[Foreword] A Feast of Reading

  • onSeptember 2, 2019
  • byCheon Un-yeong

This year, Kim Hyesoon, our featured writer for the autumn issue, received the International Griffin Poetry Prize. It was welcome news because it meant that world readers had responded to utterances coming from an Asian woman’s body. The winning collection, Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, was originally published in Korean in 2016. It is a collection of forty-nine poems based on deaths in South Korean society, such as the Sewol Ferry tragedy and the MERS epidemic.

The number forty-nine is significant in Buddhism. When a person dies, they spend forty- nine days in the whirlpool of reincarnation, and their afterlife is determined by the meritorious deeds and virtues of their previous life. Their loved ones carry out rites seven times for seven days so that they can be reborn in a better life. The deceased attains complete death only after forty-nine days have passed. Autobiography of Death can be said to be a collection that churns out forty-nine deaths as if the poet who has personally experienced death is performing services for the repose of the departed souls.

The Special Section of this issue is especially delectable. It focuses on the bapsang (literally, “rice- table”) or dining table in Korean literature. In traditional Korean society where bap, or rice, is the staple food, rice means more than just food, but life itself. Transformed into foods like rice cakes and rice liquor, bap is involved in all rituals of life from birth to death. The sang or traditional Korean table is designed to be taken out and placed as and when needed instead of occupying a fixed place, and depending on what the table setting is, its size, shape,and material can vary. For the dead, it’s a je-sang or sacrificial table; for a first birthday celebration, a dol-sang or birthday table; for drinking, sul-sang or drinking table. The family gathers around the bapsang for three meals a day. One word for family in Korean is sik-gu (literally, “food-mouth”), which derives from the idea of people dining at the same table.

Thus, to look at the bapsang in Korean literature is to examine the family unit, and going further, the community, society, culture, and political ideology. How has the life of Koreans changed over the years? How did the patriarchal family system become violent? The table of this issue’s Special Section is set with excerpts from stories by Kim Soom, Kim Ae-ran, and, the doyen of Korean literature, Park Wansuh—mouthfuls of exploding flavors.

Starting with this issue’s Bookmark section, we have published a short story in its entirety, as opposed to an excerpt, to better showcase the writer and the book. Now, instead of just a bite, you will be able to relish the entire dish. 

Bon appétit!

Cheon Un-yeong