Re­cent trend in Korean lit­er­a­ture

The Korea Times - - LITERATURE - By Anna J. Park an­na­j­[email protected]­re­

Since nov­el­ist Cho Nam-joo’s book “Kim Ji-young Born 1982” was first pub­lished in late 2016, de­pict­ing the strug­gles of a young woman un­der so­cially-em­bed­ded gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, more than 1.23 mil­lion copies have been sold in Ko­rea — the first mil­lion sell­ing novel here since Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look Af­ter Mom” in 2009.

The book’s film adap­ta­tion is cur­rently hit­ting screens na­tion­wide, also gar­ner­ing more than two mil­lion ticket sales in just some 10 days fol­low­ing its re­lease.

The book’s over­seas sales are also high; it earned par­tic­u­larly strong re­sponses from neigh­bor­ing East Asian coun­tries, such as Ja­pan, Tai­wan and China, be­com­ing a fast sell­ing book there. Al­to­gether, the book’s pub­li­ca­tion rights have been sold in 17 coun­tries, in­clud­ing the U.S., U.K., France, Ger­many and Spain.

The book’s edi­tor Park Hye-jin at Minumsa Pub­lish­ing Group said the book has touched upon is­sues which many have ex­pe­ri­enced, but that were not openly dis­cussed.

“I be­lieve the book’s sen­sa­tional pop­u­lar­ity has to do with it ex­pos­ing com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences among peo­ple that were pre­vi­ously just locked up in their minds. Ex­pos­ing and shed­ding light on the is­sues has pro­vided sym­pa­thy and con­so­la­tion to peo­ple,” Park told The Ko­rea Times.

Seo Hyo-in, a poet and an­other book edi­tor at Minumsa, also ex­plained the book’s global sen­sa­tion has in part come from its abil­ity to re­flect the spirit of the times.

“The pre­vi­ous mil­lion seller novel ‘Please Look Af­ter Mom,’ a story of a mother in a typ­i­cal pa­tri­ar­chal fam­ily in Ko­rea, was not the sort of book that could lead a global cul­tural trend. How­ever, this book touches on is­sues that are very timely, es­pe­cially when there is a lot of talk glob­ally about women’s rights, such as the MeToo move­ment,” Seo said dur­ing an in­ter­view with The Ko­rea Times.

In­deed, one of the most dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of re­cent Korean lit­er­a­ture is that both au­thors and writ­ers are show­ing a keen in­ter­est in the fe­male nar­ra­tive or fe­male voice.

Surg­ing in­ter­ests in fe­male nar­ra­tive

“Fe­male nov­el­ists like Chung Se-rang, Choi Eun-young, Gu Byeong-mo and Kim Keum-hee are gain­ing a lot of at­ten­tion th­ese days. For ex­am­ple, Chung Se-rang’s novel ‘School Nurse Ms. Ahn,’ has in­de­pen­dent fe­male char­ac­ters along with el­e­ments of fem­i­nism. Gu Byeong-mo’s novel ‘Your Neigh­bor’s

Ta­ble’ is a black com­edy that takes place in a com­mu­nity formed for the sake of rais­ing the birthrate. Kim Keum-hee’s novels high­light peo­ple who work in un­sta­ble tem­po­rary po­si­tions in Ko­rea, re­flect­ing the changed to­pog­ra­phy of Korean so­ci­ety,” Seo said.

Widened spec­trum of sub­ject mat­ters

Be­sides the in­ter­est in fe­male voices, an­other dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of re­cent Korean lit­er­a­ture is the wide spec­trum of its sub­ject mat­ter; orig­i­nal lit­er­ary works from the sci­ence fic­tion (SF) genre and crime to so-called queer lit­er­a­ture are ex­tend­ing their read­er­ship not only in Ko­rea, but also in ma­jor lit­er­ary mar­kets, in­clud­ing the U.S.

This wide spec­trum of in­ter­est in­cludes newly-given at­ten­tion to so­cial mi­nor­ity groups, such as mi­grant work­ers and sex­ual mi­nori­ties. For in­stance, young au­thors such as Kim Bong-gon and Park Sangy­oung pub­lished col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, “Speed, Sum­mer” and “The tears of an Un­known Artist,” re­spec­tively, deal­ing with is­sues of sex­ual iden­tity.

In the case of SF, Korean writer Kim Bo-young sold her three novels’ pub­li­ca­tion rights to ma­jor U.S. pub­lisher Harper Collins ear­lier this year.

Kim Un-su’s sus­pense thriller “The Plot­ters” also re­ceived rave re­views from crit­ics in the U.S., since an English trans­la­tion came out in Jan­uary through Knopf Dou­ble­day Pub­lish­ing Group, an­other ma­jor U.S. pub­lisher.

