Sometimes, you just get lucky. When we at the Asia Literary Review set out together with LTI Korea in early 2015 to produce a volume dedicated to translated writings by and about millennial Koreans, we had no idea how fortuitous our timing would be. At the time, very few international readers knew anything about author Han Kang or her translator Deborah Smith. But, like the hallyu wave that preceded it, an irrepressible force was building in the form of The Vegetarian. The buzz about Han’s novel was palpable in literary circles and bookstores across the UK and beyond. Countless conversations were sparked by the exclamation, “My god, have you read . . .” As ALR’s K-lit issue came off the printing press in April 2016, The Vegetarian was being shortlisted for, and then stunningly won, the Man Booker International prize.
The book’s success (and Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom winning the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize) has naturally turned worldwide attention towards Korean fiction as bookworms seek more hidden gems. Literary agents and specialty publishers have stepped up efforts to sign and promote Korean authors overseas. In 2017, the English PEN organization, through its PEN Presents program, is spotlighting emerging writing from Korea and East Asia.
In the midst of this surge, ALR’s K-lit volume provides some fascinating literary nuggets. As curators, we set out to display a wide range of styles and voices, which in composite create a realistic portrait of contemporary life for the current generation of Koreans. In addition to poignant stories of ordinary people scratching out their own identities in a conformist, ultra-competitive society, we included a science fiction/fantasy piece and an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. We also mingled mid-career writers such as Cheon Myeong-kwan and Kim Yeonsu with younger talent such as Kim Ae-ran and Han Yujoo. Surprisingly, one of the challenges in making our selection was to balance out the plethora of strong female authors with comparably strong male writers.
Immediately following the volume’s publication, Cheon Myeong-kwan and Han Yujoo visited London to publicize the issue. Events at Asia House, SOAS University of London, and the Korean Cultural Centre provided opportunities for lively dialogue with local audiences. “Is Korea truly the land of opportunity for the current millennial generation?” It depends on how much privilege you were born into. “How real is the image of Korea presented by hallyu?” It’s a lot more fantasy than fact. “Can the traditional family structure survive the pressures of modernity?” It’s a monumental struggle.
Translated literature has always had more power than any other medium to reveal to the outside world a nation’s true and unvarnished soul. Korean writers wield both a privileged opportunity and weighty responsibility to provide a reflective view of their society. Their vision is sometimes dark, cynical, and angst-ridden. But they also inventively bring life to characters that use hope and grit to seed challenging lives with meaning. As such, the message from Korean writers is universal. Therefore, those who are passionate about publishing Korean literature abroad have a unique opportunity to market some truly remarkable works. With energy and diligence, they can do much more than create another splashy pop culture wave. They can bring global readers to the shores of a deep, teeming, and profound ocean.
by Phillip Kim
Managing Editor, Asia Literary Review
Author, Nothing Gained