With Korea as the “Market focus” country at the London Book Fair this week there has been a lot of advance hubbub about the history of Korean literature, its characteristics, its leading lights, etc., but the big elephant in the room was mostly left to mind its own business. That is, until this Guardian piece that admits what the world really wants from Korean literature: to explain all of Korea, but especially North Korea:
After two years of political hot potatoes – first China and then Turkey– this year’s“market focus”country presents a different challenge to the London Book Fair, which runs this week: who wants to read books from Korea? The choice of name could be dismissed as opportunistically misleading: Korea is two countries, but the 10 writers who will be at the book fair are all from the south.
We’re desperate to hear the inside story of North Korea because it is the stuff of nightmares, locked in unending cold war, complete with nuclear bombs aimed at unknown targets. We have no access to the first-hand stories of its citizens, so we rely on western writers, whether of novels, such as Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prizewinning The Orphan Master’s Son, or of journalism. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea won the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize, while John Sweeney was more recently accused of putting a group of London students at risk by joining them incognito to research his book, North Korea Undercover.
I imagine that the desire to continue with another “political hot potato” was there, but assuming a lack of cooperation, an eager South Korea has taken on the role of representing both sides of the Korean peninsula and satiating the world’s “desperate” desire “to hear the inside story of North Korea.” As Sora and Jamie pointed out in their notes on the translation of “I am a Communist,” this is a role Koreans all over the world are asked to play:
North or South? Whether you’re Korean-American or an expat living in South Korea, it’s the question everyone wants to ask you. Which Korea are you from? Which Korea are you living in? It’s usually answered with an eye roll and a muttered “South, obviously.” Which isn’t to say that no one is ever from the North (the relevance of this question could soon change, given the number of defectors), but for expats, at least, the absurdity lies in the notion of anyone choosing to live in the North. After all, it’s a horrible place with no food or electricity, where everyone only pretends to be happy, where the country’s leadership works best when it’s the butt of a joke, right? No one would choose to be North Korean. Right?
The sensationalist media coverage of North Korea cyclically feeds on and regurgitates a demand for the inscrutable and inexplicable North that turns most coverage of South Korea into a prism of identifications: any mention of Korea gets confused and conflated with North Korea’s despotism, South Korea’s hyper-technologized society, as well as whatever identifications the local media has from its interactions with the (mostly South) Korean diaspora. Whatever extremes are found in South Korea (the suicide rate, generational conflict, faddishness) are deliriously catapulted into the mythology of the “bizarre” culture of North Korea as an essentialist explanation as well as an additional rebuke to the failures of the North Korean state.
This happens to Korean-Americans as well, where the image is again confused by this inability to separate stereotyped images—remember Arrested Development’s Annyong (n.b. I love this show, but this character…)? The Korean adoptee in “traditional Korean dress” (that looks more like a Chinese changshan or whatever Fox had leftover in the “Asian costumes bin”) seemed like he might turn out to be a North Korean spy, but was later revealed to be the grandson of a Korean immigrant from whom Lucille Bluth stole the idea for a frozen banana stand then had deported, thus securing the Bluth empire. Arrested Development nails it again with Annyong. He covers most of the Korean stereotypes: adoptee, possibly North Korean spy, docile until deadly, ruthless business owner, and maybe kind of Chinese?
But I digress.
The cultural difference demanded of Korean literature in the world market asks for quite a lot: it’s expected to explain the war, division, family and tradition, and ethnic insularity for two nations as well as for the million-plus Korean diaspora. On the other hand, it’s a job that Korean-American writers have been expected to incorporate in the obligatory first “identity” novel for at least a hundred years, represented in the article by Chang-rae Lee and Krys Lee (although, as she points out, she’s an even more complicated case since she spent some of her formative years in the U.S., but has lived in Korea for much of her adult life).
So we get a recognition of the difficulties that South Korea faces in being asked to represent the extreme polarizations within the multiple Korean societies known to the world, but not a pass:
Problematically for the international profile of Korean literature, the rituals that unite these pairs of brothers separate them from the rest of us: we understand more about communism than we do about the hybrid of religion and superstition in a country that mixes Buddhism, Confucianism and Catholicism, while boasting the five biggest protestant churches in the world.
And then, finally, it gets turned into the task of the translator:
Such extremes of cultural difference demand a sophistication of translation that is simply not evident in many of the classic texts, though there are signs that this is beginning to change. A recent bestselling novel by Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mother – about a family dealing with the fall-out from the disappearance of their senile mother – was premised on a tradition of family duty deemed so alien to western readers that it is said to have been substantially adapted in translation (by the LA-based translator Chi-Young Kim).
I’m not sure this is what Benjamin had in mind… actually, maybe it was, but it assumes and demands a helluva job from the source text and the translator that is:
…not merely promoting and translating books but mediating one culture to another in such a way that the narratives we want to read are not simply journalistic horror stories, but the nuanced, culturally specific fictions that can illuminate the soul of a fascinating, complex, geopolitically critical, country.
This is true. It is a very big job that is just starting to be understood in all its complexities. For my part, I’d amend the last bit so it would read: “It’s a big job: one that involves not merely promoting and translation books, but mediating several historically and ethnically intertwined cultureS to another that views itself as universal (alt.: to other cultureS) in such a way that the narratives we want to read are not simply journalistic horror stories (yes, please!), but the nuanced, cultural specific fictions that can illuminate the soul of two or more fascinating, complex, geopolitically critical, countries.
I know, it’s wordy and overwrought, but so is the situation.
p.s. Stay tuned for more on this later, when I finally get around to posting about the circulation of the mok-bang (먹방) meme on it’s dizzying journey to the heights of the Wall Street Journal.