Departures: London Book Fair (Korea focus)
This is the first in a series of special-edition Departures that focus on the London Book Fair. The London Book Fair is a large trade publishing event, attended by over 25,000 publishers, booksellers, authors and literary agents, as well as media from over 100 countries. I, representing Seizure, visited the fair to gather information and seek out new trends for emerging writers in Australia.
The market focus this year was Korea. Though ‘Korea’ was a somewhat misleading title as all the authors were from South Korea. North Korea only appeared in occasional verbal slips by authors, but it was absent from the program and seminars. For those of you with a keen interest in North Korea, we’ve included a few books in our ‘What to read’ section.
South Korea, an economic success story, is among one of the top ten publishing industries worldwide, with 38,170 publishers and 1,752 bookstores operating within the country. The Korean publishing industry’s approach to globalisation is very much one-way, with a huge push to provide grants and programs for overseas publishers to pick up Korean works and print them in English-speaking markets. However, for writers in English, there seems to be little support for translation or distribution in Korea, or opportunities for publication in Korean journals.
So unless you are a bestselling Australian author, it is going to be hard to break into the Korean market at this point in time. But, don’t despair! There are a few English-language South Korean journals that do publish emerging international writers (we’ll get to this soon), as well as an expatriate community in Seoul that regularly holds literary events. I hope you enjoy this Departures Korean focus and become as enamoured and curious with this region as I am.
What to read
Kang Chol-Hwan was the first man to survive a North Korean concentration camp and tell his story in The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Co-written with Pierre Rigoulot and translated by Yair Reiner, it is a horrific memoir that depicts the inner workings of the ‘gulag’ and the exploitation of thousands of people as forced labour. Part historical document and part political explanation, Pierre Rigoulot writes a fascinating account of Kang’s new life in South Korea, exploring the history of both North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Your North Korea literary adventures should start here, as it will create a grounded understanding of a country that is neglected in the tales of modern history.
If, after engaging with the torture and the executions, you want to read more on this subject then Escape From Camp 14 should also be added to your to-read pile. Blaine Harden, an American journalist, recounts a harrowing, and extraordinary, tale of Shin Dong-hyuk. Born and raised in a gulag he only begins to imagine the outside world after being tortured for weeks after snitching on his mother and brother’s escape plan to a begrudging guard. When Shin does escape he struggles to learn how to live a ‘normal’ life in South Korea. The South Korean government provides generous services and supplies to refugees, however the citizens themselves often do not want to face the realities, or accept, their northern counterparts.
This hesitation to accept and engage with North Korea is apparent in the South Korean literary world as well. Yi Mun-yol, a South Korean author of award-winning novel The Poet, heads a small community of North Korean writers in exile, who are working to create a North Korean PEN group. PEN is an organisation that campaigns for the freedom to create and write literature, without fear of repercussions, with the view that any writer anywhere should be heard. Interestingly, South Korean audiences are largely unresponsive to the literature of North Korea. Yi Mun-yol notes that ‘even though the language is the same, we can’t identify with them. The forms and mechanisms are completely unfamiliar. We feel like we’re reading South Korean books from 50 years ago.’
There are, of course, huge ideological differences that deter people from wanting to read North Korean books and engage with their stories. Perhaps the raw, hopeless tales of North Korea do not appeal to South Koreans as much as the didactic happy-ending Western stories that are finding success there, because they recall a too-recent history that the ‘new’ culture of South Korea is trying to forget. Yi Mun-yol suggests that North Korean writers have not yet learned how to disguise their literary intent in allegory.
‘They are giving factual accounts,’ confirmed Yi Mun-yol. ‘I provide a space for the [North Korean] writers, they write whatever they like.’
This explains why most literature from North Korea is comprised of non-fiction works, factual or creative. The forthcoming memoir of Jang Jin-sung, Dear Leader, translated by Shirley Lee, is an account of his time in the highly-ranked position of North Korea’s Poet Laureate. It challenges our own discourse of ethics, as he wrote epic poems in support of the dictator, Kim Jong-il, which helped develop the founding myth of North Korea and tighten the hold of the regime over the country. Later, however, as Jang watched his country become an emaciated shell, he realised he had to leave. In addition to Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Orphan Master’s Son, Dear Leader is an essential North Korean read. Hopefully, as the country opens up, we will start to see some of their homegrown poetry and fiction, no matter how bleak, trickling onto our bookshelves.
The Vegetarian, written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith, is about women who turn into plants. Narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, there is a remarkable distinction in the styles; the husband is wry and sharp in his voice, whereas Yeong-hye’s monologues are nightmarish yet poetic: ‘long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit.’
