Posts filed under 'Korean literature'

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through France, Japan, and Vietnam as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

This week, our editors are bringing you news from France, Japan, and Vietnam. After quiet summers in the literary world for many countries, September brings the literary scene back to life. In France, the anticipation is building ahead of the most prestigious literary prizes being awarded. In Japan, a new edition of a historic quarterly is uniting Japanese and Korean literature through a shared feminist voice. And in Vietnam, the launch of a new anthology, as well as events held by prestigious translators, celebrate the ties that are created through translation.

Sarah Moore, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from France

September in France marks the rentrée littéraire, with hundreds of new titles published before the big award season starts in November. The prix Fémina, prix Renaudot, prix Interallié, prix Médicis, and the prix de l’Académie française will all be contested, as well as the prestigious prix Goncourt.

Amongst the French titles announced for the rentrée, Amélie Nothomb’s Soif (Albin Michel, 21 August) is highly anticipated, although not at all unexpected—an incredibly prolific author, she has consistently featured in the rentrée littéraire every year since the publication of her debut novel, Hygiène de l’assassin, in 1992 (Hygiene and the Assassin, Europa Editions, 2010). With a narrative that takes the voice of Jesus during the final hours of his life, Soif is sure to be as audacious, controversial, and successful as ever for Nothomb.

Marie Darrieussecq’s new novel, La Mer à l’envers (P.O.L, 2019), examines the migration crisis, narrating an encounter between a Parisian woman and a young refugee, rescued from a capsized boat. Many of Darrieussecq’s novels have already been translated into English, including her first novel Pig Tales (Faber & Faber, 2003), and, most recently, The Baby (Text Publishing, 2019). An interview with her translator, Penny Hueston, for Asymptote can be read here and an extract of her translation of Men was part of Asymptote‘s Translation Tuesday series for The Guardian.

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Announcing Our May Book Club Selection: Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum

“My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.”

“A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system,” says Kim Yi-deum. “[She] writes with the language of her body—her womb, tits, tears, blood.”

Those lines give a taste of the combative nature of Blood Sisters, Kim Yi-deum’s debut novel (she is perhaps best known as the author of five poetry collections, selections from which have previously appeared in Asymptote, translated by Ji Yoon Lee). The novel’s protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is forced to struggle in a country rocked by the fallout from the Gwangju Massacre in May 1980. “Trauma,” writes our reviewer, “permeates the pages of Blood Sisters.”

In Ji Yoon Lee’s English translation, Blood Sisters becomes the first Korean title to be selected by the Asymptote Book Club. You can view all our previous titles and sign up for forthcoming selections via our website, or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.

 

Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Deep Vellum (2019)

Reviewed by Alyea Canada, Assistant Editor

In a recent interview with The Margins, Kim Yideum said, “Humans talk as if there is something grand in all things. But I don’t believe that. I don’t like things that are so ideological.” It is perhaps best to approach Yideum’s Blood Sisters with this sentiment in mind because it is a book which resists simple summation and emotional reveals. Its protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is a young college student trying to make her way in a Korea rocked by the violent suppression of student demonstrations in the 1980s.

Yideum is primarily a poet and this is evident in the texture and sensuality of her prose, skillfully translated by Ji Yoon Lee. “My flesh crumbles into tiny flakes. I love that I can’t see myself—there is no anger, no grudge, just darkness here.” Such sentences are comfortably juxtaposed to the coarse way Yeoul speaks and describes the world around her. Yideum expertly depicts a world in which female pain is casually cast aside—a world that will be all too familiar to many female readers. The men in this novel do not fare well. They are almost exclusively violent, manipulative, or childlike. In such an environment, where men will inevitably be violent and women are expected to forgive and forget, it is no surprise that female friendships anchor Yeoul. READ MORE…

In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.

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Translation Tuesday: “The Woman in Tula” by Kang Unkyo

"the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully"

Kang Unkyo is a veteran Korean poet whose poetry, like all great art, has evolved in response to the times. From nihilistic political verse to “People’s Poetry” of abstractions, she has refreshed many traditional forms. Known for her lyrical touch, the poet here creates a sensory pastiche of the woman in Tula. 

