2006 clearly marked a breakthrough for Japanese literature in South Korea.
“So far, I have discussed the circumstance surrounding translated Japanese books published in South Korea. Now, let me look at translated Korean books published in Japan. My focus here is again on literature. The number of Korean books published in Japan is incomparably lower than the over 800 Japanese books published in Korea: from 2001 to 2010, only 212, or an average of 21.2 books a year. Comparing the number of titles released from 2008 to 2010, for example, while 2,555 Japanese books were published in South Korea, only 58 Korean books were published in Japan. In addition, Japan's population is 2.6 times that of Korea. If put under the same demographic conditions, the gap between the numbers of translated books released in both countries would widen further. If you compare the figures for translated books, the number in Japan is only one fiftieth (2.2 percent) that in South Korea.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021