The gender split between styles is fascinating: the woman is hysterical, obsessive and speaks only to recount dreams, while the man is an observant carer. The cultural implications of the gender binaries lead the reader to question the communication methods within gender politics in South Korea. The nameless husband lives in a completely different world in comparison to the imaginary one of his wife and yet they remain under the same roof. At the core of the book is the desire for Yeong-hye to become a vegetable: she believes the true matter of being is in becoming a vegetable and refuses to eat anything but meat when she feels the time coming nearer to her transformation. You can read an excerpt of The Vegetarian here. The Vegetarian is a forthcoming title published by Portobello Books (no date available).
I’m Okay, I’m Pig is a collection of poems by Kim Hyesoon, who wears big black-framed glasses and silver hoops. Her blunt hairstyle frames her ageless face and while she does not seem to want attention, her flatform shoes and words demand it. Her poetic state is akin to that of a faint light, the kind of light necessary to just visibly outline a figure in complete darkness. Though her poetry is often defined and described as ‘women’s poetry’, she rejects this categorisation and writes to break the Korean tradition of softly-spoken women and deliberately tries to neutralise gendered voices in Korean poetry. A political radical in her early twenties, her rebellious nature is apparent in her unconventional poetics: ‘Yournostrilsingledropofapricklynosehairearthgod!’. There is no East or West, North or South in I’m Okay, I’m Pig, these poems are located where direction has no place. Read ‘All the Garbage of the World, Unite!’ out loud, and see what form of ecstatic grit consumes you, I dare you!
Where to reside/study
Unfortunately there are no creative writing programs or courses available in Korea in English. Our suggestion would be to enrol in a Korean language course in order to then be able to transmit your learning between cultures and languages. The Visit Korea website provides a comprehensive list of the various language institutions.
Seoul Art Space is an organisation that aims to regenerate derelict buildings and bring art into the city of Seoul. They have various spaces available to artists, each with a focus on one element of the creative or conceptual arts industry. Seoul Art Space Geumcheon and Seoul Art Space Yeonhui both include writing in their accepted art forms and their residencies are open to international writers. Unfortunately the deadline for the Geumcheon and Yeonhui residencies was in March, but it is worth looking at their application requirements so you can be prepared for 2015. The residencies are not fully funded, with artists expected to cover costs for flights, food and some accommodation, but the cultural immersion would be priceless.
The Gyeonggi Creation Center is an arts sponsorship organisation located in the Gyeonggi province to help support both Korean and international artists and writers. Applications for residencies open every year in November, with successful artists provided with workspace, lodgings and, in many cases, funding for their work. The Gyeonggi Creation Center has a relationship with Asialink, an Australian initiative that supports cross-cultural exchanges between Australia and Asia. Applications for Asialink open later in the year and will be announced through Twitter and Facebook feeds, with successful applicants being awarded grants of up to $12,000.
Where to submit
The premise of Imminent Quarterly is simple: to publish work that has the feeling of imminent danger, as originally philosophised by Paul Valéry. Imminent Quarterly publishes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and various kinds of art from English-language writers and artists living in Korea, and international writers who have visited South Korea. Every quarter they create a slick online edition that is invigorated by its visual supplements, especially the photography. Check out the first edition here. They have quite specific submission guidelines, which include writing a cover letter and a bio, so read them carefully. Their resources page is also useful for those of you wanting to fill visits to Seoul with literary events.
Nine Tales Journal is a budding journal, an online literary venture dedicated to writing about Korea, with their first issue still to be published. They accept short stories, essays and artwork, and it is compulsory that your work considers the Kumiho, a demonic nine-tailed fox that seduces unwary travellers and scholars with the lure of beauty and riches. The Kumiho then drains their victim of strength and leaves them to die. Symbolic in Korean literature of caution and everything that is essentially evil, the Kumiho represents the alternative image to traditional Korean morals and ethics. Nine Tales Journal is seeking to publish new and untamed visions of twenty-first century Korea and Koreans. They accept works in translation, and the deadline for issue one was April 30, 2014.
The next installment in the Departures LBF series will focus on the miscellany of opportunities and information that we foraged at the Fair.
In the mean time, I would like to share with you, Seizure readers, some of the pretty darn cool quotes, aphorisms, and poetic statements from the South Korean authors that I heard at the fair. These snippets left me tingling at the craft of the written word and feverish to start writing:
‘The language of poetry is the language of absence.’
‘When you long for someone, do you long for someone who is alive or who has not yet been born?’ – Kim Hyesoon
‘A poet is someone who captures language and finally kills it.’ – Kim Young-ha
‘Writing a novel is like a strip tease backwards. A novel starts with you naked, then you put on one layer at a time. The finished product is the life of the author.’ – Lee Seung-u
‘Seoul is a city suffering from short-term memory loss. The memory of our impoverished past … My father did not grow up wearing shoes. There has been an evolution of shoes in Korea. But now everyone wears Nike. No shoes to Nike. This change in identity is reshaping the self.’ – Yi Mon-yol
‘I write about loneliness. Writing about loneliness does not make me any less lonely.’ – Kim Insuk