More with Gabriel Sylvian: Korean GLBT Literature #2

This is post two of a multi-post series.
You can find post one, discussing the history of gays and lesbians in pre-modern literature here. And part three is now here.

Yesterday we talked a little about the the role of gays and lesbians in pre-modern Korean fiction. Today’s question turns towards the “modern” period of Korean literature, which essentially began at the turn of the 20th century.

Q) Can you briefly outline the history of modern gay/lesbian literature and mention any notable authors or works?

A) Well, use of the word gay/lesbian for any work prior to 1995 is problematic. The Korean LGBT leadership (understandably, because they had no native same-sex history or tradition to refer to) stated in numerous interviews during the 90s that homosexuality did not exist in Korea before their movement. That is inaccurate. Homosexuality (dongseongae), the biomedical term, entered Korea in the early-1920s, and cross-dressers and same-sex desiring men and women were occasionally mentioned in journals and newspaper crime reports from that time, the new term sometimes used to describe them. There were also reports about dongseongae suicides and crimes from Japan. The same-sex cultures that emerged in the cities from the 20s were influenced by Japanese culture, while the same-sex culture in the countryside was carried over from the Joseon period. LGBT politics dates from the 1990s. So if you mean literature written against the background of LGBT politics, the earliest major LGBT authors were Jeon Myeong-an (gay), whom I mentioned, Han Jung-nyeol (gay), and Gim Bi (transgender). Their works have been available on the Internet as e-books and several made available in print. There was a “gender literature” anthology called Rainbow Eyes published in the mid-2000s. We cannot use identitarian terms like gay and lesbian before 1995 without some qualification, although the body of earlier data belongs to Korean LGBT history insofar as they are articulations of same-sex desire.

Same-sex themes in modern Korean literature begin with the man recognized as the founder of modern Korean literature, Yi Gwangsu. Yi went to Japan to study as a teenager and there he experienced the openness of the Japanese same-sex culture at his high school in Tokyo. Yi wrote his very first short story “Maybe Love” in the Japanese language about his thwarted desire for a Japanese upper-classmate. Yi returned to Korea but went to Japan again in his 20s to study at Waseda University where he wrote a copious amount of work to support himself, peppering his short stories with same-sex themes, expressing his “heart” or sincere emotion as he had always done, but with a new sense of anxiety as he struggled between the “open” Japanese paradigm against which he began writing in the first place, and the new Western concept of “homosexuality” which caused Japanese intellectuals to view same-sex love as a sickness. Yi wrote a revised version of the original love story in which he reconstructs the character (a parody of himself) as something more or less approximating a “homosexual” -his own idea of one- who suffers from a strange mental condition that compels him to seek love from males. Shortly after publishing that story, Yi re-married to a New Woman and never wrote another same-sex themed story. But one can ascertain from various quotes pertaining to “Maybe Love”, as well as his later comments with respect to it, that the homosexual question remained an uncertainty in his mind well after he left off writing about same-sex themes.
Gim Hwan, a protégé of Naturalist writer Gim Dong-in, was an admirer of Yi Gwangsu and himself a playwright and artist. He wrote his own response to the new phenomenon of homosexuality, a story called “Tears of Sympathy”, for the early 20’s journal “Changjo” (Creation). He insisted that the love between the two men in his story was “sympathy”, not “homosexuality”.

In the late 1930s, as homosexuality was becoming increasingly stigmatized as perversion and illness, the writer Yi Hyoseok thematized a same-sex relationship between two characters, a movie director and his handsome assistant, in his long novel “Pollen”. Yi was captivated by the idea of free sexuality, floating, wafting indiscriminately in the air like pollen. But in that work, while all sex acts are posited as “natural”, only the same-sex relationship is described as “strange”; and, reflecting Korean culture, both male partners avidly desire women and make them their main sexual pursuit in the novel. In the 30s, there is also some very minor same-sex content in the work of poet Yi Sang.
With the Pacific War followed by post-Liberation political division, Korea was cast into political and social turmoil, so same-sex content is virtually nil during the 40s. Just before the civil war, Choe Jeong-hui wrote a short story called “Spring” about girl students including a brief “kissing and groping” scene, and a few years later she expanded the story into a novel called “The Green Door.” From the civil war through the industrializing period, same-sex themes appear only as very, very minor motifs in Korean novels. One exception from the Bak Jeong-hee period, is O Jeonghui’s short story collection “River of Fire” which portrayed same-sex sexuality between males as bizarre, a kind of freakish curiosity in keeping with her love for that particular literary atmosphere. In another of her works, “Birds,” too, there is a “strange” same-sex character, but he is very minor.

The period between the beginning of the civil war in 1950 and Democratization in 1987 marks a general moratorium on same-sex themes in Korean literature except for one passive-aggressive poetess called Choe Seung-ja and a similarly angst-ridden poet, Gi Hyeong-do. These two poets are arguably unmatched in the 80s for their strong individuality and deep pessimism. Both poets wrote amidst political and social oppression under harsh military rule and a pervasive Minjung nationalism that placed little value on uniqueness and individuality. Choe’s debut collection “Love in this Age”, a morbid bouquet of dark, pessimistic verses, includes some same-sex poems, and the collection’s gestalt suggests she was writing from the perspective of a same-sex subject. Gi also placed oblique references to the same-sex sexuality in his poems against a bleak atmosphere attending a hidden life “on the street”, fleeting, painful love relationships and isolation from the traditional havens of nation and family.

