The Writer as Witness: Testimonial Narratives in Korea.

Pubblicato il Pubblicato in Corea del Sud, Cultura coreana

by Kang Yu-jung – Novels are fiction. This might be so obvious it could even be the very first line of an introductory lecture on literature. Novels are crafted stories, made up of events that seem plausible. If such crafted stories are fiction, then non-fiction is supposed to be the exact opposite: a recounting of real events. Stories based on real events, historical events that really took place, are non-fiction. But is it actually possible to make events that really did happen into a story without crafting them in some way? Can we really believe that all history, which claims to record events that happened in the real world, is complete fact?

All novels, without exception, are involved with history in some way. This is because as long as anyone lives with flesh and bones and has feet on the ground, one cannot help but be a part of history. This is true even for those often seen as residing on the fringes of history, the “ordinary people” history tends to overlook. This is the reason that all novels, especially those that consider the modern history of Korea, are both non-fiction and fiction at the same time. All fiction is both history and fact.

Published in 1989, Kim Won-il’s novel The House with a Sunken Courtyard depicts the life of a family of refugees during the Korean War. Having fled south without their father, the family manages to find a place to live, but suffers from poverty and exhaustion in the aftermath of the war. The situations of the various families who all live in different rooms under the same roof of what they call “the house with the sunken courtyard” are all somewhat similar. This space and story are fictional creations by the author, but they are also very reminiscent of the life he lived at that time. An adult narrator shows us this life through the eyes of a child. Through such young eyes, which cannot yet fully understand the world, the Korean War and its aftermath become much more vivid for the reader than any historical account could be.

Park Wansuh’s novel The Naked Tree is also an outstanding testimony and record of the Korean War. The daring and unflinching perspective of a twenty-year-old woman, not very young, but not quite fully mature, is particularly striking. A glimpse of the terrible time suffered by those who could not escape from the battleground of Seoul during the Korean War is depicted in scenes that pull the reader in. The work reveals a kind of life in Seoul that was not recorded in the history books, and brings into relief the wearisome silhouette of an artist hidden from public memory.

Fiction or novels can often be far stronger than bare facts or sparsely recorded history. In South Korea, there have been times when it was also impossible to depict or talk about certain historical events without facing severe consequences. The clearest example of this is any reference to the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Many people who lived in other cities had no way of knowing what was happening during those tragically momentous days in Gwangju. Information was blocked and facts were distorted. For a long time, even the word “Gwangju” was taboo. It took years to even acknowledge that such a prohibition existed. Strictly speaking, it would be more accurate to say that the events of May 1980 have still not been properly investigated or brought to light.

This is precisely why Han Kang’s novel Human Acts draws much closer to truth than any historical record. Through the character of a young boy who was part of the Gwangju Uprising, Han reveals an inner space overlooked by other narratives. It has a very different quality to the evidence of cold-blooded violence shown in the documentary footage that survives. The terror and despair, the conflicting feelings of someone caught in the middle, are conveyed intact. Seeing the corpse of the boy’s friend left to rot, along with so many others, induces a strong desire for truth, truth of a world in which the facts have still not been fully revealed. Through the lens of another’s suffering, the reader is taken directly to the point of compassion.

The “I” and Detective Kim who appear in Hwang Ji-woo’s poem “To Detective Kim Who Is Humane, Too Humane” are no different. In the poem, the tortured “I” shakes hands and shares smiles with his torturer, Detective Kim. “I” was tortured in reality, but at the same time, he is also a poetic voice that exists only in the space of a poem. Detective Kim is an actual person who has tortured someone, but he is also a fictional character who exists in a poem. When the two people ask each other how they are and talk about what they have been doing since the incident, the conversation may not be truthful, but there is an agitated echo that leaps beyond questions of fact.

The important thing is not the veracity of their exchange, but rather that, in the scene where the two “act” as though nothing has happened, there is a chilling truth that rises up from the depths, hidden by the official history that denies it. The scars left on “I” by the grossly inhumane torture stand in stark contrast to the too humane Detective Kim.

