Thursday, May 30, 2013

Contemporary Korean Literature

I attended another 'Taste of K-culture' session today. This involved a guided tour of the National museum of Korean Contemporary History, followed by a lecture on Contemporary Korean Literature. 

Krys Lee who delivered the lecture explained that she's a writer, editor and translator (she translates Korean novels and literary works into English). She told us Korean-English literary translation is currently a booming and lucrative industry (Perhaps it's a shame I've given up on Korean classes after all). She explained Korean literature is translated by fellow writers to help retain some of the clarity and beauty, as well as open them up to rest of the world.  

I didn't know the lecture was actually going to be on literature, it was a nice surprise. Krys Lee told us Korea is the only country where writers are predominantly female. She talked about Korea's rapid and dramatic modernization over the last fifty years, and she mentioned the growth of individualism. She described how the sense of individualism has developed over the last 10-15 years. I found this interesting, because I have definitely witnessed more individualism in Korea than I'd expected, or been led to believe I would. Hongdae is a area of Seoul is positively buzzing with expressive individualism. Also, on the subway ride to this particular lecture, I'd noticed two (twenty-something) young men on the train. They both had dyed hair. They also had tattoo's twisting around their lower arms. Their overall appearance had an alternative vibe. The tattoo's were written in English, I couldn't read them properly but I noticed one mentioned 'love'. These young men might not have been Korean, but they both looked and spoke Korean so I assumed they were.

Krys Lee told us contemporary Korean literature explores loneliness, alienation, and more sexual themes than traditional literature. She also talked about Korean's notion of 'stateless beings'. She explained the younger generation sometimes feel less connected to their own society, because they spend a number of years studying or living in other countries, like America. She drew comparisons between people who live outside/or on the margins of society as characterized in 50s and 60s American literature. This reminded me of the Korean film I went to watch in January, called 'stateless things'. The director told us he had been attempting to tackle and document this very same theme. Krys Lee told us 'stateless beings'  is a prevalent theme found in contemporary Korean literature. 

We were given a handout with excerpts from a selection of Korean writers and poets. 
Here is couple I liked. 

"Bare Mountain" - Kim Sun-Woo (translated by Krys Lee).

The thing the world calls making a name for yourself
that I'd thought a false grave,
the bare mountain in Gangwondo that I climbed already knew this.
There I lifted up my top, well, because the wind was refreshing.
At the mountain's peak, there are no verticals,
only hills upon hills covered with pampas grass.
In the wind fluttering from heaven and earth and all sides,
like a soul that's escaped the body,
my collarbone was freed after an eternity of dreaming of nomdic nakedness.
Some kids come down from a tribe of clouds
above my brightening areolas
and jut their young, friendly lips,
and inside the chill of early winter's dry pampa field
unknown to man, I hurl off my last lower garments,
embrace the children of the cloud tribe with to arms
and walked the pampa field's garden of air. Recurring lives 
passed while driving the wind ahead. How light it is, the pampa,
its glittering, scaly flesh fell
into my body like the season's first snow.
The wind's tongue passes below my dizzy hips, 
licks the deep valley , and lifts
the pampas' spores with it's lips
into my body.
That it's possible to have relations with the wind!
Lying down, each has relations with 
another in different postures, the winter grass,
the cocoon and the sunlight that made
the nest hanging on the stems
and the naked bodies of everything having
relations with each other brightening the wind.
Because the wind blew that sometimes ushers in injury, 
the sun's labor pains, like a thousand years ago,
had its legs spread open toward the shade.
I realized the unknown something that had relations
with god from primaeval times, like the sunlight across my hips, 
was naked. While pushing through the dense papa stems
and following the bare mountain's backbone, it flutters over.
Receiving it , my body becomes a shrine.

"The man who sold his shadow" - Kim Young-ha (translated by Dafna Zur).
Here's a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we're young: Where does that starlight come from? It's been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They'll grab a flash light and aim it at the stars and think. This will get there someday won't it? When I'm dead and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well. Whimsical thoughts, of course. Not a chance that light so faint will still be sparkling thousands of light years from now. That's our universe: a place where light much stronger than this vanishes without a trace.

And another childish question: Does a bird in mid-flight have a shadow? How can such a small light thing be burdened by something as clumsy as a shadow? But birds most certainly do have a shadow. Sometimes, just sometimes, when I watch a flock fly by I have a feeling that something dark and black is flitting past. It's subtle enough that you'll miss it if you're not fully concentrating on it. When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that? As usual I haven't the faintest idea. Just wanted to make the point that bird shadows can cover the sun.

Look down from a helicopter and you see for yourself that flying objects have shadows. The shadow surges and swells under you; it's like a black carpet and it doesn't go away. Shadows latch onto that space between you and the source of light and they never go away. Block out the light, and you end up with a shadow. And I'm always standing between the two.

That timid child, so scared of his own shadow, grew up to become a writer. I write for a living. I get up in the morning, read the paper, prepare breakfast for me, open the window to freshen up the room, play some oldies music. Recently, the old man who moved in next door showed me how to eat green tea over rice. Just pour the boiled tea over a bowl of white rice and eat it with pickled cucumbers or some other mild side-dishes. For spring days when you have no appetite and you're alone, it's the perfect meal. Once I'm done with this simple meal, I pour some hot water into the tea bowl and have another cup. A clean, neat meal, like the offerings of Zen monks to the Buddha. But even on such mornings, things can unsettle me. Like when my college girlfriend was quoted in the paper as saying her college years were lonely and depressing.


I dropped Migyong off and was heading home when it occurred to me that it might not be such a bad idea to try and live with her. After all, living together is no big deal. Grab breakfast together in the morning, send her off to work, drink some green tea, write, listen to music, have dinner together when she gets home from work. She'll ask, did you write much today? And I'd show her what I'd done. The two of us might be able to pull it off, live in a stable life, undisturbed and unshaken. Who knows? Who knows? Maybe if I try that kind of nitty-gritty, in your face living, I might develop a shadow of my own. And once I get a dignified shadow, I'll run over to presbytery, smack the back of repulsively handsome Paulo's head, and ask him to baptize our child. Give us a good name, will you? I'll say. Not like "Paulo." And of course I'll pay my respects to Chongshik every year on the anniversary of his death. He did pass away childless. At that very moment, a large bird-shadow passed over my head. I looked up. Strange - a bird's shadow on a moonless night? I flinched again. Thanks to you, my fanciful daydreaming has come to an end.

Listlessly, I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed. 

Krys Lee told us that we could also find literature from North Korea, written by recent defectors on the  'words without borders' website.

If you would like to meet Krys Lee, she will be doing a book reading/signing at the 'What the Book Bookstore' in Itaewon, on June 16, at 6pm.

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