Ma Gwang-su incorporated same-sex sexuality in his literary work in the 1980s which was, among other details, grounds for his arrest on charges of obscenity in the 80s. I hold up Professor Ma’s experience as an important lens through which to view the same-sex motifs suffocatedly emerging in Choe and Gi’s work in response to those who disapprove of same-sex readings of Gi’s work because Gi didn’t “come out.” There was no positive sexual identity in the 1980s Korea, much less an “out” to go to. That angle makes Choe’s and Gi’s work only that much more brilliant and important.

After Democratization in 1987 Jang Jeong-il came out swinging against sexual repression with several irreverent books of poetry and some sensationalistic novels. His debut novel treated the topic of Itaeweon gays, and I suspect that may have been a reason why Gi Hyeong-do made a special point to visit him. Jang’s portrayals of gay men are far from positive, rooted in biomedical understanding, but he was the first after Ma Gwang-su to tackle the entrenched system of silence with respect to sex through his inventive literary shock tactics. He suffered legal troubles for his effort, of course; but he merits a place in LGBT history for his early inclusion of same-sex themes.

From the mid-1990s a young and energetic LGBT politics emerged on the public scene and same-sex characters began to appear in works by Song Gyeong-a, Yi Na-mi, Seo Yeong-eun, Yun Dae-nyeong, Baek Min-seok, and a handful of others, each writer with her/ his own perspective and, for the most part, not very positive. Song and another writer, Yi Nam-hui, are important exceptions, sort of “fellow travelers” who didn’t write deliberately as LGBT writers, but whose novels were in keeping with the highest aims of the movement.

In the 2000s we see same-sex themes in works by Bae Su-a and Shin Gyeong-suk. Shin, like Jo Gyeongnan, has indicated she prefers the terms “intimacy” or “sisterly love” (jamaeae), not homosexuality (“dongseongae”). This happens when “dongseongae” is viewed as “homosexuality” rather than “same-sex love”.

If the 80s was the decade for poetry, and the 90s the novel, then the 2000s was the decade for theatre, and increasingly, film. I’ll mention one play, the problematic “Fig Blossoms”, which stands as the first major theatrical articulation of the Korean LGBT reality. The playwright and actors in the production were all gay and lesbian. The play shows the cultural dilemma of a group desirous of Western-type freedoms but which cannot challenge the traditional values and culture of their society that blocks those freedoms, a contradiction most palpable in the thought processes of the characters themselves more than in the actual plot. Since the early 2000s, of course, there have been increasingly bolder and more brilliant flashes of LGBT cultural production in theatre, film, dramas and music; much less so in poetry and prose narratives. Everyone now waits for the next development.

Some notes – As Gabriel notes, same-sex culture and literature was more developed in Japan, and this had some effect on Korea. Gabriel notes Yi-Kwangsu as an early writer of GLBT fiction, and we will talk about him more tomorrow, because his relationship to homosexuality and his relationship to Japan were inextricably intertwined.  I also like Gabriel’s point that there was no identity of gay or lesbian until quite recently.

Some entertaining reading that supports that claim can be found in Ch’oe  Yun’s The Last of Hanako (1994), which cleverly demonstrates that lesbians could do something like “hide in plain sight” in a culture which didn’t believe that lesbians existed. Ch’oe’s female characters are eventually driven out, in at least two ways, but it is because they can’t seem to be placed in a still very conservative, dare I say Confucian(?), culture, not because they are seen as sexually different; in fact the difference is assumed to be impossible.

13 thoughts on “More with Gabriel Sylvian: Korean GLBT Literature #2

  1. Interesting.

    Is there more?

    For example, in the West, there are LGBT mysteries, science fiction, romances, etc. rather than exclusively literary fiction.

    Even in Japan there is some.

    LGBT readers are not more intellectual in their tastes than others.

    They like a well-crafted romance, mystery etc.

  2. A new attraction that should invite genre fiction.

    Also, this:

    mentions “Stories were translated by accomplished Korean genre translators – Kim Chang Kyu, Choi Se Jin and Shin Hae Kyung, Chung Bora and Cheong Sung Wong.”

    Have you contacted them????

    Also check out a science fiction book store:


    Bottom line — Korean science fiction exists, and we want to learn more about it!!!

  3. Charles:

    Here is a link see pp. 38-39 on the Malaysian literary translation institute.

    Some food for thought in the article.

    In DPRK there are no rainbow flags, though I did read that a rainbow was spotted at the exact moment of birth of the “Great Successor”

    I saw that a Korean language newspaper is published in Kyrgyzstan.

    Interesting that ROK seems to take so little interest in ethnic Koreans located around the world.

  4. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader « The Grand Narrative

  5. Pingback: More with Gabriel Sylvian: Yi Kwang-su and Gayness

  6. Pingback: Some questions on Korean LGBT Literature #1

  7. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader « The Grand Narrative

  8. Pingback: More with Gabriel Sylvian: Yi Kwang-su and Gayness (Korean GLBT Literature #3) |

  9. Pingback: More with Gabriel Sylvian: Korean GLBT Literature #4 |

Comments are closed.