Korean Lit Comes to America

If, as an American, you visit a globalized megacity like Seoul, you’ll find plenty that feels familiar. Take chain bookstores: There’s bad lighting, as many smartphone accessories for sale as books, and sneaky customer habits. “I check out the covers,” says Claire, a young South Korean who’s showing me around. “If I like one, I go back to my apartment and buy it online.”

Claire and I are ambling through the Kyobo Book Center in Seoul’s Gangnam district. Gangnam, of course, is the place PSY raps about in “Gangnam Style,” a song that sends up his country’s materialism and wealth. Gangnam is home to Samsung’s corporate headquarters, the city’s neon-saturated nightlife, and outposts for the top international brands, all spread out on a grid of spacious boulevards. It’s the polished, cosmopolitan Korea.

What feels less familiar—more messy and alive—is the rest of the city. The streets twist and taper in a never-ending game of chicken, motorcycles versus taxis. The architecture seems to come in only two options, gray apartment tower and squat villa, with most of it dating to the period after the Korean War when Seoul grew so quickly it needed buildings finished more than it needed them pretty. The city’s oldest residents shuffle proudly along, smaller than their compatriots, a reminder of just how recently life in Korea was defined by deficit rather than surplus. Young people scurry to their hagwons, or afterschool tutoring centers. The billboards and ads chatter in a delightful Konglish. The phrase that sticks with me comes from Skin Food, a popular cosmetics chain: “Beauty food for urban sweety.”

In Gangnam, the signs are more precise. “Welcome to Gangnam, Global City.” Its branch of the Kyobo Book Center occupies the basement of a striking brick-and-glass skyscraper. Claire, who, like many 20-something Koreans in Seoul, dresses in a style best described as sexed-up Harry Potter, points me to a section with table after table of test-prep books. “Korean parents make it so Korean students don’t even have time to read,” she says. “They study English, mostly.”

Claire perfected her English while attending college in Canada—that’s also where she Westernized her name—and now she works at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, a government-run agency everyone calls LTI Korea. But as she shows me more of the bookstore, even it starts to feel strange and new. The employees wear lavish uniforms, a sort of flight-attendant ensemble with indigo sweaters and sparkly gold ties. On the best-seller wall sits a big stack of copies of Lolita. For years, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel had languished in a prim Korean translation that relied on ambiguity and euphemism. Now a new edition has restored the original’s squirming detail, and Lolita is selling like crazy.

The country still pines for its own world-famous writer. No Korean has ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but Ko Un, a former Buddhist monk who’s the country’s best-known poet, has been rumored as a finalist in the last few years. Each October, in the days leading up to the announcement, reporters camp outside his house. Koreans care about the Nobel for two reasons: first, because they’re anxious about how the world perceives them; and second, because they’re so good at exporting other kinds of culture. The country pumps out syrupy K-pop songs, violent cinema, and soapy, smash-hit TV. One of its most popular shows in the last decade, Dae Jang Geum, is a drama set in the 16th century about a female physician to the king. According to one rumor I heard, the show counted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among its superfans, and once, when Iran and South Korea were negotiating a meeting, Ahmadinejad issued a demand that he meet the show’s heroine. She happened to be traveling, so South Korea suggested her popular co-star. Iran sent its vice president instead.

In 2006, The New Yorker published poetry by Ko Un, and translations of two younger writers, the experimental Kim Young-ha and the realist Shin Kyung-Sook, have done well here. Shin’s Please Look After Mom, a novel about a family’s guilt after its tradition-minded mother goes missing, even hit The New York Times best-seller list, prompting excited coverage in Korean newspapers. This fall, Dalkey Archive Press has teamed up with LTI Korea to publish the Library of Korean Literature, a series of 25 newly translated works and the most comprehensive introduction so far to Korean literature. Still, when it comes to American recognition, Korea has a ways to go. Charles Montgomery, a California native who’s now a professor in Seoul and the proprietor of a lively literary blog, puts it this way: “Imagine, we’re drinking martinis with a bunch of educated people, and I say, ‘Who is your favorite Japanese author?’ You can say one of ten names. ‘Who is your favorite French author?’ One of ten names.” Montgomery continues: “But ‘Who is your favorite Korean author?’ Everyone will run to refill their drinks.”


