Introducing Korean Literature Through the Seoul Book and Culture Club

  • onMarch 15, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byBarry Welsh

The 24th of January 2015 is a date I shall never forget. On this date the iconic Korean poet Ko Un and his celebrated translator Brother Anthony visited the book club I run in central Seoul. Famous writers had visited the book club before, but I was not prepared for the rapturous response which accompanied Ko Un’s appearance that day. As it got closer to 4:00 p.m. people were still pouring through the doors. By the time Ko Un took to the stage all 200 seats were filled. There were even people sitting on the floor and yet more lining the walls. If you have ever been lucky enough to meet Ko Un you will know that despite his towering reputation and frequently turbulent life he is as charming a man as you could ever hope to meet. But on stage he gave as fiery and as commanding a performance as I have ever seen. As he read a selection of poems the atmosphere in the room was electric. For days after the event I was still receiving messages from people who were in the audience telling me how much his reading meant to them. For many this was the closest they had been to one of their heroes. For me, feeling the atmosphere in the room that day as over 200 people were held in rapt attention by a twinkly-eyed eighty-year-old man reading his poems, was a potent reminder of the very power of literature itself. Literature has the uncanny ability to transport us, to give us access to the transcendent aspects of life. This is exactly what happened on the 24th of January 2015 as a roomful of people were transported by the power of one man’s voice.

Sadly it also reminded me of a very unfortunate fact; Korean literature is still nowhere near as well known as it should be. Brother Anthony suggests that Korea’s recent history exerts such a strong influence on the country’s literature that, if you don’t know the history, it can be difficult to understand the literature. There is a great deal of truth in this. One of the first translated Korean books I encountered was Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop. Three Generations is a great book which explores the consequences of modernism and colonialism on Korean family life but at the time I found it impenetrable and quickly gave up. However, in recent years several exciting Korean writers have begun to gain a following amongst international readers. This is a very positive development. If we accept that the best way to engage with the unique nature of another culture is through an appreciation of its literature then Korean writers can tell us all sorts of things about Korea. We can read Shin Kyung-sook to understand the role of mothers in Korean family life or to find out the significance of the 386 Generation. We can read Kim Young-ha to experience hyper-modern Seoul or Korean farm workers in Mexico starting an uprising. We can let Hwang Sok-yong show us the Vietnam War through the eyes of a young soldier. Park Min-gyu can fascinate with tales of contemporary life. Han Kang can shock and disturb with a story of a woman retreating from society in The Vegetarian, which has been a huge critical success in Britain. We were lucky to have Han Kang be a guest at the book club last year. After that event a young Canadian woman in the audience told me it was the best book club event yet. Korean literature is as rich, deep, strange, weird, troubling, and as fascinating a literature as a reader could hope to find. We just need to introduce more readers to it. 



by Barry Welsh
Host, Seoul Book and Culture Club
English Instructor, Dongguk University