[2018 SIWF Free Talks] Gender: Sight without Seeing

  • onDecember 11, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now

The following is an edited transcript from a “Free Talks” session held on October 23, 2018 at the 2018 Seoul International Writers’ Festival, featuring writers Kim Keun, Kim Hyun, Shin Hae-uk, Elis Burrau, Joyelle McSweeney, and Renshun Jin. It was moderated by Yang Kyung-eon.


Yang Kyung-eon: I’d like to ask everyone to share with us your first impression on hearing the keyword of today’s session, “gender,” and your thoughts on this issue. What do you think about gender?


Shin Hae-uk: When I heard the keyword “gender,” my first thoughts were about the numerous incidents that have happened in South Korea. But, first and foremost, I thought about gender depicted in my own writing. I always find it difficult to use words with nuances of gender. The Korean language has a simplistic gender structure. In fact, in Korean, most nouns are read as male by default. So I need to deliberate before selecting an adequate word. For example, I’m cautious when using the pronoun geu, which can be either male or female but is generally accepted as masculine. So when I use that word, it’s often read as masculine even though I don’t intend it that way. I wanted to share this awkwardness I feel while writing. I’ve thought about using geu-nyeo instead of geu, but then that word is explicitly feminine—too explicit. So I don’t want to use either one. So what should I use? This is a dilemma I always experience due to the gender inequality manifest in our everyday language.


Renshun Jin: In Chinese, we use the pronoun tā for both man and woman. When we pronounce the word, it sounds the same and doesn’t reveal the gender of the person. However, when you write tā, the character for “he” contains the component character “human” and the character for “she” contains the component character “woman.” As for what I think about gender: Growing up, I was a tomboy and used to fight with boys and give them bloody noses. For that reason, I wasn’t personally conscious about gender and displayed a strong gender identity when I was young. But when I began to write, I became more conscious about this issue. I thought I was objectively describing men when I portrayed them in my writing, but critics have often said that I depict men negatively. I like women. Perhaps it’s because I think there’s a problem with women’s status in society, that women have been neglected, and that they have been oppressed in many ways. So maybe for that reason, I wanted women in my works to be stronger. My favorite quote from Virginia Woolf is that a good writer is androgynous. Good writers have both feminine and masculine parts of themselves.


Kim Hyun: I’m curious about the gender of the literary critic who commented that men in your novels are portrayed negatively. I think such comments are clichés used by male critics who critique works by women writers. When I heard the keyword gender, I recalled my childhood that was quite different from Jin’s. While Jin had fights with her male friends, I was good at girls’ games, like gomujul. I even won first place in a gomujul contest in elementary school. I was very flexible, you see. But despite that talent, others would criticize me for being too girly. I was subjected to gender stereotypes and social prejudices at a young age and had to think about those issues. I thought, “This is who I am. Why should I be defined by my social gender? What does it mean to be male or female?” And then I went to an all boys middle and high school for six years, where I experienced even more severe violence than I had in elementary school. At that time, my nickname was “Miss Kim” because I was viewed as too feminine. Within that community, I was a symbol of a woman. This experience of having been subjected to violence led me to the same question for myself. What is my existence to my group? And then I came across feminism, which helped me find some answers. Feminism helped me to find a way to use my language to express the oppression and violence I experienced. I think that’s when I started to write poetry, which is why today’s theme reminded me of my memories. Because I identified myself as a sexual minority as I grew up, feminism has helped me to establish my identity through its vocabulary and learnings. I also came to think about gender and queer issues. In terms of language, as Shin mentioned earlier, our language is based on patrilineal culture, as in the case of geu. But I’m also interested in heterosexual-centered language, such as “husband” and “wife.” I sometimes include two male protagonists who call each other “husband” or two female protagonists who call each other “wife.” So this is what I mostly think about: language dominated by masculine culture, or by heterosexual culture. I think about how to break them down.