It’s easy to forget, standing in Gangnam today, that a few decades ago the district was mostly rice paddies and that South Korea was poor and devastated, a nation with staggering depth to its grief. Korea sits between China and Japan, and throughout the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) it battled with both. Still, it remained independent until 1910, when Japan finally colonized its neighbor. Over the next 35 years, the Japanese practiced a bloody and repressive imperialism. Then came the Korean War, in which millions of Koreans died or were cleaved from their families. Then came a series of dictators, notably General Park Chung Hee, who jump-started South Korea’s economy (before it was a tech giant, the country was a steel giant thanks to state-run plants like POSCO) even as he imprisoned and executed his own people.

Perhaps the hardest thing to comprehend is just how compressed all this was. In Korea, the kind of issues historians debate in monographs—capitalism versus communism, industry versus agriculture—can be debated whenever a family sits down to a meal, with each generation drawing on its own discrete experiences.

The other thing to remember is Korea’s tradition of collectivism. Grounded in Confucianism, it elevates family, community, and society in what Bruce Cumings, in his excellent Korea’s Place in the Sun, calls “hierarchy without shame.” The conformity that flows from this is often overstated. On Seoul’s subway, which is so efficient it drives Western visitors to nearly combust with envy, I watched a surly, thoroughly pierced young man board a car to no reaction. But when, at the next stop, a mother with two small children got on, he sprang up and offered her his seat.

So much in modern Korea mixes fragmenting tragedy with centripetal tradition. That includes modern Korean literature. The country had always esteemed its poets and scholars. At Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace, you can still find an artificial stream curving through trees and pavilions. There, the Joseon kings and their courtiers would release a cup of wine into the water. Whoever it floated to had to drink it, then compose a poem on the spot. If he failed, he had to drink three more cups.

Under Japanese rule, however, Korea’s writers turned to novels and short stories, with Yi Kwang-su’s The Heartless (1917) generally seen as the key book. It’s a bit like Robinson Crusoe in this respect—tough to pin down as the earliest but easy to see as a turning point. Yi belonged to a wave of thinkers and writers who’d watched their country collapse. Now they wanted to embrace Western ideas like educational reform and marrying for love.

The Heartless dramatizes those ideas through a love triangle between a representative Korean man, a traditional woman, and a more Westernized woman. In other words, it barely dramatizes them at all, with Yi prioritizing his causes over his characters and imagery. The writers who followed chose new causes—some calling for further change, others lamenting what had been lost—but they joined Yi in producing a largely didactic body of literature. Ko Un, for example, has described one strain of his work as “anti-government, politically resistant poetry.” But consider his life: a teenager who watched the Korean War ravage his home, a dissident whom dictators threw into prison and beat until his eardrum ruptured. How could he write poetry that was not political?

Today, an author like Kim Young-ha can produce a dark and playful novel like I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which has been translated into multiple languages. But he is an exception. Many writers are still exploring the country’s recent history, and most hew to the rules and habits of its literary system. “[It’s] absolutely Korean and absolutely Confucian,” says Charles Montgomery. “It’s a series of tests.” The biggest one is the battalion of new-author contests run by Seoul’s newspapers and journals. In South Korea, it’s virtually impossible to be an author—to publish—until you win one of these annual contests and make a formal debut. So would-be writers avoid genre lit (there’s little science fiction in this, the most wired of nations) and strive to satisfy the older critics who often judge the contests. “Once you’re past that step,” Montgomery says, “you’re in the same world of finding agents to represent you, and trying to find publishers, and working in a world where people don’t read that much anymore.”

The tests never really stop. Even established writers aim for bigger prizes like the Yi Sang Literary Award. In 2004, Kim Young-ha won several of these awards—“what they call his golden year,” Montgomery says. That’s perhaps the only way to transform one’s career in a small literary scene that’s getting smaller. (Last year, even including e-books, the amount the average household spent on books hit its lowest point ever.) But it keeps authors focused on their own country. “Very few Korean writers,” Montgomery says, “have international success as a goal as they write or publish.”


Yet the rest of Korea frets that its promotion and translation trail China’s and Japan’s, two countries that have won literary Nobels. “We can’t just wait for a translation expert to simply pop out,” a professor told The Korea Times in 2000. “We have to concentrate on training young talents into an elite force.”

