The Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011: Day Two – Bok Geo-il, Jo Kyung-ran, Kim Yeon-su

The day two event I chose to attend was Globalizing World and the Human Community.

Bok Geo-il (복거일)

The first speaker was Bok Geo-il, who spoke on Language and Writing in the Age of Globalization (this was one of the papers at this conference I edited). Bok is a novelist, critic, and representative of the Future Culture Forum. According to Amazon he has nothing translated into English, which is odd, because he is a strong proponent of Koreans speaking English. My research may be faulty.^^

Sounding a bit like Yu Jong-ho from the day before, Bok noted that writing is done through language so you must study language before writing  and that language is a system of symbols used to process information.

Life means information processing through genes and genes are the lowest level (but very efficient) of communication and transmission of information. Above that, he said, is the transmission done by culture, which is, similar to genes, in that it is an ongoing process of selection.  Culture has increased influence today, partly because its ‘generations’ are moving much faster and influence has been handed over in a process similar to genetic transmission. When genetic evolution is combined with cultural evolution you have the totality of information that humans have.

If you look at culture, the process of change (compared to genes) can happen virtually instantaneously (BOK DOES NOT EXPLICITLY SAY THIS, BUT IT IS A MASSIVE CHANGE), so culture has become more important. Today it is as if culture determines evolution. This is called genetic culture co-evolution.

So, Bok argued, to advance our culture we should learn from evolution. First, you need to have many cultural variations, people should be allowed to experiment and the results of these experiments should be allowed to be freely chosen and lastly the chosen ideas should be allowed to spread.

He focused on last step, the diffusion. In the case of literature, transmission/diffusion is through culture; but between cultures language is the primary barrier to this. Language takes a lifetime to learn and once you have your mother tongue you cannot change it to another – you have a lock-in to your native tongue. The language barrier, therefore, inhibits flow of ideas between cultures. Units of culture cannot be exchanged freely from one culture to another in situations such as this. The Korean language is, of course, a minority one. So because of the language barrier Korean literature and language is limited. If we recognize that we come to see that writers in the Korean language will experience a great deal of difficulty presenting themselves globally.

Bok noted that Shin Kyung-sook sold more than 100,000 copies of her book Please Look After Mom and that was so odd it made the headlines in Korea. If Jo Kyun- ran, he claimed, had been born in the US, she would currently be famous and so would Yi Mun-yol.

Bok then went on to argue that authors are somewhat brainwashed ideologically and do not know that they are deprived of the opportunity to be successful in the international arena, but rather they are really proud that their mission is to preserve the nation language and in that way the reinforce the language barrier and that is unfortunate for authors and does not advance Korean culture. Therefore he asked Korean authors to think about the following argument. Korean writers need to change their way of thinking about language and they shouldn’t stick too much to their own national language, or they will lose out. He quoted a Russian author (I missed the name) who said “people should learn the language of the masses and make use of it.”  He stressed that Korean authors should pay attention to this dictum, but with one important condition that an author should be able to think deeply about their own language and they need to have a clear understanding of the languages they use, so they write correctly.

Jo Kyung-ran (조경란)

Next came Jo Kyung-ran, a novelist internationally famous for her book , Tongue, whose paper was the ambitiously titled Ultimate Questions (another of the pieces I edited!). Her paper was quite Korean, a bit meandering, and I’m still not entirely clear what it was trying to tell me about the Globalizing World and the Human Community. At least Jo was clearly trying to say that there are some people outside the sphere of influence of, or not interested in, globalization, and at the end she seemed to suggest that these people should not be concerned about their lack of knowledge.

Jo began with the joke that the ultimate question is not about food! Language is important because it is the basis of our life and evolves.

Using the experience of having to “update” her old mobile phone, Jo examined her position as an old-fashioned author in a writing world which is new-fangled and globalizing.

She notes that likes stylish clothes (actually, she likes black and white clothes, a combination of colors associated with stylishness, but that’s as far as she goes in that direction.  For instance she noted that she keeps her phone off when she writes, which is why she hadn’t met Bok Geo-il before (he noted in his intro that he had only met the Japanese author previous to this conference).