Elis Burrau: Should I start with my first association when I first heard this keyword? It’s a pretty banal and simple association, but I still want to say it: I hate men. It’s as simple as that. But it’s easy for me to say because I’m a man and I hate myself. I don’t risk anything by saying that. And I try to twist and turn this trope in my poems. But I use the trope in subtle ways. I have a short poem I’d like to read here: “My father always wanted to talk / about heritage and environment. He was a wonderful person to talk to / if you talked about heritage and environment.” That was my first association when I first heard about this topic. We could talk more about that later, but my point is that, in my surroundings in Stockholm, Sweden, it’s not a provocative thing to say and I don’t risk anything when I say I hate men, because people understand the context, that I’m not talking about all men. It’s not interesting for me to make that statement more complex because the world is already as violent as it is. But then again, in Sweden, I’d like to add that it seems like being a feminist or calling oneself a feminist has been fully appropriated by capitalism. It doesn’t mean anything. All the leaders in the right wing parties call themselves feminists and still want to deny women abortion. If people don’t believe that women have a right to their own bodies and still call themselves feminists, then I don’t think the activism in the world is activism.


Joyelle McSweeney: I’m from the States, where our government does not pretend to be feminist. How refreshing! So I feel really honored to learn from the poets on this panel and a lot of what they’re saying makes sense to me, beginning with Shin. This idea that it’s hard to write the poem itself, [that it’s hard] to know which pronoun to use, geu or geu-nyeo, is fascinating. But I think that when I read your poem, in translation, there’s already a three-way conversation among you, the translator, and me. And having a conversation with everything that each of us has read, including the simultaneous translators who’re sitting back there—mine’s a woman, or at least it sounds like a feminine voice. Are they all women? Alright! [Claps]—so even doing that work, of spreading the conversation out, so that we can all be in the same room with each other, I’ve never had an experience like this before. And I feel like that is truly the power of feminism and the feminine. And I don’t mean feminine in terms of biology, but in terms of the desire to question or relinquish oppression of others and certain kinds of power over others and to find power together. So I feel like we’re living a good model of gender at this moment. And I also think, to go into the specifics of poetry, so this idea about what pronoun do I use, in the dialogue between you, me, and the translator, an understanding develops, so you don’t have to pick a coordinate that doesn’t seem right for you. Because in the dialogue between us as author, translator, and reader, we feel the power of the place that you want your poetry to happen. Does that make sense? So, the writer writing alone cannot solve all the problems of gender, but somehow with the reader, the translator, and other writers, we begin building something that’s shaped this way, and that to me is preferable to hegemony, which goes this way, and that to me is the best and most creative version of gender, if that makes sense. And to turn that around, a shape like this can also go into dark places, can go into places that are in common as opposed to marking everything out as national territory—we go into the place of art that’s in common, or maybe we go into a place of suffering that’s in common, or loss that’s in common, that we all begin the map together. And I had a very sad year. I lost a child this year. And I have found myself reaching for poetry and moving into that dark, common place of poetry. And Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who hopefully some of you know, she thinks of that place as the place of poetry and the place of the feminine. But not feminine in any culturally coded way, but feminine as meaning receptive: as opposed to putting your ideas on another, you hear the ideas. You hear the voice. And she says that’s what being a poet is. That’s what being feminine is. And that does not have to do with your biological experience of gender.


