More “complications” to Yi Kwang-su?

Yi Kwang-su

Yi Kwang-su

Yi Kwang-su’s ‘complicated’ relationship to both the modernization of Korea and Japan has been discussed elsewhere on this blog (here and here) and by Popular Gusts (here and here).

Now, in the process of doing a bit of research for an interview on gay/lesbian genres in Korean fiction, I come across a further complication. Yi may have written a piece of gay fiction titled, Maybe Love.

Most of the readings on this are hidden behind MUSE (man, do I wish my uni could get me access to that!), but recently a scholar from Yale, John Whitter Treat, lectured about the work.

First, Treat’s analysis of the work (from the article):

The short story …  is about a Korean schoolboy named Mungil attending a school in Japan, and illustrates his crush on a Japanese schoolmate named Misao, who was also a boy.

This story, while being considered by many scholars to be the “milestone work in the rapid development of Korean prose literature in the 20th century,” is rarely touched by Korean scholars for its awkward theme; the story of a Korean boy’s unrequited love for a Japanese schoolmate. The story was not even translated into Korean until 1981.

Obviously, the themes are awkward to Korea on at least two levels, and as hinted at in this section, it was originally written in Japanese.

Treat turns the conversation back to known features of Yi’s thinking, primarily his love of Japan:

This is the point at which Treat begins his own thesis. he claims that in fact, Mungil, the main character in Maybe Love, actually desires Misao, not primarily in a sexual way, but in a racial way. Mungil desires Misao because Misao is Japanese, Treat explained.

“Homosocial describes what binds Mungil to Misao. It is a mimetic desire, the desire to be something else. He models his desires after the model,” Treat said.

This is his key point because Treat claims that ethnic discourse in these two countries is more prominent than same-sex discourse, which is why “Maybe Love” pioneered the broad expanse of modern fiction.

Treat’s point that ethnic discourse is more prominent than same-sex discourse is, of course, true – partly because same-sex discourse seems to have been far more prevalent in Japanese culture and literature, but also because of the political/military relations between the two countries.

And, of course, there is always danger in reading any current cultural construct backwards into time (think about retrospective measurements of US presidential IQ, or more germane, the frantic efforts some scholars make to analyze historical relationships as gay – Lincoln – or straight – Alexander/Sparta). Still, it is an interesting topic to base a short story on, and it might at least open a conversation.



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