By Dennis Abrams
Throughout the 19th century, missionaries and traders worked to open Korea, the “Hermit Kingdom” to Western influence. And now, in the 21st century, the process is happening in reverse.
Chung Ah-young of the Korea Times has reported that since 2003, 38 writers from South Korea have been sent out to represent their country in overseas programs in the United States, Germany, Spain, and France, sponsored by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI). Their mission? To participate in events designed to promote Korean literature and to build friendships with foreign writers.
The reason for the mission is simple: Korean literature is almost unknown to much of the rest of the world and, particularly, the U.S. And given that the U.S. publishing market is not exactly the most open to non-English literary works in the first place, it’s not surprising that Korean literature gets so little notice.
Novelist Hae Yi-soo, 40, who took part in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa last year, noted that “They are well aware of Korean film directors and K-pop performers such as Psy, but they don’t know Korean literature. But it’s understandable because there is cutthroat competition among non-English literary works to make inroads into the U.S. publishing market.”
Hae noted that while at Iowa, while many of the foreign authors he met didn’t know much about his nation’s writers, “I thought after I befriended them, they could open their minds to Korean literature.” And indeed, when they returned home, many of them incorporated Hae’s works in teaching or introduced his books into their own languages through literary magazines, such as Myanmar’s New Style and Afghanistan’s Sapida.
LTI also varies its strategies in different nations. France, for example, is considered to be more accepting of foreign literature than the U.S. or Britain. So while most writers in the Korean outreach program are instructed to focus on exchange between writers, “the authors dispatched to France are required to collaborate with local translators.”
Novelist Han Yu-joo, last year attended an overseas residence program at Aix-Marseilles University, where as part of a celebration of Korean books published in French, she spoke to a crowd of more than 300 in the town’s library. She later noted the growth of Korean cultural influence in France as compared to her first visit five years earlier:
“A number of Korean books written by Kim Hun, Kim Young-ha and Yi Mun-yol can now be found on the shelves of French bookstores…It’s only a matter of time for foreign literature to leap forward someday after this kind of overseas exchange program and other cultural factors, because I have detected many changes around me in France.”
And both Hae and Han agreed that the potential for long-term growth of Korean literature internationally is there. Hae, said “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…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 markets.”