My Small Steps Towards Foreign Fiction

  • onApril 21, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byKim Yeonsu


A while ago, I started taking Japanese classes at a language school near my home. It is a small school offering only Japanese, located on the seventh floor of a sparsely frequented building in the outskirts of Seoul, a fact that I like. The first class I went to only had three students including me. When I was an actual schoolboy I used to nod off in class, but in this one I’m constantly kept on my toes since I never know when the teacher will ask a question. So I’m coming along with my Japanese better than I thought.

But that’s not the only thing preventing me from relaxing. I mentioned three students: myself, a young man, and a girl. The man, who always waltzes in after the teacher smelling of cigarettes, is older than the girl, but still at least two decades younger than me. With the girl it’s easier—she’s just one year older than my daughter. Anyway, it’s enough motivation for me to not make a fool of myself in front of these youngsters.

The three of us were sitting in conversation class when the girl, who’s planning to go to a tourism vocational school next year, asked me in Japanese, “何年生まれですか? (What year were you born?)” The point of this particular lesson was to learn how to say ‘years’ in Japanese the correct way, but given the circumstances I felt justified in glossing over my answer. I did wonder what the girl, who was born in 1999, imagined the year 1970 to be like.

All in all, however, it’s a tremendous load off my mind to be learning Japanese before it’s too late. It’s not just a relief, it’s a pure joy. And no, it’s not because I’ve discovered a sudden passion for learning in my old age, or because I’m worried about my rapidly deteriorating brain function. I’ve wanted to write a novel set in Nagasaki for a long time, and I’ve only just started learning Japanese. I feel like I barely got my foot in before it was too late to take that first step.

But why is learning a foreign language the first step for writing a novel? Allow me to explain. This is not my first time writing a novel set in a foreign country. Ten years or so ago, I wrote a novel about Korean communists in Yanbian. The first thing I did then, too, was to go to Yanbian University to learn Chinese. I didn’t consider if Chinese would be useful in writing the novel, and as it turned out it wasn’t. I was merely willing to make a small step towards understanding life in another country.

“So write novels set in Korea,” a fellow writer observing my struggles told me. Meaning that at least then I wouldn’t have to learn a new language just because I wanted to write a novel set in a particular country, which is very good advice. I’m not sure how long I can keep writing this way, either. I dream of going off and writing a novel set in a place that I know well, for once. But I don’t think I can. No, I’m positive I can’t.

Whether it’s telling stories or writing novels, literature is transmitted through the medium of language. And this language thing is pretty abstract, and, therefore, a considerably subjective business. If you take an equation like 2+2=4, everyone who’s learned basic arithmetic understands it on the same level. You either know it or not, and for those who do know it there are no different levels of understanding. Not so with sentences in literature. There are different levels of understanding in literature, depending on the individual’s experiences. Novelists have it harder than mathematicians in that sense.

For instance, Kafka opens The Castle with the following sentences: “It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay.” This opening will be understood on different levels by those who have experienced both snow and castles, those who have experienced snow but not castles and vice versa, and those who have experienced neither.

Even with a very simple sentence in a foreign language, a beginner will have a literal interpretation of it while a more advanced student will consider its context as well as bring their own experience to the interpretation. This is not just for foreign languages, of course, but applies to one’s native language as well. A primary school student is capable of reading most things off the page, but that doesn’t mean they can read, say, an astronomy text. To be precise, they are capable of reading the words but not of understanding them. To read literature is to go through these two steps of reading and understanding.

For a primary school student to read and understand an astronomy text, they would first have to take an interest in astronomy. The same applies to reading foreign novels, to a certain degree. You must first be willing to take a small interest in that country’s literature, which is definitely more of a pain than reading books in one’s own language. You don’t feel like you’re missing anything by not reading stuff like that. Just as a primary school student’s life isn’t affected in the least by not knowing the basics of astronomy. Except you are missing something. You just don’t understand what it is.

To be willing to take a small interest is to change your mind ever so slightly. That is what changes your behavior, and that behavior changes the world. To understand means that your world has changed. It may seem odd to learn a foreign language to write a novel, but as all language learners can testify, your world changes when you speak a foreign language. Out of the blue, gibberish becomes perfectly comprehensible. It is a miraculous instant comparable to a blind person suddenly being able to see. This small willingness is all it takes to change the world.

The same applies to reading foreign literature. If you are satisfied with your life now, there is no reason for you to change the world. You simply carry on living your life. But if there is something missing from your life now, then you do need to change the world. You need to be willing to take a small step towards understanding. This willingness is what makes people read books from other countries, and what changes the worlds of those readers. If you think that the world you find yourself in now is the entirety of the world as you know it, please think again. Be willing to take a small step forward. That’s all it takes to change the world. 


by Kim Yeonsu

Author's Profile

Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the MaskGoodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost WriterTwenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.