Queer Literature: The Life Source of Korea’s Here and Now

  • onApril 3, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byYang Kyung-eon

Deacheong Dam ⓒ Lee Woosung

Since 2016, we have witnessed various scenes in which Korean literature connects with feminism. Critical issues such as the 2016 Gangnam murder case, candlelight protests against corruption in the government, and the #MeToo movement with numerous accusations of sexual violence against high-profile figures have urged members of Korean society to summon feminism as a language to change their lives, bringing about a renaissance of feminist literature. This trend has also led to the recognition of queer-themed books as important works in mainstream media and journals, and to a strong popular reception as well.

It is remarkable that the current Korean literary field includes discussion of significant books that feature protagonists who do not shy away from transgressing heteronormativity and openly express their sexual orientations. It is impressive because patriarchal values are still prevalent in Korean society and sexual minorities are treated in the literal meaning of the word “queer” as strange, dangerous beings who disrupt order. South Korea’s legal system is also strictly centered on heterocentric norms, and a lack of legal protection of sexual minorities’ human rights exacerbates queer-phobic sentiments among people. A leading candidate of the last presidential election publicly stated that sexual minorities’ rights were secondary matters, and consensual sex between male soldiers is still punishable under Korean law. Under these circumstances, queer literature is now sounding an alarm for societal change as well as for expanding the Korean literary spectrum.

This does not mean that queer characters or themes were unprecedented in Korean literature. While queer literature in the previous era had been studied by only a few critics in academia and failed to make its way to the average reader, recently, it has been enthusiastically welcomed by many readers thanks to the popularity of feminism. If you are looking for the most exciting literary scene in South Korea, you will have to look into queer-themed ones.

Here, I am going to briefly introduce several literary works that have depicted queer lives in South Korea since 2016. These works not only vividly capture how society has unjustly treated people outside institutional definitions of “normative” lifestyles, but specifically show generational conflicts, capitalism, and sexism as well. Listening to these voices, you will realize that it is okay not to follow the charted course at every life phase—a more varied range of choices await those who wander.

In About My Daughter, a novel by Kim Hye-jin, the narrator who works at a nursing home as a caretaker finds herself living with her lesbian daughter and her partner who cannot find an affordable place of their own. From the viewpoint of the mother, the novel portrays her struggle to understand her daughter’s generation as her daughter fights for her gay colleagues who were fired from a university on account of their sexual identity. Capturing how sexual minorities face socioeconomic poverty and discrimination in South Korea, the novel also questions if we can overcome generational gaps and achieve a community different from our own.

If you’d like to see how lesbians form their identities and relationships with others and under what social constraints, a short story by Choi Eunyoung, “The Summer,” is for you. With delicate prose, this story shows how eighteen-year-old Yi-gyeong and Suyi fall in love and, after moving to Seoul, how each of them goes through a change of heart under their altered social and class status. The young lesbians’ confusion vividly comes through in scenes where they try to keep their relationship together by resorting to defensive attitudes, only to inflict emotional wounds.

We also have a queer author Kim Bong-gon who builds a queer narrative within the traditional love story structure by focusing on love itself. The author’s stories show that every love relationship is so frail that it only manifests itself in disguised forms. His novella “Auto” reads like a diary whose author, a gay man, secretly tells readers his love story. In his attempt to fuse the structure of queer narratives with heterosexual ones—combining elements of autobiography with fiction, for instance—the writer boldly suggests that “queerness” is a prerequisite for fiction as a genre.

In The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, a novella by Park Sang Young, gay men’s lives are depicted more nakedly. Through the stories of the first-person narrator who tried and failed to make the best gay film, and Wang Sha whose art hasn’t achieved anything, the novella portrays the desires and wretched lives of those ousted from the mainstream. The author weaves the queer existential pathos originating from their uncertain state of being with the characteristic ambivalence of Korean millennials who consider life meaningless and yet yearn for social recognition. This combination gives the story a comically bitter color.

To The Warm Horizon by Choi Jin Young is an apocalyptic novel that illustrates a world where an unknown virus plagues the entire world. On her desperate attempt for survival, the main character Dori falls in love with Jina who is wandering the world with her relatives. The novel depicts every adult male, including Jina’s father, as violent. This symbolizes a catastrophe that worsens as the “order of the father” stays intact. It is significant that queer love appears as an antidote to the established order of Korean society, commonly referred to by younger generations as “Hell Joseon.”

Poems by Kim Hyun convey the most ardent queer sensibilities among contemporary Korean poems. In his second poetry collection When Opening Lips, after his first collection Glory Hole, the poet continues his experiments in format with parody, camp, and footnotes he refers to as a “dissolve transition effect.” Such attempts continue to challenge the acceptance of a societal order that the majority has agree upon, excluding those that do not fit in. The poet’s queer subversion of preexisting words hints at the possibility of finding important life questions in the loci of grief and anger.


by Yang Kyung-eon
Literary Critic