I first became aware of Bae Suah four years ago, in my first year studying for a Korean literature PhD. I was struggling through a book of Korean criticism when I stumbled across a critic castigating her for “doing violence to the Korean language.” For me, this was catnip, especially as I’d recently discovered the work of the late Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, neglected in her lifetime due to her unconventional spelling and grammar, now heralded for that same autodidactic originality.
The following year I received an LTI Korea grant to translate The Essayist’s Desk, Bae’s semi-autobiographical 2005 novel about a Korean writer living in Berlin. Given that I’d been studying the language for just over two years, Bae’s unconventional syntax and faintly surreal scenarios might have seemed a wildly overambitious choice, but there were other affinities at work. Unlike many so-called avant-garde writers, her books are deeply rooted in socio-economic reality, frequently featuring protagonists whose straitened circumstances restrict their passionate desire for travel, culture, even love. At the time, I was spectacularly broke, so this was something I could appreciate. As I got to know Bae better, I understood her discomfort with being labelled “experimental” – like Lispector, she is an autodidact, and the unconventionality of her writing stems more from her decidedly non-literary background (an undergraduate degree in chemistry followed by a job behind a counter at Gimpo airport) than from a conscious desire to subvert or reject any canon. Everyone who reads Essayist comments first on its extraordinary emotional power, only afterwards praising the ambition and intelligence of the writing.