Writing Against the Grain: Contemporary Korean Women to Watch
17th Mar 2015
Whenever I am asked to name my favourite Korean writers, the women inevitably outweigh the men. Best of all, unlike with other national literatures, this doesn’t require any deliberate bias-redressing on my part. These days, the shortlists for the most prestigious South Korean literary prizes have women in the majority year on year, with a similar ratio for those awarded the top spot. But this wasn’t always the case.
During the latter part of the 20th century, the tendency for Korean mainstream literature to focus on the psychological chasm left by the division of the peninsula, privileged fiction dealt with politics, ideology and war – themes that were generally considered to be the preserve of men. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the real boom in women’s writing came about.
Authors like Shin Kyung-sook, recasting the recent societal upheavals as a more personal, mutable experience, consequently contesting and complicating the previously dominant ‘grand narratives’. Today, there’s a general feeling that this thematic division has largely been overcome, that female writers have shaken off the gender tag and are now seen simply as “writers”.
Whether or not this is strictly the case is still debatable, and of course, this accepted narrative of recent Korean literary history is necessarily a simplification. As with any country, the more interesting authors have always been those who wrote against the grain – here are a handful of the best.
I am clearly biased with this one. My first ever published translation is of Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, just out from Portobello Books. A brutal triptych of taboo and transgression, art and eroticism, the book follows a young wife’s decision to give up eating meat – a subversive act of radical passivity which undermines South Korea’s patriarchal society, and provokes a chillingly violent response from her conformist husband.
But you don’t have to take my word for the quality: translations into several other languages have been published to strong reviews, the film adaptation competed at Sundance Film Festival, and now it’s garnering fans among UK readers too. Reviewers praised the novel’s “complexity and beauty” and regarding it as“startling” and “multi-layered”. You can read an excerpt in The White Review.
In her longstanding preoccupation with art and artist-characters, in her disruptive narratives exploring the psychology of desire, she's uncannily similar to another novelist-cum-poet, Deborah Levy. Kang debuted in the 1990s, when the vogue was for witty, lighthearted takes on contemporary social mores, frequently loaded with postmodern gimmicks. In contrast, her own writing has a classical feel, and its emotional landscape is deeply felt. Part of this comes from having a poet’s sensibility – she’s been writing poetry throughout her career, though her first collection was published only last year.
In her longstanding preoccupation with art and artist-characters, in her disruptive narratives exploring the psychology of desire, she’s uncannily similar to another novelist-cum-poet, Deborah Levy. I’m particularly thrilled, then, that the two of them were in conversation at January’s launch at the London Review of Books Bookshop.
Portobello will also publish my translation of Kang’s latest novel, which centres around the 1980 massacre in her home city of Gwangju, in January 2016.
Bae Suah is recognised as one of the most radically experimental writers active in Korea today, the list of authors she’s translated, from German, should give you some idea of her affinities: Peter Handke, W.G. Sebald, Jenny Erpenbeck, Franz Kafka.
Suah, whose slim novels abandon straightforward chronology, favours narratives more akin to musical compositions than stolid plot-progressions. Her lyrical, yet dissonant explorations of identity – a glorious challenge to translation – relating to language and voice, place her firmly with the modernists. All packing a strong emotional punch.
One of my favourites, which I’ve translated, is The Essayist’s Desk, in which a Korean writer living in Berlin falls in love with her female German teacher. Semi-autobiographical, the book contains some breathtakingly beautiful writing on love, art, and linguistic borders. Her early novella Nowhere To Be Found is forthcoming from Amazon Crossing, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, and provides a brilliant introduction to her work.
Ch’oe Yun, an author-translator, and professor of French literature, writes singularly cool, dispassionate prose. Yun who eschews sentimentality in favour of a monochrome emotional palette, has netted both of South Korea’s top literary prizes.
Debuting in the 1980s, when the major trend was for realist women’s writing on memory and interiority – think: sepia-tinted nostalgia for lost ideals, lost innocence, lost boyfriends – Ch’oe instead got busy writing fragmented postmodern narratives dealing with Korean political violence in Korean history and satirising national obsessions.
In There A Petal Silently Falls, translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, and published by Columbia University Press, stylistic rupture mirrors the traumatised mental state of its protagonist, a young girl wandering the countryside in the aftermath of the Gwangju Massacre. In this and subsequent books, her fiction was seen as breaking new ground in its focus on the role of gender in the making of Korean history.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that today’s South Korea is still in many ways a patriarchal society, it’s relatively rare to find writers who self-identify as feminists. Kim Hyesoon is the exception.
Her poetry is radical, not only in its style, but in its embodiment of ‘the female grotesque’, bursting at the seams with violence, decay, garbage, and death. In this, Kim is writing in direct opposition to the tradition of Korean female poetry, which was expected to be pretty, sentimental, and passive.Her fantastic translator, Don Mee Choi, is a poet in her own right, and has made sure that she’s well-represented in English translation. Most recently, Bloodaxe brought out I’m Okay, I’m Pig! – her first UK publication.
Deborah Smith is the translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. She is a PhD candidate in Korean Literature at SOAS. Find her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist