Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

Wide-ranging talk about Korean literature at Seoul Selection

June 9, 2012

John Treat, Professor of Japanese literature at Yale University (from my original department of East Asian Languages and Literatures), Hank Kim, owner of Seoul Selection publishing, Gu-yong Lee president of  Korean Literary Management and the poet Seung Shin Lee met together on Saturday for a cup of coffee at Seoul Selection’s underground café near Gyungbok Palace.

Left to right: Gu-yong Lee, John Treat and Hank Kim.

It was a wide-ranging discussion of Korean literature with a focus on John’s recent visit to Korea to discuss possible cooperation with faculty and students at Seoul National University, Kyung Hee University and Ehwa University and the possibility of establishing a full Korean studies program at Yale. John spoke about his research on the writings of Koreans in Japanese language produced during the Japanese occupation and specifically about Jang Hyeokju (張赫宙) was born in Korea in 1905 and died as Noguchi Minoru (野口稔) in Tokyo. Interestingly enough, Jang’s grandson, who had not met Jang until right before his death in Tokyo, was invited to the talk. Here is a short passage from John’s talk:

Chang Hyehyeokchu (known better in Japan as “Noguchi Kakuchū 野口赫宙,” the penname he assumed after naturalizing in 1952) became the first Korean to attract wide notice in Tokyo literary circles with the 1932 publication in the soon-to-be-banned journal Kaizō 改造 of his Japanese-language short story “Gakidō 餓鬼道” (The Hell of Hunger). Although Chang fretted for years over the fluency of his Japanese (he immodestly compared his fluency to Conrad’s English and Wilde’s French as “not quite perfect”), he possessed impressive linguistic and stylistic skills honed at home in Korea thanks to a colonial education. It was in the Japanese-language Korean classrooms of Taegu that Chang fell, from afar, under the sway of Kikuchi Kan菊池寛 and other Tokyo writers, especially the proletarian writers then being read enthusiastically in the colonial periphery as well as Japan. When he finally managed a three-month stay in Tokyo in 1932 thanks to his early success, he was quickly assimilated at arm’s length into those leftwing quarters of the literary (bundan文壇) that, in the face of suppression of proletarian writings at home then underway in 1932, welcomed an implicitly critical  “colonial literature” such as Chang’s as the next best thing—not despite, but indeed because Chang Hyŏkchu’s story confronted Japanese readers, who read the work as documentary, with the brutal reality of a southern Korean countryside impoverished by design.

In time Chang would come to be regarded as perhaps the vilest of all pro-Japanese writers. His stories and novels would deal less with the disaster of rural Korea under occupation and more with the typically Japanese literary concern of the time with the figure of the alienated individual (kojin個人) in society and later, when Japanese fascism made that impolitic, the war effort. When he did on occasion return to the theme of Koreans in the empire, he would speak of “them” rather than “we.” For a few years he would publish in Korean as well as Japanese, but his Korean-language novels were not well received and by 1939 he abandoned any notion of straddling both literatures. After 1942, he abandoned Korean entirely. Always attentive to changes in the wind, he wrote already in 1935 he could not bear to be away from Tokyo, the “center of culture” (bunka no chūshinchi 文化の中心地); in 1936 he made his move to Tokyo permanent; and in 1937 he would express bitterness at ever having been born a Korean in the first place. Chang was not unique in this regard.

Yi Seung-Shin talks about her poetry and her mother’s poetry.

Hank Kim’s Seoul selection serves as a unique center for the promotion of Korean literature, culture and film to the English-speaking world. Seoul Selection is unique among Korean publishing houses in its close ties to the publishing world in the United States. Moreover, Hank, originally a reporter at Yonhap News, has established Seoul Magazine as the dominant English-language journal in Korea. In addition, Seoul selection’s Seoul guidebook now outsells the Lonely Planet, Hank relates.

Gu-yong Lee spoke about his efforts to introduce Korean authors overseas, particularly his recent successes as a literary agent in both finding effective translators and committed publishers. His biggest success was the publication by Knopf of Kyung-Sook Shin’s book Please Look After Mom. The book was reviewed by the New York Times A Mother’s Devotion, a Family’s Tearful Regrets

Gu-yong Lee has had a remarkable success as a literary critic for major Korean writers striving to publish their books overseas.

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Left to right: Gu-yong Lee, John Treat and Hank Kim

Gu-yong spoke highly of the translating skills of by Chi-young Kim in making the translation a success. Gu-yong also successfully published Young Ha Kim’s Your Republic is Calling You (Mariner Books). This novel relates the angst a North Korean deep under cover in Seoul who is suddenly called up by which has found a large following among readers of spy novels—but has a very human portrayal of the daily life and challenges faced by his family.

Seung-Shin Lee spoke about her efforts to translate and publish her own poems, and also those of her mother Son Hoyeon who wrote Japanese tanka poetry right up until her death a few years ago. She lamented the manner in which her family’s hanok home had been destroyed when the city suddenly decided to expand the road that ran in front of it.

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