[Foreword] Citizens of Literature

  • onDecember 13, 2018
  • byE. Tammy Kim

At a reading in Seoul on May 24, the novelist Kim Young-ha reflected on the recent death of Philip Roth. From the US, or more specifically, a Jewish enclave of greater New York City, Portnoy’s Complaint and other of Roth’s books in translation had made their way to Kim’s South Korea. However different their backgrounds, Kim felt bonded to Roth on account of their shared “citizenship of literature.” Through books, Kim said, the world could feel simultaneously vast and small, and new solidarities could be forged. He described the familiar, even familial, sense of community at readings across the globe. I looked around and thought how at home the audience would seem at a bookstore back in America.

Kim said something else that I’ve thought about many times since. He reminded us that Korean society is now undeniably multiethnic and multicultural, on the brink of producing diasporic literature. There will soon be novels written by immigrants from Vietnam and poems crafted by Bangladeshi Koreans, all of it, Kim said, “Korean literature.” 

I mulled these literal and figurative citizenships at subsequent readings organized by LTI Korea. The first was in September, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan, where poet Song Kyung-dong and fiction writer Hwang Jungeun were in conversation with Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, a poet, professor, and Korean adoptee based in Minnesota. (I had the luck of moderating the panel.) Here were three writers whose social consciences were as developed as their facility with words. Across a linguistic divide, they spoke on the theme of “resistance” through politics and on the page. (At a related event, Song and Hwang read with Alexander Chee and John Freeman; see their essays starting on page 18.)

The second reading was in late October, at the Seoul International Writers’ Festival. (See page 59 for a transcript of a separate festival talk, “Gender—Sight without Seeing.”) During the Q&A, Chehem Watta, a French-speaking poet from Djibouti, threw a challenging question to the crowd: “What place do foreigners have in Korea?” Watta had in mind, I assume, South Korea’s recent denial of refugee status to a group of Yemeni migrants, as well as the hundreds of thousands of “foreign” workers whose existence is made intentionally precarious by those in power. Will multiculturalism continue to be a synonym for assimilation, or will it evolve into a politics of welcome? 

A few days after Watta's invocation, I made a pilgrimage to the LTI Korea library. I marveled at the stacks of Korean volumes in unfamiliar tongues, and took pleasure in seeing translators of all races pore over their latest infatuations. There is no “logical” reason why someone from Zagreb or Accra, St. Petersburg or Bogotá would fall in love with Korean literature. And yet.

These connections are always urgent but feel even more so now. South Korea, however imperfectly governed, is a relative isle of tolerance in a time of frightening nationalisms. Soon after my visit to LTI Korea, 5,600 of my fellow Americans, employed by our incomparable military, were sent to the border with Mexico. They had become unwitting emissaries of our brutal head of state, called upon not to serve and protect, but to bolster anti-immigrant sentiment and deter a desperate queue of Latin American migrants from claiming asylum, as is their right under international law.

The current US president is famously averse to reading. He is not illiterate, but non-literate, anti-literate. At the risk of sounding reductive, I do wonder what difference—in knowledge and empathy—a dose of literature might make. Literature in translation, all the more so. 


by E. Tammy Kim
Reporter and essayist
based in Brooklyn, NY