That woman in Tula who used to blush,
that woman in Tula who used to ask the menu carefully,
that woman who used to put on a red-apple-patterned apron
and make red salad,
the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully,
the woman in Tula who used to turn over and wipe the reddened tables,
that woman, red glasses, red curtains, red calculator

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Hwang Jungeun on Seoul, noodles, and gentrification

In South Korea, things don't get verbalised properly or are distorted linguistically.

One Hundred Shadows, the debut novel of Hwang Jungeun, is a tilt toward the borderlines of society, where the disconnected and the dispossessed attempt to make a home; it is a ferroconcrete dream version of Seoul with a wistful languor, desperate to prove that even in the murkiest crannies of the city, there are surges of fellow-feeling, or snatches of shared joy, that can suddenly break through the hard-bitten top layers and bloom.

Working as an assistant at a repair shop in a sprawling, cavernous electronics market, Eungyo finds herself drawn into an idiosyncratic community of Seoul’s twilight periphery. There is Mr. Yeo, her boss, who works until the crack of dawn and adores sweet red beans with shaved ice; there is the itinerant and rambling Yugon, who puts his faith in the lottery rather than in other people; and there is Mujae, who, like Eungyo, abandoned his formal education and also works as an assistant. Eungyo and Mujae meet occasionally to eat noodles and drink beer, and as the demolition of the electronics market looms alongside the regeneration of the neighborhood surrounding it, the two come to develop a timid intimacy which leans clumsily into a love formed from the outside looking in, and they discovered themselves synced into one orbit—and on the edges of observing their shadows rise.

Ahead of her UK tour, Hwang Jungeun sat down with Asymptote to discuss One Hundred Shadows, which was translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon and published by Tilted Axis Press on 3 October.

Hwang Jungeun’s replies appear below both in the Korean and in English translation by Deborah Smith.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

M. René Bradshaw (MRB): One Hundred Shadows takes place largely in an electronics market in central Seoul—an impoverished area targeted by rapid regeneration efforts. Which specific locations of the city inspired the novel’s settings? The electronics market is so pervasive, its function and internal dynamics so important to the main characters’ lives, that it almost acts as a character itself within the story. Is there a personal anecdote attached to a similar electronics market?

Hwang Jungeun (HJ): There are two locations which form the background to the electronics market which appears in this novel. One is a large electronics market in Yongsan, an area in central Seoul. In the process of this area’s redevelopment, there was an incident in which five evicted residents and one armed policeman were killed. This happened on the morning of January 20, 2009. The conglomerate that was heading the redevelopment construction employed civilians known as ‘construction thugs’. They entered the building earmarked for demolition, whose residents had been protesting their eviction, en masse. While the residents were trapped on the roof, they lit a fire on the ground floor and fired water cannons. Though the police of the South Korean government were there in the hundreds, they protected the ‘thugs’, and actively encouraged the illegal actions committed by them. In the final moments, they implemented something known as the ‘Trojan horse operation’, used to suppress protests. It was an operation which used a crane and container to demolish the lookout tower which the residents had constructed on the roof. The moment armed police swarmed onto the roof, a huge conflagration broke out in the tower. Six people who were unable to escape from the tower died. This was all broadcast on the news and many people witnessed the moment of the fire breaking out in real time. I was one of them.

After the incident, the place became known as Namildang. I wrote this novel from summer to autumn 2009. I wrote before the sun went down, then around sunset I went and held a protest in front of Namildang. After the fire, the bereaved families gathered at the building and almost every day a violent altercation occurred due to the use of police force. That place, and the things that happened there, were so miserable, I wanted to make something warm. I thought that it was the only thing I could do. And so I wrote this.

Secondly, there is a place called Sewoon Electronics Market in Jongno, which is both the old and current centre of Seoul. Its eight long buildings were completed in 1968, and stretch from Jongno to Toegye-ro, and the first of these buildings, which is the modern market, was demolished in 2008. Even when the disaster occurred in Yongsan in 2009, demolition was still going on. My father has been repairing audio equipment for forty years in the second of Sewoon Market’s buildings. The setting around the electronics market which appears in the novel, including Mr Oh’s repair shop, Omusa, and the transformer workshop where Mujae works, are all descriptions of places that were there or still are.

