Thursday Fiction Corner: The Library of Korean Literature Series

Yi Kwang Su

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! Today’s Thursday Fiction Corner comes courtesy of Esther Kim, a publicity assistant at Columbia UP who works with many of the books on the Dalkey Archive list, including the books in Dalkey’s much-discussed new Library of Korean Literature series.

The Library of Korean Literature and Us
Esther Kim is a new publicity assistant at Columbia University Press. She is interested in fiction, Korea, clients, and presses.

In the fall of 2013, Dalkey Archive Press published its “Library of Korean Literature” series, an ambitious, unprecedented project designed to introduce Korean writing to English-language readers. The “Library of Korean Literature” was created in collaboration between Dalkey Archive Press and Seoul’s Literature Translation Institute of Korea, and the series totals twenty-five volumes that feature a range of Korean writers from the colonial 1930s to the present day. Like much of Dalkey’s fiction, the writing in the series demonstrates proclivities for the controversial and avant-garde.

While Japanese and Chinese writing of the twentieth and twenty-first century, such as the work of Nobel-prize winners Kenzaburō Ōe or Mo Yan, has garnered international praise and attention, Korean writing receives relatively little attention. A small nation surrounded by ‘giants’ on all sides—China, Russia, and Japan—the Koreas are easily overshadowed. Popular Western understanding of Korean culture is limited to journalistic horror stories, ‘Gangnam Style,’ and Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle. Dalkey Archive Press’s series “Library of Korean Literature” amends this oversight by bringing forth English-translations of literary works to a broader audience. As the first English-language series of major Korean stories, the Library of Korean Literature series provides a more nuanced, literary venue for understanding Korea.

I say more ‘nuanced’ because when the Koreas are recognized globally for either their armies of pretty K-pop band members, thanks to ‘Hallyu,’ the Korean wave, or the crazy dictators of the North, the literature series is a welcome way of piercing the uniform, homogenous veneer presented by contemporary Korean society as well as encouraging more than a passing understanding of Korea by the world. In other words, the “Library of Korean Literature” deepens the English-language community’s collective understanding and engagement with Korea and its sociopolitical economic cultural upheavals within the last century.

In Postmodernism and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson claims that a symptom of the postmodern condition is the ‘weakening of historicity’ and a consequent ‘new depthlessness.’ These points seem especially pertinent to South Korea, which has grown into a hyper-capitalist and digitally/ technologically- wired country that embraces ‘depthlessness’—a kind of forgetfulness of the difference of the past. The infamous Namdaemun fire in 2008, when an arsonist managed to bypass the flimsy security and burn down Sungnye Gate, a 600-year-old national treasure in Seoul, attests to the serious lack of interest in historical preservation and South Korea’s general tendency to devalue history in favour of capitalist modernization.

Even within the context of its own culture, the stories published in this literary series are helpful for identifying (and promoting) the more subversive elements within a patriarchal, traditionally Confucian society. Both North and South Korea are also still ethnically homogenous and can be xenophobic, and superficially, too, its citizens are starting to resemble one another as they eagerly go under the knife to attain now-possible ideals of ‘beauty.’ The editors of the “Library of Korean Literature” have included the writings of artists who have moved and still move against the grain, and their selection is key in implicitly working to undo the ‘new depthlessness’. Some of the works are chosen from the canon, such as Yi Kwang-Su’s The Soil. But some are transgressive and experimental and defy the conformity encouraged by Korean values. One example of this kind of writing is Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (Translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges). Published in Korean in 1990, When Adam Opens His Eyes defies the conservative climate of South Korea with its frank descriptions of sex and a school dropout protagonist, who’s obsessed with cultural theory and rock music in the 1980s. Inspired by Georges Bataille’s pornographic writing, Jang Jung Il’s novel is a transgressive coming-of-age story. These stories demonstrate how Korean literature has maintained a dialogue with European writing for the last two centuries. These stories are history, too, punctuations in a historical continuum.

In sum, the “Library of Korean Literature” is important because it is the first series of Korean works translated and published in English. These fictions provide a different window into the lives of Korean citizens beyond nonfiction, journalistic examinations of Korea’s politics and economics. These fictions were published in a country that, like Northern Ireland, experienced violent changes, and within such an environment, all art plays a role in the political life of the country itself.

As the 25 volumes become available to the English-language public, we hope more readers will explore Korea’s fiction for contextual understanding of the country and engage with them.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks to CPU and Esther Kim for noting the translations by Sun-Ae and me. We appreciate the attention.

    I should inform you, though, that my middle name is “Jeffery” — not that I’m annoyed by the misspelling, for it happens all the time, so I’ve gotten rather used to it.

    Merely in the interest of accuracy . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

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