Kim Keun: When I heard about today’s theme, I thought about issues that are constantly problematized in communities to which I belong. I teach at a university, am involved in the literary circle, and also work in the publishing industry. There are gender-related issues in these communities, but even before the recent incidents, I’ve always thought of gender sensitivity as something natural. Gender sensitivity means to understand the other person’s gender, especially that of the sexual minority. But I think I was wrong to take such sensitivity for granted. It’s unnerving to see that things I’ve taken for granted were actually not so common. And I think to cope with this we need to study a lot more but that is not happening in our society even now and there’s an attitude of “Why would we study that?” Earlier, Kim Hyun mentioned the oppressiveness and violence within male heterosexual groups. I was going to talk about the same thing today. Those who have read Kim’s poetry know that protagonists in his poems are confident and expressive. But now that I think about it, the protagonists of my poems are cowardly. I thought about why our protagonists are so different. My conclusion is that Kim has found his identity and broken out of the group, while I’ve adapted to the oppression and violence I’ve suffered. It’s not a matter of whether I’m homosexual or heterosexual. Regardless of sexual identity, adapting to male heterosexual society means that you should tolerate violence and oppression. You’re told that you have to be manly. And at some point, those who suffer such oppression internalize it and become agents of the oppression. And they slowly transform from the oppressed to oppressor. Men have to realize this and reflect on themselves. Only then can we have a constructive conversation about this issue. Gender sensitivity, as I mentioned earlier, is common sense. It’s sad that Korean society hasn’t reached that level yet. And this society, which does not administer this common sense and universal morality, is the biggest obstacle to my poetry. How should I transcend the current society’s common sense, and where should I go beyond that? That’s my main concern these days.



YK: The #MeToo movement has had repercussions all over the world, and South Korea is no exception with incidents of sexual harassment in the literary circle coming to the fore. I think, regardless of national boundaries, we can talk about recent gender issues that have surfaced in each of our cultural and literary circles. I’d like to ask the writers gathered here: What is your biggest concern as a writer?


EB: I can talk briefly about the #MeToo movement in the Swedish literary circles. When it comes to my own experience as a writer, it’s hard to speak about my concern about this issue. I always try to be fragile and attentive and listen and be true to my poems. But as an online publisher of young contemporary Swedish poets, I have a responsibility to look for voices that have been overlooked by big publishing houses. But about #MeToo, you can see there is a recent, concrete example in the Swedish literary scene. There is no Nobel Prize winner in literature this year because a powerful man with connections to the Swedish Academy had been harassing women for years, and, finally, women dared to come out and that has forced the Swedish Academy to look at themselves, and an old institution that has been full of misogynist practices is up for public scrutiny. We don’t have a Nobel Prize winner this year, but maybe we will have one next year and it will be a much bigger honor to get that prize. So there have been concrete consequences in the literary community in Sweden.


JM: It’s amazing to me, whether it’s the Nobel Prize or an online journal, the way making a different demand about gender almost causes the whole house of cards to collapse. It makes you realize, regardless of your feelings about it, how much ideas about gender actually go into the structures, even literary structures, let alone the most powerful structures. Obviously in the military, gender is constantly being narrated and re-narrated in the government. I just saw that Trump is somehow going to disinvent transgenderism and take the language away from the federal definition of gender. Transgenderism has been in there since the Obama administration, and now it will no longer be considered part of gender and therefore no longer be protected as a civil right. So the transgender people who’re victims of violence and discrimination and are oppressed despite the great insights they have to offer will now lose what few protections they had because the definition of gender is going to be changed by the US government. So I guess what I’m saying is that we realize how much gender and power rely on each other, how much an oppressive definition of gender supports power. Whether that power is the Nobel Prize committee, or a tiny little online journal or reading series, or the US government and military, gender is how it defines itself and expresses itself. That becomes very important for poets to contest, whether it’s a queer poet, a cis poet, a trans poet, or a straight poet. And wherever that poet is participating in gender, they’re contesting the official versions that are used to control people.


RJ: I learned from the internet that the #MeToo movement is a big issue in South Korea. In China, a tax evasion scandal involving the entertainment industry has taken center stage, perhaps because of which the #MeToo has not gained much attention. But what I’d like to say from a different perspective is that we should not rely solely on social movements. I think it’s a very personal matter. If a crime was done, then certainly the victim should get justice. But I hope men are not penalized just because of #MeToo.