That’s a pretty good description of what’s happening at LTI Korea. The institute, which reports to South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, has an annual budget of 8.1 billion won (or more than $7 million). Its headquarters, a five-story building near the Han River, in a quieter part of Gangnam, feels less like a literary salon than a disciplined office. In addition to its translation academy, LTI Korea provides generous grants and support staff to translators (that’s Claire’s job); pays for Korean authors to go on international book tours and take residencies at places like the University of Iowa; and runs booths at book fairs like the one in Frankfurt.

Kim Seong-kon is the president of LTI Korea, and on the same day I visit the Book Center, I interview him in his fifth-floor office. He’s wearing a cardigan and a pinstriped suit, a snazzy blend of professor and preppy Korean. It makes sense given that Kim has taught at universities around the world, including Harvard and Oxford. Now, as we sit across from each other in leather chairs, he tells me about his two-part plan for breaking Korea’s authors into the American market.

The first part centers on the authors. “We do have splendid writers,” Kim says. But many haven’t updated their techniques or subjects since the postcolonial period. “The scope of their literary world is so confined,” he says. Kim wants them to reconsider the reasons they write—not for a local audience but a global one. “They should constantly read other foreign writers,” he says, “so they can learn what the main issues and concerns are among famous international writers.” Korean literature needs more irony, more ambiguity, more experimentation. “You have to embrace contradictions,” Kim says.

Once Korean authors settle on more universal themes—“universal” has become a buzzword at LTI Korea—they can add in some Korean flourishes. Kim checks off models like Orhan Pamuk, Umberto Eco, even Dan Brown. “You can adopt similar themes that Dan Brown uses in his fiction,” he says, “but the background can be uniquely Korean—an ancient Korean kingdom, for example.”

In the middle of our interview, a photographer pops in. Kim quietly slides to the chair next to me—a visit from an American journalist, it seems, merits a photo op. When the photographer finishes, Kim turns to the second part of his plan. For years, LTI Korea relied on local critics to choose what would be translated and offered to Western publishers. “They do not care about the universality of Korean literature,” Kim says. Instead, they chose more traditional fiction. “When we try to market that particular work overseas, it’s not working,” Kim says. “Foreign publishers do not like it, and foreign readers do not find it appealing.”

So Kim has created a new policy where foreign publishers are consulted first on what books LTI Korea will subsidize. A good example is the Library of Korean Literature and Dalkey Archive Press. After Dalkey’s publisher, John O’Brien, approached Kim, they worked together to select the books and cover the series’ estimated $750,000 cost. O’Brien traveled to Seoul and pushed for more experimental fiction—the sort of thing Kim wanted to encourage anyway. At the same time, Dalkey has promised to keep a range of titles in print, offering readers unprecedented access to Korea’s literary history. “You can see Korea’s literature from a bird’s-eye view,” Kim says.

The Library of Korean Literature is just the start. “We can have both the universality and also the uniquely Korean cultural heritage,” Kim says. “It’s only a matter of time until a South Korean writer receives the Nobel Prize.”


The Library of Korean Literature’s first ten titles appear this November, with the rest arriving next year. Already, the initial batch offers that bird’s-eye view. A Western reader can start with The Soil, another novel by Yi Kwang-su first published as a serial in 1932. But there’s also When Adam Opens His Eyes (1990), the Jang Jung-il novel that stirred up a scandal with its explicit descriptions of straight and gay sex. Yet reading the old next to the new, I was surprised to find myself thinking something Kim might not want to hear—namely, that the titles moving me the most were the ones most steeped in tradition.

Take Kim Won-il’s The House with a Sunken Courtyard (1989). The novel begins at the end of the Korean War when Gilnam, a young boy and stand-in for the author, whose family was ripped apart by the conflict, drops out of school to help his mother. “You are the eldest son in this family with no father,” she reminds him in one of the novel’s many laborious monologues. Gilnam starts selling newspapers to help cover food and rent. In a house packed with 26 people, he squeezes into a single room with his mother and three siblings. Like other refugees, the family has moved so often the residences blur together. Gilnam remembers this one by its courtyard.

