Some thoughts on the “The Portable Library of Korean Literature”

The Portable Library of Korean Literature (PLKL) is an outstanding collection. It is easy to read, inexpensive, colorfully bound (though the hangeul cover design is in mirrored text, which seems an odd decision), and chock full of great stories, often several to a volume. If there is one flaw in the “The Portable Library of Korean Literature” (published by Jimoondong Publishing in a series of quite readable and slender volumes), however, it is that it has sometimes focused too intently on issues of the Korean War and the bifurcation of the nation.

I don’t say this because I think that these historical realities are not important to Korean literature – in fact those particular histories infuse everything that happens in Korea, even today. There is no denying the history. These issues are also, of course, critical to Korean literature because of the trauma they represent. Literature is often driven by trauma.

In a brilliant essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elaine Showalter notes that May Rowlandson (an early female writer in the US) became a writer largely due to trauma. Rowlandson was “not a highly educated woman, and she might never have become an author had she not been captured, along with her three children, by the Narragansett Indians and held hostage.”

Trauma begets literature (as does love and notions of fairies flitting hither, thither, and yon) and war and dissolution are two of the most important traumatic issues to Korea. These issues are important right now and back into history. So I don’t say this literature is bad, or that it shouldn’t be translated. Rather, I worry at the focus of translated literature as someone who dreams that translated Korean literature will become more popular on an international scale. In addition, the PLKL focus on directly historical themes limits the interest of translated Korean literature for foreign readers who aren’t aware of Korean history. This ‘unaware’ segment is the vast majority of potential readers.

To draw a parallel with my nation of birth, one might say that the Civil War in the United States was its defining national crisis. Similarly, one might claim that the mythical cowboy was the “re-defining” historical figure in the United States re-unifying and growing. If these examples make you unhappy, pick your own critically important figure, moment, movement, or theme.

Once that theme is chosen, however, imagine that 40% (all figures 100% snatched out of thin air) of literature translated from English to other languages solely focused on that theme and how the results of that thematic selection or historical reality damaged and depressed the United States. Such literature would not be improper or bad, but it might alienate a potential foreign audience.

This is close to what you have in the KTLI’s Portable Library. Add in stories focused on the costs of forced industrialization, and you probably move above 70% of the series. Again, everything here is historically accurate, and the literature is good, but is it literature that will read in translation?

Perhaps not.

My point here is a marketing one; it is partly (and only partly) the range of topic in most modern literatures that makes them attractive. I live in Korea and as an expatriate can often only guess about what is happening from day to day, and how social and historical realities affect that daily existence, but I can also tell you that day to day existence in Korea is often an efflorescence of enjoyment. Little of this is displayed in The Portable Library of Korean Literature. In fact, I can only think of A Dream of Good Fortune, in “Land Of Exile.” This is certainly partially a function of my newbie status with the literature, but still that is chilling. If an aficionado has to struggle to find these works, how would a casual browser ever find them?

In another way, I suppose, I am being perverse in my argument. One thing I thoroughly enjoy about Korean Modern Literature is that it is about things. It is in no way caught in the “academic trap” that United States modern literature seems to be ensnared in. I await, with horror, the development of a fully throated literary criticism movement in translated Korean literature. It will kill much of the joy of these works.

Unambiguously, the Korea war and succeeding bifurcation are subjects that are real, non-theoretical and non-abstract. Nonetheless, the uniformly dour nature of the translations in the Portable Library series, give me some pause to wonder if this is a) representative (a thing I can’t assess as I can’t read works in Korean), and b) a good marketing strategy (since it inevitably comes back to that in my head)?

I’d like to see some more light-hearted or ephemeral works in this series. After all, South Korea must have its indigenous version of Lemony Snickett, eh?

Somewhat related, while in Busan I went to an excellent bookstore by the 9th exit of the Seomyeong Station (lines 1 and 2) and discovered that while I was napping, the excellent folks at Jimoondong Publishing had pushed the number of titles in the series up to 25. Regardless of my concern with choices of topic, this is an unreservedly good thing, and I look forward to getting them all, reviewing them and trying to develop an online “reader’s guide” to them.