SH: I don’t think the events surrounding #MeToo are private matters. Of course there are personal issues involved, and we may not be privy to all the details. But there is a certain hierarchy, and, of course, in relationships there are power structures. And power structures are not necessarily bad, but if abused, power can be the cause of oppression, restriction, and damage. So I believe that a stricter standard needs to be applied to what is public and what is private. And if there is an issue in the public arena, this should be open for discussion and we should view it as a social issue.


KH: Before the truth of the case is found, we need to listen to the victim’s testimony. That is the starting point. When incidents of sexual violence arise, especially those involving men and women or people from different power classes, most people don’t side with the victim. They look for faults in the victim and look at her with suspicious eyes and label her a “gold digger.” If we leave the problem within the private sphere, then it easily becomes a black-and-white problem, a dichotomy. So we should bring it to the public sphere, look behind that incident, and look at the power structure. When something comes up, people make excuses: “Yes, it could have happened in that era, when things were different. We didn’t press charges or accuse those men then, because that wasn’t the practice at the time.” But people who want to revisit those issues are saying that if we don’t review them now we’re letting it pass and conceding that it’s something that was acceptable at the time. Otherwise, everything will be forgotten. We don’t really want to dig up skeletons and personally attack that person, but we also want to change the way we thought it was natural to have an abusive power structure or sexual violence within the literary circle. When we reevaluate some of the literary canons from a feminist perspective, it’s not that we want to downplay their importance. We want to add a human sensitivity and gender sensitivity to that work, so that we can think about what we should write in the future and how we can apply such sensitivities in our writings. But many people think that we want to erase the past and devalue everything, but that’s not the case. We just want to go forward with the right perspective.


From left: Kim Keun, Joyelle McSweeney, Elis Burrau, Kim Hyun, Renshin Jin, Shin Hae-uk, and Yang Kyung-eon


KK: I’d like to take a slightly different viewpoint. I teach at a university and come across many young students—I see many in the audience here are quite young too—and I’ve noticed that the younger generation are much more gender sensitive than older generations. I’m a man, and I’m a teacher. In classrooms, I’m the one with authority and power, and sometimes students are aggressive in their interactions with me. Sometimes I feel like they attack me just for the sake of attacking, but I can’t blame them for it. I believe we have to provide an environment for younger people where they can talk openly about these issues and sometimes be aggressive when discussing them. Only then, further down the road, can we reach a more balanced ground and work for a better future. Some students are aggressive in their feminist viewpoint in their writing, and I try to take a balanced viewpoint when commenting on their work. Because sometimes these student writers take a perspective that’s too narrow and focused on rather trivial points. So that is one problem I have when I’m working with students. So how will we be able to reach balanced ground as a teacher? Providing an environment for more open discussion and having balanced ground is important and I’m reaching for that goal. Sometimes students are sensitive because they’re very aware of the oppression, violence, or discrimination they faced while growing up. And I feel regretful about their past experiences. So I’m also trying to provide a better environment for them to share their experiences and talk about them.


KH: I get the impression that you’re a really good teacher. I heard from some trainee writers that even after #MeToo they’re being subjected to sexual violence. Some professors tell their students their writing lacks sexuality so they should have sex with a guy to learn more. I was quite terrified to hear that and felt that we still have a long way to go. You were talking about balance. I feel that we should do things that’re the exact opposite of what we’re told to do at school. When you learn writing, you’re told not to do certain things. For instance, feminine writing is delicate and trivial, so don’t write such stuff because that’s not considered literature. Queer writing is also on that “don’t do” list. I once talked about anal sex in my poem, and someone said it was too extreme. People tell me not to do things but I think you should do exactly the things people tell you not to do. If it’s too trivial, then it’s worth it. If it’s too queer, it’s worth it. I believe the future of literature depends on things that’re extreme, trivial, and too big. I think that will balance things out.


YK: Joyelle appeared quite shocked to hear about the talk of sexual harassment in Korean literature classrooms. Do you have anything to comment on what you have heard about the Korean literary scene, Joyelle?


