Posted : 2013-05-20 20:02
Updated : 2013-05-20 20:02

Korean young writers trying to make it to global scene

Novelist Hae Yi-soo
Novelist Han Yu-joo
By Chung Ah-young

When Korean young novelist Han Yu-joo strolled around small, beautiful villages in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, she found a slew of small bookstores that help sustain its rich culture. She also discovered French people who love reading, are open to other cultures in this region, and who are curious about Korean literature.

The 31-year-old stayed for three months last year as part of an overseas residence program at Aix-Marseille University (AMU) supported by the Literature Translation Institute (LTI). When a Korean literary forum took place to celebrate the French publications of Korean books written by Kim Ae-ran, Kim Jung-hyuk and Pyun Hye-young, an audience of some 300 French people packed the hall of a library in the town.

"They had no idea about Korean literature but just came to the forum to hear what Korean literature is about. They had no connection to Korean literature, but they were very curious about literature from this small Asian country. They were ready to open their minds to Korean literature," Han said in a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Judging from her previous experiences in the United States in which the majority of people who attended Korean literature-related events were Korean Americans or Korean students, French readers were favorable to Korean literature even if they have no connection with Korea.

Meanwhile, novelist Hae Yi-soo, 40, took part in the International Writing Program (IWP) at University of Iowa, the United States for three months from August to October last year. He was one of 30 writers from 28 countries.

Writer Hae Yi-soo's short story in Sapida, Afghanistan literary magazine
/ Courtesy of Hae Yi-soo

Compared to the popularity of K-pop or Korean cinema, he said that Korean literature is almost unknown to U.S. readers. Given that the U.S. publishing market is tough for non-English literary works with only 1 percent of works translated, it is not strange that Korean literature barely gets a look in, he said.

"They are well aware of Korean film directors and K-pop singers such as Psy but they don't know Korean literature. But it's understandable that there is cutthroat competition among non-English literary works to make inroads into the U.S. publishing market," Hae said.

Han and Hae were among 38 writers who have been sent to overseas residence programs supported by the LTI since 2003. They have been dispatched to some 20 regions in the United States, Germany, Spain and France. The writers are supposed to participate in various events to promote Korean literature and build up friendships with foreign writers.

The LTI has been operating differentiated strategies reflecting regional characteristics. France is rather flexible in accepting foreign literature than that of the U.S. or Britain. For example, participating writers in the IWP are supposed to focus on exchanges between the writers, while the authors dispatched to France are required to collaborate with local translators to make their works adapted into French.

"I got along with many foreign authors because they didn't know Korean literature, I thought after I befriended other authors, they could open their minds to Korean literature," Hae said.

Writer Han Yu-joo attends a literary event during her stay in Provence, France, last year. / Courtesy of Han Yu-joo

When they returned home, they used Hae's works for their lectures' textbooks or introduced his works into their native languages. His short stories were introduced in other countries' literary magazines such as Myanmar's New Style and Afghanistan's Sapida.

Hae said that the U.S. publishing market is so tough that Korean literature or any other non-English works can be read in the U.S. The IWP began in 1967 but among the alumni authors who participated in the program including Nobel Prize literature winners such as Mo Yan and Orhan Pamuk, only 10 books have been published in English.

Han said that compared with five years ago when she visited France the last time, Korean cultural influence has expanded from the bottom up.

A number of Korean books written by Kim Hun, Kim Young-ha and Yi Mun-yol can now be found on the shelves of the French bookstores, a notable difference from a few years ago. Now Psy's "Gangnam Style" syndrome boosted interest in Korean culture. "It is only a matter of time for Korean literature to leap forward someday after this kind of overseas exchange program and other cultural factors keep this move on because I have detected many changes around me in France," she said.

Hae and Han also shared their views of the enormous potential for Korean literature. "I have never been in doubt on the quality of Korean literature. Korean authors are prolific and vigorous in their work compared to other countries," Hae said.

"Korea is a rare country which has such a large amount of literary works, with some 50 million of the population. The thing is what literary work is worth reading is not selling overseas. Writers should go back to basics, focusing on good writing. We don't have to be hasty for the immediate results of Korean literature in the overseas market," Han said.

Han made her literary debut in 2003 with the new writer's award from Literature and Society. She has published four titles including the short story collections "To the Moon," "The Book of Ice," and "My Left Hand Is the King and My Right Hand Is His Scribe." Her short story "Mak" won the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009.

Hae started his writing career in 2000. He has released "The Kangaroo in the Desert" (2006) and "The Jellyfish" (2009), his first novel, "Gokyo Peak." He won the 2004 Sim Hoon Literary Award and the 2010 Han Moosuk Literary Award.

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