Eco-literature, or “eco-lit,” refers to literature that is critical of the latent dangers threatening the existence of humanity or of civilizations that harm the environment. It gained prominence in Korea in the nineties, succeeding the participatory literature wave of the eighties that included division literature and labor literature.
Despite the appearance of several novels dealing with the environment, Korean eco-lit has proven unable to get involved in real-life issues. While the so-called Deep Ecology movement was absorbed in criticizing rationalism and anthropocentricism, differences of race, gender, and class were muffled by normative voices. Eco-lit allows us to listen to these previously precluded voices of difference. Neither a blanket denial of civilization nor a unilateral obsession with nature can be a viable alternative to eco-lit, and this gives rise to the pressing need to explore the environmental issue from a real-world perspective.
Not many writers in Korea have consistently studied the ecological issue with a critical mind. Choi Sung Kak is unrivaled in Korean eco-lit for tackling the environmental issue head-on by experimenting with genre. The wearying, winding journey of the ecological movement in Korea is stamped upon his novels like a fossil imprinted with an extinct life form. For Choi, “literature is our first line of defense” against “environmental disasters that wittingly or unwittingly pose an overwhelming threat to our lives.” He presents us with a beautiful form of literature that “never gives up the vain hope that the world will get better,” even as it is at the “frontline of environmental calamity” where “humans have lost the crisis awareness essential to being human” and where they “have no interest in flora and fauna.” According to Choi, the environmental problem is a problem of “humans’ inner avarice, corruption, and apathy,” and of the “irresponsibility, impudence, and greed of a few men who gratify their selfish desires with specious false logic.”* This is the point where Choi’s fiction meets the lives of the socially disadvantaged who are victims of unbridled capitalism. This is why Flower World, the environmental group in his novel Himalayan Woman in Solitary Confinement, intervenes to protect the human rights of migrant workers. The underlying cause of environmental problems is “materialism, which turns nature, women, and the socially deprived into the Other and regards them as tools to be used.”
Kim Jongseong is another writer who has continuously studied the ecological issue. He believes “the chief culprit behind environmental destruction is human selfishness,” and explores Korea’s complex situation where “pre-modern, modern, and post-modern” modes of life coexist. His exploration of Korea’s severe ecological degradation and the effects of environmental pollution on the gritty lives of the lowest classes is incessant and tenacious. With A View with Hugging Trees (2005), Kim, who has been writing eco-lit since the eighties, “drew the attention of Korean society and the literary world by dealing with the environmental issue with a depth never before attempted in the history of Korean literature.”
In Village (2009), Kim effectively captures the “human ecology of peripheral humans living not in cities or villages but in the border zone.” In this work, the environmental issue does not appear on the surface but permeates scenes of everyday life. Kim relies on Murray Bookchin’s exploration of environmental problems in the “structural problems of human society” to provide the reader with a lively portrayal of different characters in a village. The lives of these characters naturally kindle an awareness of the environmental in the reader. Kim casts doubt on the normative voice of Deep Ecology that emphasizes a “return to nature and life,” and depicts everyday scenes of ecology teeming with the voices of difference in race, gender, and wealth distribution. He paints detailed scenes of conflict within the village’s human ecology, not only in the palpable tension between the natives and the village residents, but also among characters sandwiched between the two, as well as internal conflicts within each group. The differences of creation/destruction, urban/rural, and law/ethics in the village show no sign of being easily resolved.