JM: Well, I’m no expert. I’d have thought that it was quite shocking, but I also think it’s not uncommon. I mean, the tales I’ve heard from the trenches in North American literary classrooms are also quite shocking, you know: visiting writers showing up with a lot of booze and a lot of glamour, and it’s a very disappointing thing to be happening. I think “disappointing” is a mild term, for a person you thought was really wonderful as a literary person but then is capable of something so ugly. I agree with Kim Hyun in that I don’t think that we should necessarily—there are definitely some exceptions—expunge the work of people who have perpetrated some of this. I think it should be part of the conversation. We also see these around racist work, because I love modernism, but modernism is often full of xenophobia and sexism, and to put it mildly, racism. And I don’t think that we need to forgive those things, but we can come up with new readings of those works that reflect the new sensitivities and understandings that we have. So what I mean is that we learn that someone who was our hero as a writer has treated women violently, or at least disrespectfully, our first instinct is to throw their book away, so maybe we could instead put the book away. It’s not a matter of rehabilitating that work, but rather reading it now in that light and seeing it again. I’m not talking about moderating #MeToo or making it weaker, but making it a source of criticism, literary criticism as well. I do think that this is something that can reshape the whole shape of literature. It’s just very interesting that the power that goes with gender, it’s not necessarily limited to men, but it is usually reflected in institutions and literary practice. And so I think the #MeToo movement not only makes women safer, and not just women but people who are subjected to violence, but also hopefully makes us reconsider what these institutions are even doing and why they put their assets all in one figure, usually male, and what that distribution of resources is like, which is why a Nobel Prize that is truly feminist, not just feminist as a brand, would be a really interesting idea. How do you give a prize to one person in the world without replicating ideas of exclusivity? So it’s fun to think about the Nobel Prize becoming a micro-grant program, but we’ll see. And by reevaluating the literary power of what went into building the mystique around some of these famous poets, and doing the mystic as a function of literary culture, we can have a more level conversation.


YK: Joyelle talked about how, by approaching history from a feminist perspective, the history of literature itself can be newly constructed. If we were to reconstruct the canon from a feminist perspective, what books would you include on the list?


EB: It seems like a very difficult task, thank you very much. It seems a bit violent for me now to say names, but it can be fun, so I’ll just say it, because I get bored when I try to contextualize things too much. For me, I could suggest three names: Elfriede Jelinek, Kathy Acker, and Hiromi Itō.


JM: I’ve always liked Kim Hyesoon, and it seems like she already has a new canonical role to play in Korean poetry. But as an American living in a country that wants to think of itself as monolingual, even though people from all over live there and speak different languages there, one mental exercise that myself and my partner, Johannes Goransson, often do is to ask: “What if—instead of the center of American literature being someone like Robert Frost—what if we put Kim Hyesoon in the center? What if we put the Argentinian poet Maria Negroni in center? Then how does the map change?” It just starts shooting out exciting bloodlines if you do it that way. I don’t have one answer besides Kim Hyesoon, because, of course, I’m a fan girl. My point is that, in a monolingual landscape that America wants to have or wants to tell about itself, it’s important to have works in translation that are put in the center, and see how that makes everything relative, and see what kind of affinities between poets who don’t write in the same language start to develop.


KK: Joyelle has been talking about Kim Hyesoon. We could talk about her contemporaries like Kim Seung-hee, Ko Jung-hee, and many other women poets. We don’t actually have to include them in the canon, but we could rewrite the curriculum and do a re-reading of them. I think that could be interesting. Actually, re-reading their work wouldn’t be that new, because the currently active poets are all influenced by their works. But one thing that I thought of when I heard this question was of the Beat Generation in the US. I recently read a poetry collection by Allen Ginsberg translated into Korean and enjoyed it very much. I also read a book on the Beat Generation, and then I came across an unfamiliar term, Beat Girl. There were many women who associated with those Beat Generation men but disappeared later from the history of literature. Their works were discovered only after a long time had passed. And I don’t know how this is dealt with in the US, but I think we should rediscover women in the history of literature. And perhaps write a new literary history from the viewpoint of feminism. And I’d like the writers and literary critics to provide forums for such discussions to take place.


