Down in Daejeon

As mentioned in my previous post, in Daejeon I did not do a great deal with Korean literature. In fact, I spent most of my time in Daejeon re-hashing what I knew about Korea-American literature, some of which I had read during my Master’s program. I had read Lee Chang-Rae’s work, as well as some of Richard Kim’s work, which seemed most “Korean” to me. I had also glanced over some of Linda Sue Park’s juvenile fiction


Kim Yong Ik was a pioneering Korean author whose career writing in English began in 1957 and spanned nearly four decades. Kim published one book of folk tales, six novels, dozens of short stories, two essays, one television show and one movie (in Korea).Kim was published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and the Hudson Review among other magazines, had a book of short stories published, and was anthologized several times. Kim wrote amusing stories for juveniles and penetrating and multi-layered adult works. Kim’s influence went beyond the works he wrote; he also profoundly affected other authors. American poet Robert Bly once famously commented on Kim’s advice that, “I’ve been grateful for [it] for years.” Yet, today, when we think of successful Korean authors in English, Kim Yong-ik’s name rarely comes up.

Kim wrote with strong echoes of traditional Korean literature about diasporic states, a theme that would naturally have modern meaning for a Korean author steeped in memories of Japanese colonialization and the very real modern reality of a sundered nation. Many of Kim’s stories focused on relocation or dislocation, the experience of being physically moved to a foreign land or being psychically separated from ones’ social milieu and second an eventual return to unity.

Kim wrote his first English short stories in 1957. From Here You Can See The Moon focused on a son returning to Korea. This story contains Kim’s first formal statement of his life-long theme of relocation as a process that eventually brings you back to where you begin, “The town is good enough for anyone to return to.”

Kim’s first book, The Diving Gourd (1962) also strongly emphasizes physical displacement. In Kim’s early work we see characters that are sketches for the more complex characters that Kim later created. Kim’s early works were unanimously placed in Korea and featured only Koreans, but as Kim became more familiar with the United States, his scope widened.

Kim’s first addressed international topics in They Won’t Crack It Open, the first of three stories Kim located in the United States. This work is still anthologized in some multicultural collections including Imagining America: Stories From the Promised Land and is still taught on university campuses across the English-speaking world.

Kim’s late-middle period featured a troika of works that revisited, often with a hard edge, themes of cyclical diasporism within and across cultures. These works are the play Moon Thieves and the short stories The Snake Man and The Sheep, Jimmy and I.

The disaporic arc of Kim’s fiction also describes Kim’s personal path – from Korean village to internationally published author, and finally back home before his death.

But in the course of my program, and at the time I was enrolled in the mandatory “multiculture” class, I can across a voice that seemed unique, and the more I looked into the author, the more unique everything became. That writer was Kim Yong-ik and the first story of his I read was in a textbook called Imagining America: Stories From the Promised Land and That story was They Won’t Crack It Open and it told the story of a Korean coming to the United States to reunite with a serviceman he met during the Korean war. As I neared the end of my program I knew that I was heading to Korea, and I still didn’t have a topic for my thesis. My professors were great, pretty much hands off if you did your work, but the time was coming that I had to decide.

In a frenzy of internet search, not nearly as easy then as it was today, I scoured the Internet in search of more books by Kim Yon-ik. The first book that came in, came from overseas and had a United States Military Library stamp on the inside cover and notation that the book had been in Korea.

As I opened the book, the stiff and resisting pages and spine separated and cracked, and out came swift cloud of cigarette smell. In that minute, I felt as if I was gazing through a window to a time long ago – A GI in post-war Korea while there was still strong threat of additional war, hunched over a book, smoked cigarette after cigarette, and attempted to submerge himself from the reality around him.

This was the first of many books by Kim that I ordered, and as they came in, they impressed me more and more. I was beginning to see an author’s development, beginning with juvenile fiction, likely because it was most likely to sell, and then moving on to international issues and politics. The topics, thoughts and language of the works became more complicated and more compelling.

At this point I began research on Kim Yong-ik and discovered, to my astonishment that he wrote his works in English, a task that many English authors find difficult.

When it became time to leave for Korea I bundled all these books, and a few other bits of Korean or Korean-American fiction, into one box and used a parcel service to send it to my soon-to-be University. My arrival to Korea substantially preceded that of my parcel. For reasons unknown to man, the customs folks at Incheon airport declared my lumpy parcel of tattered books to be some kind of contraband, and sent them back to the United States.

The second attempt resulted in success, which was a great thing as it turned out. Otherwise the books would have gone in storage – at a storage company that I had chosen because they could contact me through email. A storage company that DID NOT contact me by email when a slight increase in rates affected my automatic payments. Everything my wife and I owned, including our substantial book collections, were sold.

That tragedy was still in the future, however, and I did have the books at hand. So these were the books I read, and they were the books that began to inform my vision of modern Korean literature.

Daejeon had very few bookstores that dealt much in English books, and the ones that did focused primarily on English instruction.

My wife, in some ways more tuned-in to books than I, noticed something. As we wandered through the local markets (the “si-jang” which are composed of many little markets of many kinds), there was often a small section of booksellers who could be identified by the front of their businesses being walls of tidy packets of books, arranged by theme and tied together with ribbon. When it comes to books, my wife is fearless, and she started barging in to these stores and asking the proprietors if they had English books. This was often a fraught encounter, as she had no Korean and the owners had no English. But eventually, by sheer dint of trying, in the Eunhaeng-dong si-jang she discovered three nearly adjacent bookstores which sold English fiction. We started haunting these once a week, and in one I discovered an old, long out of print collection of translated Korean short stories. I felt like Columbus ‘discovering’ America!

So there, in Daejeon, with a semi-complete set of the works of Kim Yong-ik, and the occasional treasure found in the attic of a Korean used bookstore, I began to settle down and try to systematically figure out some aspects of Korean Modern Fiction. I was often confused, sometimes quite wrong, but never bored.

Soon, I would move to Seoul, where one of those conditions would quickly vanish!