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What’s New in Translation? October 2016

Asymptote reviews some of the best new books translated from the Arabic, Korean, and Spanish.

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The Ninety-Ninth Floor, by Fawaz Elhassan, tr. Michelle Hartman. Interlink Publishing.

Review: Saba Ahmed, Social Media Manager, UK

Shortlisted last year for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Ninety-Ninth Floor is Jana Fawaz Elhassan’s third book: an ambitious, multi-voiced novel, spanning the topographies of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1980s Beirut, and New York in the New Millennium. It is also the first of Elhassan’s works to be translated, by Michelle Hartman, from the Arabic into English.

The plot centers around Maj’d, a successful video-game designer whose life among the dizzying skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the subterranean depths of its subway system, bears a haunting resemblance to the cramped, vertical heights of the refugee camps he has fled where “garbage piled up in alleyways”. Palestine, reflects Maj’d, is “a land that inhabits me that I have never stepped foot on”. It occupies his deepest memories, the walls of the camp where the displaced mark the distance from imagined homelands, and is framed—in the present-day narrative—as a map in Maj’d’s apartment in New York. It is an imagined space where Maj’d’s father obstinately believes his dead wife and Maj’d’s mother is waiting for them with their unborn child.

The spatial dimensions of the novel mirror this hyper-reality. The text is littered with a cast of characters who are attempting to navigate life in the wake of war and political trauma. Consequently, the plot is distended by a lack of closure, permeated with repetitive strains of absence and loss. Maj’d’s relationship with Hilda, a dancer who is also trying to build her life anew, away from her Orthodox Christian family in Lebanon, becomes a battle-space for negotiating distances and originary points from which to examine notions of identity, belonging, and worth. Is the love they share true and authentic, or is there a more complex conflation of the female body and nationhood at play here?

There are certainly echoes of recent political fiction from the Middle East in The Ninety-Ninth Floor, such as of the spare, Kafkaesque political allegory The Silence and the Roar by Syrian writer Nihad Sirees. Yet, Elhassan is less interested in form, and more invested in dissecting the emotional vicissitudes of love. There is a certain sagginess to the novel which gestures to the so-called ninety-nine floors or levels of the book. When Hilda returns to Lebanon, to the home she has left behind, she thinks back to the home she has created with Maj’d. “Perhaps,” she considers, “I also came back to occupy this memory, to tell it that we can arrive at some kind of settlement: to expand into all places and be done with our enmity toward our roots”. It is hard not to read these words without a degree of skepticism, to wonder whether this resolution papers over the allegorical implications of difference and attachment. But perhaps it is more fitting to hear these closing lines echo like the one-note sonic beeps of an Atari or PlayStation video game, like the kind designed by Maj’d. In this simulated fantasy, Elhassan suggests, love is creative and imaginative work in a world where our collective national consciousness consigns us to love and live in very specific ways.

 

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A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith. Open Letter Books.

Review: Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant, UK/Singapore

It is perhaps inevitable that Deborah Smith’s new translation of Bae Suah’s novel A Greater Music—forthcoming this October from Open Letter Books—will be compared to her recent prizewinning translations of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both of which are suffused with Han’s unique voice and vision. But Bae is a compelling, inventive, and significant author in her own right, and Smith’s ability to match these qualities with a stylish and highly readable translation leaves no doubt about her contribution to the growing canon of Korean literature available in English.

A Greater Music, which records the experiences of a young Korean narrator’s relocation to Berlin through her relationships with Joachim, her boyfriend, and M, her first German language teacher, draws at least in part from its author’s own journey. Bae Suah, a former civil servant with a degree in Chemistry who made her literary debut in 1988, lived in Germany for 11 months in 2001, learning the language there. Though she has since moved back to Seoul, she has also previously translated various works by Sebald and Kafka into Korean.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “One Hundred Shadows” by Hwang Jungeun

They were just pretending not to see what was clearly there, even when I pointed right at it and said, My shadow, that’s my shadow.

If this year’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, has whetted your appetite for Korean literature, we recommend that you check out Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, an oblique, hard-edged novel forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press. Set in a slum’s rundown electronics market, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of Seoul, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world. Here is an excerpt.

