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[Foreword] Concrete We Are Universal

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • byShim Bo-Seon

Recently I’ve been noticing more stray cats on the streets. I wondered why: Has there been an increase in stray cats? But the number of stray cats has always trended upward. There will never be a night on earth when you can’t hear the meow of a street cat.

The reason I’ve been noticing stray cats more often is something else entirely. It’s simple, really: It’s because I’ve had more exposure to stories about cats. Dogs too—I’ve heard as many stories about dogs as about cats. As the imagination regarding cats and dogs has grown in literature, my perspective on these animals has changed. I try to observe them more closely, try to approach them. The way that I observe and approach them has changed too, and I’ve become more careful than before. I want to respect them as they are.

The theme of this winter issue of KLN is “Dogs and Cats: The New Companions of Korean Literature.” Animals have appeared in literature as variations on a classic theme: the relationship between humans and nature. They appeared as wild animals that haven’t been domesticated, or as animals that are devoted and loyal to humans after domestication. But now animals in literature, like these cats and dogs, appear as an independent Other, or as a partner to humans. Rather than being domesticated through human language, it’s almost as though these animals in literature are domesticating literary language in a new way.

If literature is a language that creates a bridge between humans and other beings—between humans and other humans, humans and other organisms, humans and objects—we can say that literature in itself is a kind of translation. The poets Ha Jaeyoun and Kim Jeong-hwan are the featured poets in this issue. Kim Jeong-hwan is also a translator, and in the past five years, he has translated the collections of twelve contemporary poets into Korean. For him, translation is simultaneously an exchange between languages and solidarity between life and death. His translation philosophy, which aims to diversify and deepen public death via private life, has much in common with Ha Jaeyoun’s poetics. She calls her poems an exploration of “the ironic relationship between death’s universality and individuality.”

Literature is always born of perilous times. Or rather, even in what are considered peaceful times, literature stakes out for itself its own sense of peril. But we are now in an obviously perilous era. It’s just that the perils have become so normalized that our sensitivity has been dulled.

Even in the face of devastating global warming, which endangers every life, we are still lost in our anthropocentrism. Even as civil wars and terrorism turn so many into stateless refugees, we are still lost in our ethnocentric views.

Literature continues to tell the story of “the Other” because it argues that symbiosis and coexistence with the other, that being that is not oneself, is inevitable in these undeniably perilous times. This winter issue testifies to the urgency of that statement through the voices of many writers.

These voices insist: The concreteness and specificity of literature is not that of a single ethnicity or race but belongs to all ethnicities, all races. The translation of literature connects a singular concreteness to the concreteness of the whole, and through this connection, we reach toward universality.

by Shim Bo-Seon
Translated by Hedgie Choi