KH: I’d like to include my poetry collection. [Laughs] It may not be canon yet from a feminist perspective, but I’d like it to be re-read from the perspective of a canon. The canon that come to my mind first are contemporary women writers, for example Park Min-Jung, Kang Hwa-gil, who’re writing in close detail about things happening here and now, and it’s not simply a one-to-one reproduction, but they even deal with things that cannot be reproduced. Also writers like Kim Bong-geon and Park Sang-hyeong who have written queer stories, and, regardless of whether the person is queer or not, writers who’ve written about sexual minorities. I’d like the works of writers who write about these issues to be included in the contemporary canon. Recently, I was on a judging panel for a literary prize. During the discussion among the judges, I recommended a contemporary woman writer for the prize. When I said this, some of the judges said that her work is read now but it won’t be read later, so they could not give her the prize. I was quite shocked. I got into a debate with those judges. But we need to give serious thought to those writers who write about the “here and now.”


JM: I’d like to really support that idea, because I think the idea of literary lineage is based on property when it’s based on male inheritance. It replicates a lot of gender power structures that we’ve been talking about this entire time, including the preference for sons. I think it’s a very exciting challenge to rethink the shape of literary transmission and the models we make in our heads about literature without the idea of patrilineal inheritance being our dominant metaphor. And this notion that if a poet doesn’t somehow pass their poetry down to the next generation, [then] that’s a lesser poet—that’s like a leftover idea from patrilineal male inheritance. So I appreciate your emphasis on the “now,” because I think that’s beginning to think differently about time, literature, and property.


SH: When I read, I don’t look at the text as a whole. I focus more on the sentences. I look at the fragments and absorb those fragments as my own assets. So based on my personal preference, I don’t think constituting a canon is integral to literary work. But, of course, it’s linked to the issue of education—if we think of what texts to present to people new to literature, then we have to unavoidably pick texts. In that respect, I’d like to suggest Antigone, works by the Korean writer Oh Junghee, and the book Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which has a very special, very lively character, and I would recommend as must-read feminist book. But I have trouble choosing poets. There was a writer-poet named Kim Myeong-sun who was active in the ’20s, but I can’t say outright that her works should be included in the canon. But still this writer has a very special voice. Poet Choi Seung-ja was active in the ’80s. All writers in South Korea know her. And another poet I’d like to suggest from the ’90s is Lee Hyeon-ju, who has already passed away. I’m mentioning these poets not because a particular work of theirs is completely good but because they’re very good at distilling the despair and screams of people stuck in inhumane situations into words. I’m not sure if these should be included in the canon for literature education, but still, I do believe that they are very significant and important works.


Elis Burrau has authored the poetry collections and we continued to do something touching and Red Days and the novel The Charisma Society.

Renshun Jin has authored the short story collections Peach Blossom, Memory of My Friends Jin Zhi, and Buddhist Dance as well as movie screenplays, including Green Tea, and the novel Chun Xiang.

Kim Hyun has authored the poetry collections Gloryhole and When Your Lips Open and the essay collections Don’t Worry and Come Over, I Have a Question, and Whatever Sweater.

Kim Keun has authored the poetry collections Snake Boy, Meeting at Cloud Theatre, While You Wash Yourself in Darkness, and coauthored an anthology of plays, Great Legacy.

Joyelle McSweeney has authored ten books of poetry, prose, verse plays, and criticism, the most recent being The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults. She co-edits Action Books.

Shin Hae-uk has authored the poetry collections Concise Arrangement, Animality, Syzygy, and Mandarin Mold Night, and the essay collections Non-Adult Contests and Single-Use Book.