The crime novel was listed as the Edi­tor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Re­view, and The Best Books of the Week by the New York Post. It was also pub­lished in French and short­listed for the Grand Prix de Lit­er­a­ture Policiere.

Korean lit­er­a­ture mar­ket di­ver­si­fies

Ex­perts on Korean lit­er­a­ture gen­er­ally agree that Han Kang win­ning the pres­ti­gious Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize in 2016 for her book “The Veg­e­tar­ian” be­came a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for Korean works.

Un­de­ni­ably, the con­tin­u­ing global pop­u­lar­ity of hal­lyu, or Korean pop cul­ture, has also largely boosted the rise in the in­ter­est in Korean lit­er­a­ture in gen­eral.

“I be­lieve the cur­rent achieve­ments of Korean novels on the in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary scene were pos­si­ble be­cause of the ef­forts by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Korean au­thors. With the rise of the global pop­u­lar­ity of Korean pop cul­ture, drama and mu­sic, the Korean lan­guage and its cul­ture have be­come more fa­mil­iar with a greater num­ber of peo­ple world­wide, ben­e­fit­ing Korean lit­er­a­ture,” Seo from

Minumsa said.

Yoon Bu-han, Di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at the Lit­er­a­ture Trans­la­tion In­sti­tute of Ko­rea (LTIK), said the global po­si­tion of Korean lit­er­a­ture has changed from the era of sim­ply be­ing in­tro­duced to a new for­eign mar­ket to the new era of re­ceiv­ing qual­ity treat­ment and spe­cific at­ten­tion from read­ers abroad.

“It is true that we see height­ened global in­ter­est in Korean lit­er­ary works since Han Kang’s win­ning of the Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize. As in Kim Un-su’s case, we now see more in­ter­est and de­mand in var­i­ous gen­res of Korean novels, such as SF, mys­ter­ies or crime novels,” Yoon told The Ko­rea Times.

“We also see more ma­jor pub­lish­ing groups in for­eign mar­kets print­ing Korean lit­er­ary works. Pre­vi­ously, pub­lish­ers that printed Korean novels were mostly in­ter­na­tional lit­er­a­ture-fo­cused mag­a­zines or mid­dle-sized pub­lish­ers. But dur­ing re­cent two to three years, we have seen ma­jor pub­lish­ers opt to print them,” Yoon added.

The state-funded trans­la­tion agency, has also played a sig­nif­i­cant role; dur­ing the last two decades, it helped to trans­late more than 1,700 Korean lit­er­ary works into 40 lan­guages. It still pro­vides grants to for­eign pub­lish­ers aim­ing to print Korean lit­er­a­ture.

Yoon said re­gional di­ver­sity in coun­tries where Korean books are trans­lated and in­tro­duced has been par­tic­u­larly marked dur­ing re­cent years: “Many Korean lit­er­ary works have so far en­tered into North Amer­i­can, Euro­pean or North­east Asian mar­kets. Now we see more de­mand from coun­tries in South­east Asia, Latin Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia.

Nordic coun­tries like Den­mark, Nor­way and Fin­land are also show­ing more in­ter­est in Korean lit­er­a­ture.

“At Swe­den’s Gote­borg Book Fair held in Septem­ber, Ko­rea was the Guest of Honor and the theme coun­try. We also held a lit­er­ary event in Brazil, which is geo­graph­i­cally very far from Ko­rea, where sev­eral works of Korean au­thors, in­clud­ing nov­el­ist Park Min-gyu and poet Kim Ki-taek, have been pub­lished.”

Ex­perts added that in or­der for bril­liant Korean au­thors to get more chances over­seas, the do­mes­tic book mar­ket and dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem need to be health­ier and stronger.

“Ul­ti­mately, we need to create an en­vi­ron­ment where au­thors can freely and sta­bly write. We will get good qual­ity works, if we have a larger pool of au­thors. In or­der to do that, Ko­rea needs to work on strength­en­ing its own book mar­ket. The global suc­cess of ‘Kim Ji-young Born 1982’ was pos­si­ble, be­cause it had strong do­mes­tic sales in the first place,“book edi­tor Seo stressed.

Cour­tesy of LTIK

Korean books trans­lated into var­i­ous lan­guages are dis­played in a me­dia cen­ter dur­ing the 2018 PyeongChan­g Win­ter Olympics.

Cour­tesy of LTIK

France’s Brive Book Fair holds an au­thor event with Korean nov­el­ist Kim Un-su, se­cond from right, in this Novem­ber 2018 file photo.

Cour­tesy of LTIK

Swe­den’s 2019 Gote­borg Book Fair in­vites South Ko­rea as Guest of Honor and the theme coun­try.

The U.K. edi­tion for “Kim Ji-young Born 1982” to be pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter next year

Kim Un-su’s thriller novel “The Plot­ters”

Award-win­ning nov­el­ist Han Kang

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