I’m currently somewhere in between working on pages for the Wikipedia Project and writing a review of the University of Hawai’i’s publication of Questioning Minds, a collection of female writers who span the entire modern history of Korean modern literature.
For the purposes of the Wikipedia Project I also have the Who’s Who in Korean Literature (published by the Korean Culture & Arts Foundation), a vast tome of some 55o pages, containing biographies of 181 writers. Published in 1996 the book says the the publisher’s mission (partly) is:
Contribution to the creation of cultural environment of the future society that is rich and abundant as well as to the international cultural exchange.
Which is why I found it odd that of the 10 authors represented in Questioning Minds, only two were in the Who’s Who. Park Wan-suh made the cut, and so did Ch’oe Yun. But of course these two were unavoidable.
Authors who did not make the cut include: Kim Myong-sun and Na Hye-sok, two artists whose lives were essentially destroyed for their lack of conventionality; Kim Won-ju, whose views on sexuality were so unpopular that she eventually retreated to a Buddhist temple; Han Mu-sook, who is famous in Korean and internationally; Kang Sin-jae, whose official involvement with the Korean literary establishment was vast (e.g. she won the Korea Republic Academy of Arts Award in 1988 and was a representative of the Association of Korean Writers); Song Won-hui (just exactly repeat the qualifications I listed for Kang Sin-jae); Yi Sun (whose tragic early memory loss had the unfortunate effect of removing her from the public eye), and; Yi Sok-pong, who won the Korean PEN Literature Award in 1989).
That is a rather remarkable list of writers to have missed, both trailblazers and accomplished artists, all publicly recognized well before publication of the Who’s Who. More remarkably, out of those 181 important writers in the Who’s Who, only 15 are women (the writers are conveniently categorized as M or F on the header of each biography). This is an astoundingly low percentage (I pulled out all my maths skills^^ and calculated it as less than 10%), and leads me to suspiciously ask if there is a bias here.
Some notes of warning to myself –
- It is quite possible that there have been more male writers than female writers in the modern era, certainly the lives of Na and Kim Myong-sun would have scared off all but the hardiest potential writer.
- The inclusion of poets in this list might also swing the balance towards men (I have no idea what the ratio of male to female poets might actually be)
- The situation I am describing is also quite prevalent on the English side of literature
But still – it’s a remarkable list of omissions and a remarkable percentage of men in the final tally. I think it’s time to put out another one of these books and try to represent the actual, and increasing, diversity of Korean authors. In fact, of course it is time to do this.. I also note that Shin Kyung-sook (F) and Kim Young-ha (M) are not represented in the book.
Finally, kudos to LTI Korea and other translators, who have ALWAYS seemed to translate a higher percentage of female authors than the gatekeepers of the canon seem willing to admit.