I said goodbye to Mujae at the subway station, where we each took different trains. By the time I got back to the area where I lived it was noon and the sun was blazing down as I dragged myself down the street. My stumpy shadow slanted to the right, bulging like a soft-boiled egg, its movements mimicking my own. When I thought about how it had risen now and then, the familiar shops and familiar alley didn’t look familiar at all. I turned into the alley and heard the sound of television leaking out of a window. It sounded like a volleyball match, with a voice saying spike, very clearly enunciated, sounding more electronic than human. Spike, spike, spike, and I turned another corner. Fancy hearing a voice saying spike, I thought, then put my hands in my pocket, unable to recall what had come after. A sharp piece of paper pricked my finger. I pulled it out and saw that it was the wrapper from Mujae’s gum. I bent it with my thumb, and it rustled like a shriveled ear.

I took down the pizza and fried chicken flyers that had been stuck to the door and stepped into the house. Inside it was dark, and seemed exactly how I’d left it even though I’d been gone a whole day. I took off my clothes, which smelled of soil, and went into the bathroom. I positioned myself beneath the naked bulb that dangled from the high ceiling, and looked down at my shadow. It looks a little bigger, I thought, and more thinned-out. I lifted my left foot up for a moment, then set it back down. I raised my right foot this time, put it down and lifted my left once more, then jumped up lightly so both feet were off the ground. The shadow spread out, a little thinner and wider, and definitely touched my feet when I put them down on the floor. I did a couple of jumps in my bare feet, examined the light bulb, then turned on the hot water and washed my hair. Wiping the suds from my eyes, I thought to myself that even if my shadow had drawn me deep in the woods, so deep that I never returned, someone would still have stuck flyers on the door, and pizzas would still have been sold. I went back into the main room, lay down and pulled a blanket over myself. The weather was sultry, but my toes were cold. I wondered if this was because I had my feet pointing north, and shifted them a little to the east, my head a little to the west. But this didn’t feel comfortable so I kept on shifting, again and again. I moved around so much I ended up back in my original position, but something still wasn’t right. I felt as if my lower back had lifted up off the floor, the whole of me trembling like a compass needle. Falling in and out of sleep, haphazard thoughts flitted through my mind.

I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city. The market had originally consisted of five separate buildings, labelled A, B, C, D and E, but had been altered and added to over a period of forty years so that it was now a single structure. You had to know where to look to spot the signs that it had ever been otherwise. The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr. Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop. One day I went down there with an old transformer that needed its copper wire replaced. There in that cramped space was Mujae, wearing wrist guards and an apron. Next to him, Mr. Gong was spinning the wheel with the copper wire twined around it. I held out the old transformer, needing both hands to lift its weight. Mujae took it casually in one, put it down on the table among all the copper wires, and made a note of the shop’s name and phone number. The only remarkable thing about him was his beautiful handwriting. I’d seen him several times before, on my way in and out of the building or running errands to other workshops, but nothing had made those encounters stand out.

I nodded off, wondering whether I would see Mujae at work on Monday, since we said, See you on Monday? When I started awake, the sun was about to go down. The light of the setting sun filled the room. I realised that I’d left my packed lunch in the woods.

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From the Orbital Library: “Another Man’s City” by Ch’oe In-ho

“As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.”

God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.

But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

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New in Translation (October Edition!)

Four brand new translated books out this month… reviewed!

Isolation: that is the most powerful emotion that emanated from most of the stories in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories of Tove Jansson. As I read them, breathlessly, I was plagued with that wonderful, excruciating sense of unease that radiates from a good, strong, melancholic book. It’s the tingling that comes before the numbness; that profound yet unknown sensation of loss that makes you sigh.

The stories mostly center around one protagonist and are written either in first person or a close third. Set in Scandinavian landscapes, strange and nameless cities or within the confines of a house, these stories follow the protagonists as they become locked in their own minds, detached from the world around them, either physically (the illustrator in Black-White), mentally (Aunt Gerda in The Listener) or emotionally (the sculptor in The Monkey). Often they are propelled into mysterious travel, accompanied by a stranger to whom they are instantly drawn and who highlights their own weakness (The Wolf and A Foreign City). Other times they are experiencing some undefined breakdown of their own, revealing only the symptoms, and not the cause, to the reader (as in The Storm or The Other).

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