Korea: A country of one’s own? Thoughts on Han Kang’s Booker victory.

Deborah Smith and Han Kang

Deborah Smith & Han Kang
(Courtesy: Reuters)

Last week in a “stop the presses” moment for Korean literature, Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her harrowing and brilliant The Vegetarian. Mention should also be made of her excellent translator Deborah Smith who wrote brilliantly literary prose.

Han Kang’s achievement immediately became the biggest ‘win’ in Korean translated literature, surpassing the achievement of Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, which won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. Within Korea the same dynamic holds true with four of the last six winners (2010-15) of the prestigious Hyundai Munhak Award for Literature being awarded to female writers and four of the last six Yi Sang Awards (2010-15). These victories are the tangible residue of a surprising change in Korean literature, that female authors are now preponderant in Korean literature and doubly preponderant in translation successes. This is an unlikely outcome from a country that as little as 50 years ago still referred to female writers as a different category than male ones, “yoryu chakka” (Woman authors) in comparison to men who were simply “chakkanim” (authors). In an article that is no longer online Bruce Fulton comprehensively outlines this taxonomy:

There are chakka, “writers,” and sosolga, “novelists,” and there are yoryu chakka, “female writers,” and yoryu sosolga, “female novelists”—but no namnyu chakka, “male writers,” or namnyu sosolga, “male novelists.”

And yet now, female writers dominate the field. Why did this remarkable change come about? I might venture a couple of guess about “how” the change occurred by trotting out some obvious suspects. first of course King Sejong created Hangul in 1443, which for the first time gave the dispossessed, including women, an alphabet in which to write. Prior to that all literature was in Chinese, which required an education that could only be forthcoming to men, and specifically men who were trying to (or had) passed the test that made them yangban. After the fall of the Joseon Dynasty some lip-service was paid to women in the form of “free love” (actually, just the right to choose your marital partner) and female education, but these were far from universal and the few women who were brave enough to write during the colonial period quickly passed into shame or oblivion. After the war and civil war the “proper” topic of literature was considered to be the division of the country, and as this included war and politics, at that time solely male purviews, women were thematically excluded from being writers. As Korea industrialized, however, this began to ever so slightly change, as women were conceived of as having some rights, and increasingly became economic players.  Authors such as Park Wan-suh and Yang Kwija pivoted from topics of national separation to topics of societal and internal separation. Slowly the doors opened and by 2016 it is fair to say that female writers (that phrase!) outnumber male writers and dominate literary awards both domestically and internationally.

So.. as to “why’s” about four possibilities immediately occur:

1) Hangul makes writing possible for women
2) Modernization brings at least the *idea* of equality to the table
3) Industrialization creates a new class of “economic woman” which theoretically has access to the avenues of expression that men have
4) Internationalization brings new models from overseas in which women are perceived to have more access to all forms of expression.

But I wonder, and here I toss it over to any readers, what I have missed in this list and what (if anything) is a specifically Korean aspect to this change. I invite anyone to comment on this, and feel free to toss out entirely unbaked ideas, because .. who knows where they might lead?^^


8 thoughts on “Korea: A country of one’s own? Thoughts on Han Kang’s Booker victory.

  1. I heard that The Vegetarian wasn’t that well received in Korea. Not sure if that’s true, but I’d be surprised if international recognition didn’t improve Korean reception as well, at least to some extent. Hopefully that will translate into greater appreciation of female authors in the future.

  2. David,

    My understanding was that it was controversial (it was popular enough to be made into a movie, but I have to believe that movie bowdlerized it). Her “Human Acts” was also controversial as it was about the Gwangju Massacre. Basically anything even slightly rebellious is going to be politicized and this has happened to some of Han Kang’s work as it has Hwang Sok-yong (“The Guest”), Gong Ji-Young (“the Crucible”), etc….

    An unfortunate feature of the critic system in literature and the ‘controlling’ (to be polite) tendencies of the government…

  3. the vegiterian is one of my favorite novels ever. I am so overwelmed about the prize. then I found your writing here. thanks sharing your opinion . but I d like to mention one correction for your article . King Sejong is not Kim, Sejong 🙂 Maybe it was typo?!

  4. Discussing your article with my Korean wife (now in Canada and living internationally outside of Korea the past 15 years) she would add … 5) The social/economic value placed on the artist. At the same time as Han Kang’s award, Choi Young-mi, renowned poet confessed on facebook that she was on welfare. The harsh economic reality that the poet/writer/arts worker/creator faces where even the most successful ones can’t make ends meet forces many men to give up writing to fulfill the expected breadwinner role …

    I don’t know any country that truly values the everyday artist … But I am most thankful to be allowed into the stunning writing The Vegetarian through the accomplished English translation. I am also thankful to (KTLIT) for news and commentary. Onwards.

  5. Raymon – LOL.. do you live in Surrey by any chance? I will likely be there tomorrow.

    And your point about “the everyday artist” is good, but Korea has the lowest reading for pleasure rate in the OECD..

    I’m not that into poetry (well Kim Hyesoon and Ko Un) but I’ll have to check out Choi Young-mi, if translations exist…

  6. No we live in Saskatoon SK … (when I visited Seoul and saw SK everywhere my first astonishment was I didn’t know how much Saskatchewan companies invaded Korea … amazingly ethocentric I was.) Have fun in Surrey.

  7. I’ve also heard that ‘The Vegetarian’ wasn’t that well received in Korea…IMHO because of female writers… I wish I was wrong;)
    Great post – thank you!

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