Poetic Justice and the Role of Literature

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKim Sun-woo

It’s already autumn. As the wind becomes restless and harsh, news from faraway places draws closer. These days my working hours are from midnight to dawn. I watch the sun rise and then I go to sleep. When I’m reading and writing, neatly piecing together the white bones of the night or coming back from a long journey to retrieve missing bone chips, the day breaks. As dawn brightens into morning, I give a prayer of thanks. I’m thankful to the earth for making its daily rotation precisely and without incident. We’re each wandering to our own rhythm, the earth as a constituent of the universe, and me as a constituent of the earth. I’m thankful that we itinerant beings can meet the new day. And in the following second, I pray for forgiveness. Forgiveness because humans will have wreaked violence and destruction on nature or their fellow humans and some will be grieving over this.

There is an expression: “The place that hurts is the body’s center,” and I agree. The earth has many centers. This year, of these centers, these hurting places, I have often prayed for Palestine. Palestine was gripped by the most intense conflicts of the twentieth century. Both the people and the land have suffered, with the country sustaining extreme levels of ethnic and sexual discrimination, the obliteration of human rights, and environmental devastation. It’s for this very reason that it is also a barometer for the justice that humans must restore.

When I first learned about Palestine twenty years ago, one question stood out in my mind: “How can a people who suffered the tragedy of the Holocaust inflict the same pain on another people?” The roots of modern strife in the Middle East are all too apparent. Seventy years ago, Jewish people suddenly arrived in Palestinian territory and proclaimed it the state of Israel. They slaughtered the existing residents and chased the survivors into exile. At the time, 750,000 Palestinians lost their homes and villages, and 500 towns disappeared from the earth. Seventy years have passed, and it is the region most afflicted with pain. How can human justice be so ineffectual? It’s obvious who is to blame. This year, the US formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and went so far as to cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. When aid to refugees scattered across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere is cut, children are the first to be sacrificed. Every day Palestinian youths are killed by Israeli soldiers, and parents shed tears of mourning.

I see the justice of poetry as the desire to heal suffering and the courage to shore up life and love without being overwhelmed by pain. The first poem I wrote in regard to the suffering in Palestine was ten years ago. After that, every so often, the pain in the Middle East has entered into my poems and essays. This is because places that are hurting need to be cared for. Last year I attended a Korean-Iranian literary event in Iran sponsored by LTI Korea. Among the literary figures I met in Teheran was a university professor, poet, and critic who mentioned one of my poems that had been translated into Arabic, “Measuring the Height of a Shadow.” I had written it as a tribute to Mahmoud Darwish upon hearing of his death. Darwish was a Palestinian poet I had read and loved. The Iranian professor was surprised and pleased that Darwish would appear in a poem by a Korean poet. But there are no borders in literature. Literature questions unjust occupations and oppression. It’s literature’s lot to choose uneasy awareness, and not the lazy compromises and depravity that conform to the language of power. This is because the ideals of literature are coexistence, peace, and love.

When will we be able to ask, “Is the earth all right?” with any peace of mind? And when it’s obviously not well, what should we do? Writers are those who can discern with great delicacy between the true peace made by the human heart and the false peace made by political power or capitalist strength. Global neoliberal capitalist systems and nationalisms are not interested in the human spirit. The fight gradually becomes more desperate: How do we defend the individual spirit of every being living here now? The place that hurts is the spirit’s center, and the places that hurt are central to literature. As usual, there’s an enormous amount of work that literature must do—that it alone can do.


by Kim Sun-woo

Author's Profile

Kim Sun-woo (b. 1970) is the author of five poetry collections, most recently A Nocturne (2016); four novels, most recently A Prayer: Yoseok and Wonhyo (2015); and several essay collections. She has received the Hyundae Literary Award and the Cheon Sang-byeong Poetry Award. Her books in translation include the collections If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth (2018) in English and Unter Pfirsichblüten eingeschlafen (2009) in German.