Transnationalism in Korean Literature

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byKim Jonghoi

Among the many forms of transnationalism in literature, this article deals with the issue of crossing or breaking down boundaries in the spatial sense. In this context, transnationalism in Korean literature refers to Korean writers going beyond the spatial environment of “Korea” and staging their works in other spaces. This space is where the activities of characters or events in a writer’s work take place and the message of the writer is conveyed. The structure of this space can become a factor that determines the content of the work. In other words, a space in a literary work is a major element that makes the very existence of the work possible.

There are many writers in contemporary Korean literature whose works deeply engage with the expansion of space and transnational logics, and it is in fact common to find such writers. In Land, the opus magnum by the late Park Kyung-Ri who passed away in 2008, the scope of the story reaches to Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. We also see similar transnational expansion in Hwang Sok-yong’s Shim Chong or Princess Bari. The Great Jungle by Jo Jung-Rae caused controversy for fictionalizing the world of Chinese business for the sake of Korea, but it’s a bestseller that has done well in recent years. Kim Insuk’s Sydney, Standing at the Blue Ocean and The Long Road, Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You and Black Flower, and Kang Young-sook’s Rina all exemplify similar patterns of transnationalism in Korean literature today.

Kim Insuk’s Sydney, Standing at the Blue Ocean deals with Korean immigrants in Australia. Revolving around one couple, the novel is a moving saga on the tenacious vitality and love of those on the boundary between Korea and Australia. The Long Road depicts the hardships and inner conflicts that three young people experience before, during, and after they cross the border from Korea to Australia. Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower is about Korean laborers who migrated to Mexico during the Japanese occupation. They do not find bright paths lined with flowers there. Kim Young-ha describes the dark, devastating situation of their lives as “black flowers.” Your Republic Is Calling You, by the same author, is a story about a North Korean spy in South Korea. Making use of the unique situation on the Korean peninsula, Kim Young-ha sheds light on the existential life within the reality of history using his characteristically unique imagination.

Korea-Vietnam relations have been a complex web of conflicts and cooperation, but friendship and trust have been building rapidly between the two countries in recent years. Even in the field of literature, we have seen active exchange. This phenomenon brought on the natural incorporation of Vietnam as a background. A good example of this is Time to Eat Lobster and Forms of Being by Bang Hyeon-seok. Time to Eat Lobster depicts the Koreans in Vietnam coming to understand the pain and wounds of the Vietnamese, while Forms of Being is a gift endowed by the friendly relationship between Vietnam and Korea.

Seo Hajin, a writer who examines relationships in contemporary society from a new perspective, has also demonstrated a variety of transnational writings. “On the Deck” is a story of a father-daughter trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The history of the ancient temple and the personal history of the father and daughter intertwine as wounds are healed. “Dad’s Private Life” is about a man’s three-day tryst with his lover and his daughter who spies on them. The dizzying landscape of Hong Kong and the daughter’s distress and confusion overlap as she grows through the experience. Set in Los Angeles, “Shadow Street” is a story about a high-ranking agent in the intelligence sector who escapes from his country. The motif of a letter delivered to the wrong address stands for the problems caused by an identity that cannot be free from its country and society.

 “Sugar or Salt” by the same writer is also set in the US. The stories of a female narrator, her old friend, and the friend’s husband unfold in Korea and the US. The complexity of contemporary society represented by the ambiguity as to whether the relationship is “sugar” or “salt” lies in the crux of the story. The consciousness of writers who cross boundaries thus reflects the multiple identities of people today. It is very complex, but without it, we cannot hope to explain contemporary lives.

If we look at transnational literature in the larger context of Korean history and, breaking it down further, by separate countries, we are able to identify another area: Korean diaspora literature. This includes all literature written in Korean by Koreans residing in China, Central Asia, Japan, and the US as well as writings written in foreign languages by descendants of Koreans. Since this area, or diaspora literature, is an extension of transnationalism that we are focusing on in this issue, it will be further discussed in the next issue.  


by Kim Jonghoi
Literary critic and professor of Korean Literature
Kyunghee University