A Q&A with Janet Poole on Modernist Literature in Korea

When the Future Disappears

The following is an interview with Janet Poole, author of When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.

Q: Your book deals with an extraordinary group of writers working in Korea at the height of Japanese occupation during the Asia-Pacific War. How did you first become interested in their work?

JP: When I was first studying Korean and living in Seoul, there were these uncanny ways in which the colonial past seemed to exert an ongoing effect in the present. For instance, old people would come up to me in the street, when I was standing at a bus stop for example, and start talking to me in Japanese. Luckily I had learnt Japanese and could answer! But what really intrigued me was that they would not be surprised when I answered them in Japanese, but would just carry on having a regular conversation with me. This had never happened to me in Japan. I became interested in the history of colonialism and especially the ways in which it left traces in language and language use. Naturally—as a fiction lover—I started to read novels and short stories from that time. I had learnt that colonial occupation had been brutal and, most of all, that it had prevented Koreans writing in Korean, especially as the Asia-Pacific War intensified. But when I picked up books of canonical short stories—the best loved in the nation and the like—so many of them were written in the late 1930s. It seemed such a contradiction that the stories most heralded still today had been written when supposedly Koreans had the least possibilities for expression. That’s what got me interested.

Q: And when you did read those stories, what was your impression?

JP: I guess the first thing that struck me was that the incredible violence of that period did not appear directly in its fiction, at least not on the surface. But neither did it seem entirely absent. There were many stories set entirely in the home with bickering couples and neurotic protagonists. They seemed almost claustrophobic, as if something outside the home, and outside the story, were exerting pressure. There were also idealized portrayals of country life that showed no trace at all of colonial development. Japanese characters, for example, hardly ever appeared. I found it hard to make sense of the stories. I started to think more about how we read fiction written under constrained circumstances. About how what was absent could be equally formative. And about how evasive phrases might hold a wealth of meaning. And I started to think about the filters through which particular stories were coming to me. Many of the works I ended up discussing are not those contained in the collections of canonical short stories, but are rather less well known. Some of them were actually written in Japanese, the imperial language, and have been highly criticized or ignored as such.

Q: You write in your introduction that many of the works you discuss have been subjected to multiple levels of censorship due to their association with colonial history but also due to the Cold War. In fact, many of the writers in your book ended up moving to North Korea after liberation.

JP: Yes, so in South Korea the works of anyone who moved to or stayed in the north prior to or during the Korean War were banned until 1988. A couple of decades have passed since then, but over the first forty years in the existence of South and North Korea—that is the foundational years—these works were absent by law. Scholars in South Korea have done a lot of work in republishing them but this hasn’t trickled down to general readership that much, nor to what’s been translated into English. And then, there is also the problem of which version of different works to republish. I am a literary translator, so I’m particularly interested in this problem as I need to decide what version of a story to translate. Stories by the banned writers often exist in multiple versions: a piece first published in a journal in the 1930s was often republished in a single author collection in the early 1940s—imagine the changing situation after Pearl Harbour and the move to Total War. Some sentences would disappear or be rewritten. Later in the 1940s much of this fiction was republished, but then the civil war and long Cold War ensued. When the censorship laws were relaxed in 1988 which version should be used? The authors are hardly around to help us decide. We don’t even know what happened to many of them. So it’s not even just a problem of avoiding Japanese-language works, but of competing versions of fiction written in Korean.

Q: In your epilogue you do tell us what happened to some of the writers…

JP: Yes, and it’s often not a happy ending. One of the more perplexing aspects of Korean history is that the majority of the great modernists from the 1930s chose to live in North Korea as the country divided. From our point of view today this seems strange, especially as some of these writers were quite dilettantish, why would they choose communism? As I read their work, though, this became less and less surprising, as they were so clearly obsessed with what they considered the negative impact of capitalism on their art. It’s easy to forget today how North Korea was so modernist, especially at its founding. It was a brave new world, supposedly clearing out the old and bringing in the new, and a new that was more egalitarian at that. After years of colonial expropriation and violence, how could this not be attractive? But of course as the purges began in the north in the 1950s the writers’ pasts came back to haunt them. It is hard to know definitively what happened to different people—there are rumours and some of them certainly ended up executed or in internal exile. But many of their deaths are unknown, we can only put a question mark in parenthesis after their names.

Q: This suggests a very concrete meaning to the title of your book. You write about the disappearing future as characteristic of Korean fiction under Japanese fascism, could you talk a bit about that?

JP: Certainly, When the Future Disappears refers to the ways in which a sense of a future disappears from fiction under Japanese fascism. Stories tend to dwell in the past or in a repetitive daily life. I’m interested in the ways in which this coincides with the late colonial language policies—where use of Korean as a public language came under threat—and with the idea that Korea would now be part of Japan, would in a sense “disappear.” And how writers thought through, questioned and sometimes even promoted that idea. Much has been written about the ways in which writers and artists responded to fascism in Europe, but not much attention has been paid to the ways in which fascism worked out in the colonies. I hope my book opens up that discussion.

Q: If I may change the topic, I’d like to ask about the visibility of Korean culture in the world today. Recently K-pop, serialized melodrama, film and even Korean cuisine are attracting a lot of attention. What does your book offer to K-pop fans?

JP: Well, thanks to K-pop I do have huge enrolment in my classes on Korean literature. There is a tendency to think that Korean cultural production is becoming “globalized” for the first time. But Korean culture has long been engaged with the global modern. In fact, it had no choice. Long before the current push to export cultural products and before the US occupation, artists in Korea were well aware of what was going on around the world. For too long modernism has been preserved as a kind of badge of honour for European writers and artists when writers around the globe were equally struggling to understand the enormous changes through which they were living. And allowing those changes to challenge and shape their art. I hope that this book expands the realm of what is considered globally modern in the mid-twentieth century, and I hope it adds some history to the discussions of contemporary Korean culture.

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