Valuable Words: The power of the pen. Understanding Korea in their own words
As the sound of KPOP echoes globally, Korean literature, from Buddhist prose to political satire has been quietly evolving into an international phenomenon. However, this was not always the case. Several factors have restricted the growth of Korean literature. Brother Anthony believe it is ‘the world’s lack of knowledge regarding Korea’s recent history”. Between 1910 to 1980 Korea experienced occupation, war and dictatorships. During this period literature was heavily censored and controlled stunting its growth.
It is easy to forget with the glitz and glamour of Hallyu the history that lies behind modern Korea. Firstly, the occupation of Korea by the Japanese which placed an embargo on language and culture decimating a whole generation of Korean voices. Then later by successive Korean governments who understood the power of the pen in challenging political authority. In fact, the words "The pen is mightier than the sword" were first written by novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu. During this time the pen did become mightier than the sword with poets such as Kim Chi Ha who called for democracy and challenged the government through poetry inspiring people to political action in oppressive circumstances.
This period for Korean writers was a struggle as they had to write in a language (Korean) that had not been taught in schools and who had been overshadowed by the prestige of Japanese literature. Post-war was followed by the devastating Korean War and separation of North and South Korea. Censorship meant Korean writers could not openly express their intense longing for the return of their national identity. Writers then had to grapple with reflecting this trauma in their works and what their ‘voice’ would be and how that would constitute ‘Korean style’. Many of the early writers adopted a focus on ‘realism’ reflecting the loss of innocence, hardship, corruption and acts of human love and kindness that offered hope in a harsh social reality of crushing poverty. Many of these works are now being translated to reflect Korea’s unique experience of life in an almost ‘rags to riches’ story. Unlike many countries, it is a story of tragedy and loss to ultimate economic and cultural triumph.
The significance of this experience when reflected in literature gives the reader a venue within which they can study the complexities and paradoxes that are an integral part of being human. It encourages the reader to question the world, opens them to the good, the potential, and the nature of humanity. It also opens them to the bad, the limitations and shortcomings of people, forming their opinions and understanding of the world.
With increasing interest in Korean culture, translation of Korean works provides the rest of the world the chance to view it through the eyes and words of its own people. The relationship between the writer and the reader is intimate and pervasive. It allows for full immersion into a world that is often overshadowed by a veneer of projected success, beauty, convenience and technology. Korean literature offers insight beyond Hallyu into a world that can be equally as intoxicating, allowing the reader an intimacy only reserved for those who make it beyond the polite restraints of Korean society.
Award winning novelist Shin Kyung-Sook who wrote the book ‘Please Look After Mom’ said that “Korean literature seems fresh to readers in other countries and its status is bigger than Koreans think. They seem to be looking for an alternative in humanity and community spirit, which is richly expressed in Korean literature.”
The barrier of language can often mystify Korea. It is through literature that the reader can understand the intimate moments in people’s lives and their thoughts. By reading about Korea in the author's own words the reader is able to value the experience and reflect on the way in which Korea’s history and struggle has influenced the authors work.
The first Korean writer I was introduced to was Buddhist writer Beop Jeong. A friend gave me his book ‘May all beings be Happy’. It was a collection of prose that offered a view into the world of Korean Buddhist thinking about nature and relationships.
The second book I was introduced to, was quite by accident. I saw the 2007 movie’ Maundy Thursday’ which was directed by Song Hae Sung with actors’ Gang Dong Won and Lee Na Young. I was so struck by the story that I wanted to find out more about it. I learned that it was based on Gong Ji Young’s bestselling book Our Happy Time. The book resonated with me as not only was it written beautifully but had powerful reflections about love, life and the power of forgiveness. The book had tangible emotional tension and was thought provoking. It left me thirsty for more.
Since then I have read many books from Korean authors but ‘Our Happy Time’ and ‘May all being be Happy’ were the first books that offered me insight into the Korean psyche in very different ways. May All being be Happy offered me a deep insight into the reflective traits of the Korean psyche but also to the importance of nature in shaping thinking. Our Happy Time opened my eyes to the emotional impotence which exist from sustain and long-time trauma.
Books such as ‘Please look after Mom’ by Shin Kyung Sook, Hwang Sun Mi beautiful book ‘The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly’, the thrilling and dark book by Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and poet Jong Hwan Do’s book ‘No flower blooms without waving’. All provided the reader with different perspectives into Korea culture in their own words.
In 2016 ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize. It brought Korean literature to the forefront and the issue of translation. In a recent article the South China Morning Post suggested that ‘Korean literature is like a big fish in a little pond because it cannot reach international audiences due to the language barrier’. Sohn Hae il the newly elected president of PEN international Korean centre agrees with this saying “Korean literature will become popular worldwide just like KPOP someday. Korean literature should reach a wider audience, but the lack of quality translation has prevented Korean literature from resonating with readers in other languages”. The Daesan Literacy Awards are working towards improving this situation. There are five categories poetry, fiction, drama, criticism and translation. All the award-winning works are then translated and published overseas. In 2019 there is 80 literacy works to be published in 22 languages. Which is a significant increase from previous years. ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang shows high quality translation are key to Korean writers gaining global recognition. Without eloquent translation the unique characteristics of a book often become lost.
This a pivotal time for Korean literature. It has the potential to be part of Hallyu wave and influence Korea’s cultural economy. In September this year, Yi Mun Yol short fictional piece ‘An Anonymous Island’ is to be published in the New Yorker Magazine. Minumsa, Yi’s Korean publisher believes that “Publishing his fiction in the magazine proves his literary value internationally and at the same time lays the foundation for Korean literature to leap forward on the world literature scene”. Korean writers have found their voice and that voice is being heard but to support readers in accessing Korean literature in languages such as English here are several recommendations.
- Investment in authors attending festivals and book launches. Later this year Korean - American author Lee Min Jin author of ‘Pachinko’ will visit Australia. Visits such as this are essential to building relationships with readers and finding new audiences.
- Cataloguing and promoting Korean authors on Korean Tourism and government Websites. Many people are unaware of Korean authors. By providing a data list of the authors biography information and their works it provides an authentic sources and centralised location for people interested in Korean literature to go to, to find authors and books.
- Donating a catalogue of famous translated Korean works to Australian libraries. Currently there are very few books written by Korean authors in Australian libraries.
- Engaging with social media / bloggers to promote Korean literature.
- Free E-books Providing a book of the month online for people to download free through Korean government/ tourist websites or through eBook stores such as Kindle.
- Book Week - Linking into Australian book week to connect young readers to Korean children's literature.
- Hosting Festivals – supporting international writers and literature festival in English and Korean or at K Festivals events such as KCON, that are already established
- Scholarships - Provide scholarships for writers in residence to visit Australian schools and universities to promote Korean literature.
Through these recommendations Australians can start to access the world of Korean literature and go beyond just having trade relations but having deep and meaningful cultural connections proving that the pen is most powerful in building relationships and offering an authentic voice in their own words.
(Country of Activity : Australia)