Kim’s characters tend to be archetypes—the drunken head of house, the military deserter on the lam, the kind-hearted prostitute servicing American soldiers. There’s not much plot beyond Gilnam selling newspapers in the city, where he always seems to run into those characters and their hard, lesson-filled lives. The prose can seem impossibly arid. (Here’s how Gilnam describes his father leaving: “My father defected to the North alone because he had lost contact with us. That turned out to be a permanent separation.”) Yet The House with a Sunken Courtyard remains powerful because of its relentless detail. Gilnam’s mother sews for the prostitutes, but it doesn’t pay much. Her youngest son, born just as war breaks out, eats so little that “blue veins showed on his protruding belly.” During the winter, the family’s indoor drinking water freezes. They burn their kerosene lamp only when the mother faces a sewing deadline or the daughter needs to study.

Kim also reveals the house—a hanok, or traditional Korean residence with a stately gateway and a carefully tiled roof—to be a fascinating and contradictory place. The current owner’s great-grandfather built it at the end of the Joseon dynasty; his father worked for the Japanese. But now, Kim writes, “from between the tiles of the roof, weeds grew.” In the courtyard, the many renters must build an outdoor toilet and cook their meals. Yet when the owner’s haughty wife goes out, wearing expensive traditional outfits, the people pause and smile: “There goes our lady.” The novel may contain one of world literature’s more on-the-nose endings. (The hanok is torn down and replaced by a “Western-style house.”) Still, it subtly critiques the residents’ fealty to their lady and animates a historical moment and mind-set in ways a work of nonfiction never could.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast than the one between Kim and Lee Ki-ho, a younger writer whose spare style and absurd humor recall Donald Barthelme or Kurt Vonnegut. In Lee’s haunting At Least We Can Apologize (2009), the narrator is an unnamed adult who’s been institutionalized by his family. Along with Si-bong, a mysterious character who crops up in many of Lee’s works (sort of his Kilgore Trout), he spends his days swallowing unnamed pills and packing up crate after crate of socks.

When the institution shuts down, the men find themselves free but aimless. Lee generates plenty of laughs through the pair’s simplicity, gullibility, and astounding deference. “He asked us if we had ever worked in a convenience store before,” the narrator says of someone interviewing them for a job. “Si-bong and I answered at the same time: ‘We’ve done a lot of packing.’”

Eventually, the two turn to their other skill set. Each day at the institution, a pair of porn-addled guards beats them for fun. One day, the narrator realizes the guards will go easier on him when he invents and confesses to various crimes. “We always started with the confessions,” the narrator explains. “That was on account of our being beaten less for confessing than for not confessing.” Now, outside the institution, he and Si-bong launch a personal service apologizing for other people’s offenses. In their passivity, the characters and their clients seem to reflect the inflexibility of South Korea’s many hierarchies.

Or maybe not. Lee keeps his novel fable-ish and detail-free, and its satire will resonate anywhere that’s plagued by office drudgery and technological speedup. One of Lee’s running gags is that his two heroes repeatedly (and proudly) refer to themselves as “pillars of the institution,” and the first time I read it, I thought back to another monologue from The House with a Sunken Courtyard. There, Gilnam’s mother demands he become “the pillar of our family.” But Kim’s novel is about Korea. Lee’s novel could be about anywhere.


The first time Charles Montgomery met Kim Young-ha, he asked the novelist why South Korea approached the rest of the literary world with its mix of diligent production and top-down control. “He pulled out his iPad, just because he wanted to show it off,” Montgomery says with a smile. Then Kim drew a diagram—a big block he labeled “the POSCO strategy,” after the company, and a bunch of smaller blocks streaming from it. “He said, ‘You have to understand that Korea has had all its success based on a model where we create something that is supported by the government and we pump out units,’” Montgomery recalls.

It’s true that South Korea’s industries are famous less for their innovation than for their ability to imitate and improve. (Even Samsung’s name, which means “three stars,” is a tight homage to Japan’s Mitsubishi, which means “three diamonds.”) It’s also true that, historically, Korea’s authors have loved and drawn on Western literature. Yi Kwang-su even wrote an essay titled “Tolstoy and I.”

But I worry that Korea’s methodical desire for international success could one day endanger authors who deserve it. A novel like The House with a Sunken Courtyard may seem strange to Western readers, but there is power in that strangeness. South Korea and its people continue to change and fracture at a remarkable speed. That change can create much for us to learn. It also creates much to write about.

You may also like