This is post three of a multi-post series on Korean GLBT Literature, featuring a Q&A with Gabriel Sylvian, the founder of The Korea Gay Literature Project.
You can find post one, discussing the history of gays and lesbians in pre-modern literature here.
And post two discussing gays and lesbians in modern Korean literature here.
Q) In an article for the Three Wise Monkeys Brian Dye makes reference to “homophobic discourse surrounding the early modern, and fascinating, writer Yi Gwang-su.” I was unaware of this (though I did come across mention of “Maybe Love”). I wonder if you have any information on this?
A) Well, that requires a little background. Yi Gwang-su’s early short stories (the ones with the same-sex themes) betray contrasting epistemologies with regard to same-sex love/homosexuality. Yi’s maidenwork “Maybe Love” was written in 1909 before medicalized homosexuality came to East Asia; while Yi’s 1918 short story “Yun Gwang-ho”, a revision of the 1906 work, reflects Yi’s adoption of sexual science. I took that point of difference as a strategic entryway to critique Yi’s conversion to sexual science on the one hand, and on the other hand, simultaneously tackle the post-1970s Korean literary establishment’s reproduction of Yi’s biomedical view of homosexuality while they effectively swept the maidenwork completely under the rug.
“Maybe Love” represents an important turn in Yi’s life as a writer. His discovery of “heart” (jeong), a term he introduced as a central concept in his theory of modern Korean literature, is located precisely in the writing of this first short story. The story was the outcome of a personal awakening in respect to, and an act of resistance against, what he called “Christian hypocrisy” and Japanese ultranationalism. This was 1906, just a few years after the Russo-Japanese War, and the Japanese were very full of themselves, steeped in arrogance at their naval victory against the Russians. Yi had gone to Tokyo, of course, to study, and aspired to the highest ideals of the modern knowledge system of Meiji Japan. Yi was a genius by his own admission: a model student, a nearly inconceivably avid reader, and was fluent in Japanese and English. He studied the Bible, Tolstoy, the Japanese Naturalists, and an untold number of literary and philosophical works by the time he was 18. But the Japanese viewed Yi and the other Korean students with harsh prejudice. Yi’s “awakening” in 1906, which he refers to in his diary as “devil” (angma)-like, was also fuelled by the Ito Hirobumi assassination, inspiration from Tolstoi and (I think) “Anna Karenina” in particular, and a work of Japanese criticism on Byron’s Cain, which extolled the downtrodden to, like Satan cast down from Heaven, “never surrender your soul, even if you must surrender your body!”
Incidentally, it’s known from an anecdotal account by a then-classmate of Yi, a Japanese man, that there was a particularly handsome male student at Yi’s school whom many of the boys, including Yi, fancied. It’s possible that he was the boy who inspired the older love interest in “Maybe Love”. Maybe this boy snubbed Yi, as in the story. But we know that a snub or something similar in impact, led to Yi’s “devilish” revolt. It seems he wrote “Maybe Love” as an act of passive-aggression, Naturalistically confessing the fact of his own one-sided love in a heart-felt narrative to indict the boy’s snub with clear implications for Japanese society as a whole. “Maybe Love” is boldly and honestly expressed, and very forthright in its depiction of male-male desire, even by today’s standards. It was published before Yi graduated and returned to Korea to teach at Osan Boys’ School, where he had a love affair of some sort with a student named Huicheol. We know this from an open letter Huicheol published to Yi before his own untimely death.
As I said, the Korean critics, to a man, ignored the 1906 work and developed a whole body of theory based on the 1918 work. The first such theory was the widely-accepted “orphan consciousness” theory which held that Yi expressed same-sex themes because his parents died while he was young. The theorist drew on the assumptions laid out by Yi in 1918, that same-sex desire has roots in some troubled mental state. The offspring of the “orphan consciousness” theory were theories like “aesthetic homosexuality”, “sympathy theory”, “situational homosexuality” or various other analyses that could have been lifted right out an early 20th century sexological manual, using language like “perversion” (seong dochak), “weird” or “wrong”. Other approaches included dismissing the same-sex motifs altogether as enigmatic or proposterous, or minimizing the importance of Yi’s early works as “experimental” No nationalist intellectual questioned the discriminatory premise of these theories, or dealt squarely with the socio-cultural phenomenon of homosexuality and the historical context of its emergence in the region with respect to Yi’s work, even as they harshly criticized the same mindset as manifested in Yi’s infamous “Reform Theory” (Gaejoron). It’s the same fascist thought system in both cases, emanating from the same mind; only applied here to sexuality, and there to the minjok (people). I’ve been told by Korean students that the “orphan consciousness” theory and its progeny have now been laid to rest. But challenging homophobic discourses must consider the cultural setting in which the discourses emerged, rather than just tackling them from a Euro-American positionality. Building on my MA thesis “A Genealogical Study on the Same-Sex Themes in Yi Gwang-su’s Early Novels” (SNU, 2007), in my upcoming dissertation I emphasize the importance of addressing complexity, taking into account nationalism, post-colonial and multiple other approaches, rather than asserting the privilege of just one view to the exclusion of others.
It is first worth noting that with respect to nearly everything, Yi Kwang-su was a man of strong and wildly veering passions. At the time of colonialization Yi became an ardent patriot, then an ardent collaborator, and in the 30s a Buddhist.
What I really like about Gabriel’s answer here is his willingness to admit to multiple motivations for Yi, since in Korea he is frequently consigned to one camp or another in the binary taxonomy of a country that has frequently been split.
In the next post we will talk a little bit about translations of GLBT literature from Korean to English.