“‘Korean writers should overcome nationalism?”

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon

A very interesting article over at the Korea Herald in the course of which Kim Seong-kon says:

“Themes that concentrate on Korean nationalism and the Korean War can no longer attract international audience,” Kim said. “The days of Marxism and nationalism are over. But a lot of Korean authors still remain in such ideological writing. I’d like to see them moving on.”

Which is a true thing to say, but probably not a very safe one. I’ll be interested to see what the response of nationalists will be to a claim like this.

But it is beyond argument that the Korean nationalist, Korean War and pundan munhak works have a limited readership when translated into English. And it is also true that Korean authors have been fairly relentless miners of this turf. And this has had a deadening effect on the English side of the translation barrier, to be sure.

At the same time it is also true that one of the charms, and differences, of Korean literature is that is has been, for over a century, relentlessly national in nature. I would hope that some, perhaps most of  that nature, would be retained at the same time that Korea authors are also writing international literature.

In any case, this all being said in the context of The Seoul International Forum for Literature, which brings together Korean and International writers, so it is clear that Kim has a dog in the hunt when he claims:

“What the global audience is interested in can be quite different (from what Korean authors think),” Kim told The Korea Herald. “I think that is one of the reasons why most of Korean novels don’t do very well overseas after being translated. So it is important for our writers to have an opportunity to interact with foreign writers and learn what’s going on outside Korea.”

Still, it is interesting to hear an important Korean figure put it quite as bluntly as this. While I agree with the general point, I certainly hope it is not taken too far. It is difficult to forget that when Seoul decided it was time to modernize architecture, it did so to the tremendous disadvantage, nearly extinction even, of the hanok.

So while Kim’s point is true in terms of international success, I’m not sure it means that domestic production should be bent towards that international success. There is plenty of room for a rooted Korean literature, and even a marketing-weasel such as myself see uses (psychological/social and in terms of marketing) for an authentic Korean literature to continue to flourish.

On a semi-related note, I’ve seen three of the draft articles for this conference, and they are very good indeed!  The conference is open to the public. Anyone interested in a meetup? It runs from May 23-27 at Kyobo Convention Hall in Seoul and is open to all.

Also, Kim relates two very funny myths in the article, which is worth checking out for the mythology alone.

A hat tip to SooHye Jang for pointing this article out to me.


10 thoughts on ““‘Korean writers should overcome nationalism?”

  1. I’m sure that Korean literature will develop along with Korean society itself. Korea has always been a bit of a paranoid place and nationalism comes from paranoia and the “we’re number one!” defensive mechanism. In the not too distant future, though, Korea will probably come to accept its new-found wealth and power and stop fearing and disdain the outside world, and Korean writers will probably cease writing nationalistic literature and focus on more universal themes.

  2. I, for one, think that there is no reason why Koreans should give a shit about the international success of Korean literature. I can understand the point of having your products to be geared toward international success. I see no point of literature doing the same. Korean writers should write about whatever they want to write.

  3. David,

    Also. with the new success new themes automatically come into play. During the Civil War, for instance, I’m sure it was quite difficult to envision writing about anything else. ^^

    And, as everyone who visits Korea notes, the generational shifts are tectonic, and the new generation is much more outward looking.

    So I suspect it is just a question of how quickly attitudes change.

  4. The Korean,

    A perfectly good stance, but one much of Korea doesn’t share (although there is a schism between those who believe the answer is to “go international” – as this dude does – and those who believe the answer is to translate more “traditional” stuff – as KLTI often does).

    Some authors, simply enough, want the overseas money. Thus you have Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyung-sook writing specifically for the international audience. Shin kind of denies this, particularly in Korean publications (wisely enough, as she has avoided some of the backlash that Kim has faced), but read the articles out there and you’ll see she has been quite ‘adaptable.’ ^^ Some authors want the fame (Again, Kim and Shin). Some authors are ‘pure’ I suppose, but not that many.^^

    The press is full of articles about Korea’s ‘need’ to win a Nobel Prize in Literature and there’s nothing wrong with wanting international recognition, I suppose, although I find it putting the cart well before the horse: Just right that good work and recognition should follow.

    The government also wants it, although even more schisms are developing there. It is interesting that KLTI was built on the KOTRA “export widgets” model – to some extent the government sees this as an export business. I’m not at all convinced that’s a sensible model, but it’s the one the government took.

    The “Korean in the street (who talks some English and works at a University, restaurant, or bar – subdivision being those how have talked to me)” is interested in Shin’s success and often wonders if what is being reported in the press is true. I gather they are aware that the press likes to blow this kind of thing up a bit.

    So we already have these people out there who do have an interest in internationalization. The problem is in going overboard on it.. and that’s where the tension is today… how do you balance it?

    There needs to be a solid core of people, writers primarily, who adopt some version of your stance and just plow ahead doing what they do. But the internationalists aren’t going away either.

    Welcome to the pernicious effects of globalism!^^

  5. The Korean,

    LOL.. I have few enough commenters that I always try to respond. And your kvetch is one I’m feeling more as I get deeper into the (translated) literature.

  6. hmmmmmm…..

    “there is no reason why Koreans should give a shit about the international success of Korean literature”

    Perhaps, but perhaps not.

    Any individual Korean is free to have their own cares.

    But, Koreans DO seem to want the world to care about RO Korea, to side with it on issues (like Dokdo), to even be willing to kill and die for it (ROK vs. DPRK).

    So, while ROK Koreans could be free to live an eremetic existence like their DPRK cousins, they do not seem to want to.

    In other words, ROK Koreans want the rest of the world to give a shit about ROK in very concrete terms — they want the world to take the side of ROK on a host of issues and be prepared to side with ROK on more issues in the future, even at great expense to the world.

    And, if that is the case, then ROK Koreans will need to show in a variety of ways that they are worth giving a shit about.

    Culture and the arts is one such way.

    If not, then the world will be incrementally less likely to view ROK Koreans as worthy of that effort.

    For example, DPRK takes the opposite view, and most of the world would be fine if they simply all expired.

  7. Pingback: “Korean Writers Should Overcome Nationalism”? | Nanoomi.net

  8. Dr. Foster-Carter,

    That is a fascinating article (and I laughed out loud at your comment “Then again, that “39th parallel” (twice) doesn’t half grate…).

    Lots of issues, particularly English hegemony and cultural appropriation/imperialis, that resonate even more strongly today.

    I’ll have to do a piece on that here.. and maybe over the the Korean Culture Report (our new blog on some aspects of.. well.. Korean culture^^).



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