She also told a funny story about attempting to change her phone and being turned aside at the recognition that she’d have to change her phone number to do so. She liked the numbers she had and didn’t want to change to a 010 number.

This kind of thing, she said, leads people to ask questions like, “How can you be so old-fashioned when you are a writer in the 21st century?”

She then described having to deal with the extraverted style of the global publishing and being battered by it.She was in the “so-called capital of the world,” and I was having a meeting on the book she had written and discovered that the brusque and quick international meeting style was not to her taste. In the course of this story she also revealed that she had not become an author until the age of 28.

Her interactions with the globalized world have led her to the intent that she does not intend to become electronic to go global and does not like fast, speedy and direct things. She will not create an international identity. In fact, to my amazement (and a thing I will fix later today) she does not seem to even have a Wikipedia page.

Perhaps Jo’s point, buried at the end, as often happens in Korean writing, is this quote:

Maybe I came to accept myself and feel that I belong to this world only after accepting my traits, my original and incomplete self. (257)

And that, she reveals, is where she finds her peace. She may not be at home in the globalized world, but in an echo of an old Buddhist aphorism she concluded that, “I didn’t know that I was a bell. But I am a bell.”

It was an entertaining talk to listen to because, despite Jo’s frequent self-abegnatory asides about her own writing skill, she is a good writer, and that sounds good, even in translation.^^

Kim Yeon-su (김연수)

Jeong Yi-hyun, another novelist, who doesn’t seem to have anything translated in English, but is currently working on a novel with Alain de Botton (which KTLIT talked about here) wrote the paper Some Question Marks to the World Where Everything Is Changing and Yet Not Changing. And yet, she left us all with nothing but question marks, as her intent to actually attend the conference apparently changed.

Kim Yeong-su, presented a paper called What E-books Do Not Take With Them. Instead of getting directly to that, he began with the question of misinterpretation and meaning, discussing a painting of a snowstorm by William Turner.   He argued that there are multiple levels to that painting including the formal painting itself (the “text” in a non text-theory kind of way), the abstract notion of what the painter (writer) had in mind, then the curtain of forms and colors (the presentation), and finally the interpretation this all brings the reader to create.

Kim then eased into a discussion of textuality, literacy, abstract thought, and how texts are created semi-communally.In other words, this was a classically Korean paper: It traveled a long road before it reached its point.

The final part of that path was this – a book is actually a collaborative project on many levels, beginning with the author, but including the editor, the book-designer, the materials of which the book is printed, and even where a book is found and in what condition.

Midway down the seventh (and final) page of the paper Kim reaches his point – the e-book, by eliminating all mediating influences on the text simplifies and makes transparent the process and meaning of books and that this leaving behind of the physical artifact of books is going to have implications that we do not yet understand.

In a funny aside, after finishing his paper Kim noted,  “I think my introduction was too long! Only now did I get to my point”

In a way, I thought of Kim’s paper as an opening salvo in the discussion of what “artifactuality” e-books bring to the table (well, laptop) and what the differences, lacks really, between those artifacts and the artifacts of the traditional book will mean for reader, writer, and ultimately society.

Bok Geo-il and Jo Kyung-ran exchange cards

The Inevitable Card Exchange^^

3 thoughts on “The Seoul International Forum for Literature 2011: Day Two – Bok Geo-il, Jo Kyung-ran, Kim Yeon-su

  1. First of all — great reporting!

    The person who said “people should learn the language of the masses and make use of it.” was that very famous Chinese, Mao Zedong, in his 1942 talks on literature and art in Yenan.

  2. Charles,

    LOL.. now that’s funny! I’d prefer to think it was poor simultaneous translation (중국 versus 러시아 사람) or that there is an equivalent saying by some Russian dude – rather than just refusing to acknowledge the quote was from Mao!

    Anyway, it was fun conference and I was sad I could not attend today, the final day…

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