An email from LTI Korea tells us that we’ve won an “Award of Excellence” in their recent Korean Literature English Essay Contest. The essay was on Kang Yong-sook’s Brown Tears, an excellent and redemptive story of confusion, separation, and community in 1970’s Seoul (obviously, although never stated). Interested readers of that story can find the pdf here (and it is worth reading). A link to the LTI Korea page announcing the results is here (Well, no it isn’t, since LTI Korea doesn’t allow deep-linking, apparently?), though the wrong story is listed with my name.^^ The Award Ceremony will be on the 6th of December, and anyone in Seoul is welcome to come out and hoot and whistle at my name. ^^
The “winning” (is 3rd place winning?^^) essay is reproduced below.
LTI Korea’s translation of Brown Tears, by Kang Yong-sook is an example of exactly the kind (among many others) of work that should be translated to popularize Korean fiction in translation. Brown Tears manages to be an affecting story on a narrative level, brilliantly written and translated, and a wonderful introduction to a particular era of Korean history and culture. It achieves the difficult feat of being both universal and particular; it talks of lives and love lost, the difficulty of communication, and miraculous salvations.
The story follows the lives of a motley crew, both Koreans and foreigners, who live in unfortunate circumstances in a changing Korea; the narrator Holly and her husband; three sad-sack foreigners, a married couple, and various other characters. Kang weaves these characters together in a sad, tumultuous, but ultimately redeeming story.
Kang’s ability to give specific but universal first glances into the world of Korea is clear even from the first paragraph in which Holly seamlessly drops in the line, “The two-story low-rise, dating back to the final days of Park Chung Hee’s urban development push in the late 1970’s.” This is not only slickly descriptive writing, but it acquaints even a casual reader with the events and history of Korea’s 1970’s. Later, when Holly describes the rapid demolition of a building across the street while also noticing that in its parking lot, “greens, hot peppers and palm-sized lettuce plants were now growing,” she seamlessly blends the old and new, giving us a glance of Korea from 1970s to the present, an enchanting mix of the very new and quite traditional. The writing and translation are both detailed and evocative. Brown Tears is a taut story that manages to outline the history of an entire era.
The characters are eclectic and well described. Kang’s ability to define a character in a few short lines is a great advantage to this story. Kang’s description of the landlady as “bundled up in a wheelchair, her fallen, late autumn leaf of a face peering out from under a plaid blanket,” is at once expressive and heartbreaking. When Kang goes on to explain that the landlady was struck by lightning while gathering chestnuts, readers are once again effortlessly immersed in aspects of Korean culture. The landlady’s husband’s unremitting love, though grudgingly expressed, is also made evident, and this is a theme that rings across language barriers.
The narrator’s story of love lost is a universal one; a pain understood across culture. The narrator breaks up with her boyfriend, with whom she has had several miscarriages, when he fails to attend her mother’s funeral. She then makes a failed suicide attempt. When the narrator sums up her failed suicide attempt, “What I’d accomplished was nothing more than the usual human heartbreak following the loss of loved one,” it is a touching statement that not only invokes the death of the mother, the loss of children, and the end of a relationship, but it is compactly and sensitively put; it tells a story that any reader will understand and sympathize with.
Holly then embarks upon an attempt to learn English, which introduces her to a handsome Australian. Here Kang deftly adds humor to the mix. The lone Korean male in the class has the ironic name of “Mr. White.” Holly, who sometimes goes blank in class, can always remember the words that have eluded her, but only on her way home. This is an experience all language learners have shared. Brown Tears finds humor in unfortunate circumstances. In fact, one of the great appeals of this story is that Kang is never afraid to use humor or irony, even in situations that are most dire.
Along the way, Holly describes the comically picaresque lives of three foreign tenants in the building whose lives are, to say the least, complicated. Things become even more complicated. Communication becomes impossible, Crimes are revealed. Illnesses threaten to kill. Then, in an ending that is as unpredictable as it is beautiful, Kang manages to tie the remarkable number of threads in this short story into something that is striking and inspiring. Lack of communication is bridged, while new and unlikely friendships are built. After a last blessing is delivered to the landlady, Holly sums things up with, “Apparently a miracle was upon us. “ By this time these last words are reached, any reader from any country will have embraced that miracle.
This is a story precisely positioned in a certain place and time in Korea, fully demonstrating the history and society in which it takes place. At the same time, Kang’s masterful use of universal themes and situations with which readers in any country can find commonality, raises the stakes of the book to the global level. The clever and vernacular translation also sparkles as the pathos, pleasure, and the remarkable humor of the story are directly apprehensible to the reader. This is a well-written story, a well-chosen story, a well translated story, and a complete pleasure to read.
Apparently a miracle is upon us!