Finding my Place in Korean Modern Fiction

Hong Gildong by SooHye Jang


NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing project (because I can never seem to have too many of those!) to recount my exploration of Korean modern fiction in translation. The other posts can be found up on the “Finding Hong Gildong” menu and are in rough order of how things occurred.)

This may sound a bit obvious, but once in Korea one of the things that went hand-in-hand with my search for Hong Gildong was my search for Korea itself. As I discovered things about Korea, places and local behaviors, it altered my relationship to the works I was reading.

This understanding of “place” began even before I got to Korea. After interviewing by phone, I received a job offer in Daejeon and I happily accepted it. Going back and finishing my degree, pursuing and attaining my MA, had all come together for me and I was going to be able to leave my uncomfortable job in the United States for an as yet still unclear experience in Korea.

Brimming with happiness, I called Ed to share my news. “Ed,” I said, “I got a job!” Ed responded with congratulations and we talked a little bit about when I would go, where I would live, etc. Ed’s wife was in the room with him and when she heard us talking she asked to have the phone to congratulate me. She congratulated me, and then asked where I would be teaching. “Daejeon,” I replied.

It was as though I had tossed a venomous snake into a playpen. “Daejeon,” she was yelling now, “Daejeon isn’t where you want to go, you want to go to Seoul!” She paused. “If you don’t know Seoul, you don’t know Korea! Why didn’t you go to Seoul?”

There were plenty of good reasons I hadn’t got a job in Seoul, one of which was that I wasn’t in-country to interview there, but Jae’s point was more general. I really couldn’t know Korea until I knew Seoul. And this was not necessarily a comment on Daejeon. The fact is that, for a variety of reasons including educational opportunities, the seat of the government, access to international travel, even fashion, Seoul was the city to which most ambitious Koreans aspired. And, in fact, when I did arrive in Seoul one year later, I was stunned by the panoply of opportunities it offered.

So place is important – and as I traveled in Seoul, and about the Korean countryside, I began to create a kind of psychic map, locations I had visited and loved, stitched together by taxis buses and trains – the KTX, the Mugungwha (“The Rose of Sharon” Korea’s national flower), and the Saemaul (“New Town”). Then, to my surprise (though it shouldn’t have been) these places popped up in stories I was reading and I had that frisson of recognition: “I’ve BEEN there!” A story that mentioned Gwangwhamun, or Jeju, became instantly more accessible to me.

And this worked both ways. My reading of colonial and pundan munhak began to inform what I felt when I visited places. I remember standing near the 38th parallel at the DMZ boundary and looking across at the denuded territory on the North Korean side. The guide (for you cannot visit the DMZ except on a tour) helpfully explained that North Korea blasted its heath so there would no cover for potential defectors. The view seemed both surreal and hyper-real. This spot, a stones’ throw from where I stood, was the limit, the demarcation that could not be crossed. In Lee Beom-seon’s “Stray Bullet” (오발탄) a grandmother driven mad by privation and separation rants that she can not understand why she is not allowed to go home to the North and that it is unnatural to separate a land. In her confusion and grief she fruitlessly orders her family, “let’s go!” This was the scarred land that blocked her desire for reunification.

And, of course, I need to make clear that some of the works I’m thinking about here are still so impenetrable that they do not make good translation choices for beginning readers. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I initially had a difficult time reading pundan munhak as I could not understand it. But to look at the fences, guards, denuded land, and exhibits at the DMZ it all came painfully clear to me what it meant.

Similarly, when I visited Soedamun Prison in Seoul, I felt echoes of Yi Sang’s brilliantly psychotic portrayals of lack of control, and the alternate currents of escapism and rage that ran through this literature seemed quite natural and sensible to me.

These are somber examples – there were a multitude of happier ones such as visiting pochang macha. I had read about these. Pochang macha are (and were) places where travelers can stop, briefly or at their leisure, for a bit of inexpensive food, a bracing drink, and a convivial atmosphere. Pojang macha (literally, “covered carriage”) are something like a restaurant on wheels, a bar on wheels, or maybe something like a psychiatrist’s office.

Pojanga macha began to spring up early in the 1950s near Cheonggyecheon and were small cars and carts, exposed to the elements, which sold snacks and drinks. Some merchants began to cover their carts with orange plastic, provide stools to sit on, and to sell appetizers. As time went by pojang macha began to get larger and to feature tables. In the 1970’s pojang macha flourished in Seoul as the “palli-palli” (“faster-faster”) culture of Korea kept Koreans late at work. When Seoulites streamed out of work, they stopped at pojang macha for a quick drink and a bite to eat.

All of THAT can be gleaned from Korean literature. But entering a pochang macha, expectantly and a bit timidly, made it all the more real. Beginning, kind of scared, with maekju (beer) and pork-skewers, by the end of the evening my friends and I were happily trading shots of soju and gobbling down Dak-bal (Chicken feet). I know nod in a kind of happy agreement, wherever I see pojang macha pop up in Korean fiction.

It would be foolish to argue that everyone who loves an international literature must visit that nation, in fact, the beauty of international literature is that it does allow you to visit other nations from the comfort of our own couches.

But it seems to me that the enjoyment of any national (by this I don’t mean didactic in the sense that Korean literary theorists often use the word) literature is enhanced by exposure to the sights and experiences of that nation.

So if you read a foreign literature and can make a trip overseas?

You will never regret that trip.

And the Korean Tourism Organization will be more than happy to help you set that trip up.

Visit me in Seoul, I can show you a few sights. ^^

2 thoughts on “Finding my Place in Korean Modern Fiction

  1. A very enticing piece here. I was attracted to Korea from the Hallyu wave, but now I’m trying to expand my horizons and really discover Korea. I’m still too young to have the means to travel there, but I want to as soon as possible, and hopefully not for a short trip but a long journey.

  2. Thank you for those kind words.

    It’s a great place to go… explore Seoul for a while, but also try to get out of town to Busan, Jeju-do, Gyeongju, or even Jeonju or Gwangju…

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