Although both poetry and fiction set out from facts and history, they surpass simple descriptions or testimonies and function as meaningful statements. In the poem “The Apprentice’s Dream” by Park Nohae, who conveyed the labor conditions of the 1980s in a simple but heartbreakingly truthful way, we discover an anguished confession. The poem does not focus on the dangerous working conditions, terrible injustices, or merciless circumstances faced by workers. Like the “dream” in the title, the apprentice’s dream is confined to a small and humble world. If one can lead an ordinary life only in one’s dreams, then one’s life has clearly taken a wrong turn.

Shin Daechul is greatly concerned with the division of North and South Korea, and depicts it in his poetry not as an issue of politics but as an issue of people, thus revealing a way for our reality to become literature. In “I Don’t Know Who You Are but I Love You,” he calls out, “you who are . . . / nowhere in our land, / I don’t know who you are but I love you.” Here, he enters into the realm of truth beyond fact, where love defies the reality of living across a militarized border zone. This is also the reason that the poem “They Say We Should Wait,” written by Kim Ki-taek to share the desperation and suffering following the 2014 Sewol Tragedy, begins with a text message left by one of the deceased. The text message of “They say we should wait” is not simply a piece of evidence found on the deceased’s phone, but stands as a symbol of the Sewol Tragedy and of our society as a whole. In such a way, poetry and novels deal with things that cannot endure as history or fact.

Gong Ji-Young’s novel The Crucible, which was based on an actual case of sexual abuse at a school for children with disabilities, is an example of literature becoming a catalyst for making things happen in the real world. In the end, the events in the novel, which were also made into a film, brought about such public indignation that an investigation was reopened and those responsible were brought to trial.

Kim Soom’s novel One Person captures truth that goes beyond the many non-fiction narratives of the Korean comfort women. The story begins when all of the other victims of sexual slavery have passed away, leaving only one last survivor.

Unlike history, literature is made up of stories that plausibly could have happened. But literature is also capable of reaching under the skin into the minds, realms, and lives that history tends to eliminate. Although the way of literature may be a narrow and perilous path, it is precisely within literature that we can discover the experiences of people excluded from history: the shame of those for whom history is a wound, the hope of those who dream of a better life in the midst of that history, and even the despair of those who have to brutally keep it bottled up. It is also in literature that those facts that have yet to be settled, things which have already passed but which will continue to shape our futures, have a much more holistic form. Every Korean novel is both wholly fiction and wholly historical. Literature is the last stronghold of those who have suffered.

ⓒ Korean Literature Now. Pubblicato su autorizzazione del Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Photo ⓒ NOH Suntag

“L’impero delle luci”, il best seller dello scrittore coreano Kim Young-Ha.

Pubblicato il Pubblicato in Corea del Sud, Cultura coreana

Pubblicato nel 2006, “L’impero delle luci”, è l’opera di spicco dello scrittore coreano Kim Young-Ha (tradotta da Andrea De Benedittis e pubblicata dalla casa editrice Metropoli d’Asia). Il protagonista è il titolare di una piccola ditta d’importazione di film stranieri, che conduce una vita apparentemente regolare e banale. Come ogni giorno, si reca in ufficio al solito orario, ma non è un giorno come tutti gli altri: una mail infrangerà l’illusione di questa apparente normalità. Quel semplice messaggio basta per far tornare alla mente del protagonista la sua vera identità: lui è in realtà una spia nordcoreana, arrivata a Seoul circa vent’anni prima, ma poi lasciato al suo destino senza motivo dai suoi stessi mandanti. Rimasto nel Sud completamente solo e abbandonato da tutti, si è ricostruito una propria identità e una propria vita, adattandosi a un mondo del tutto diverso da quello delle proprie origini. E, proprio ora che tutto sembra andare per il meglio, qualcuno al Nord si ricorda improvvisamente di lui e gli ordina l’immediato rientro a Pyongyang.

Korea Literature Now: intervista a Jeong You Jeong.

Pubblicato il Pubblicato in Corea del Sud, Cultura coreana

<Published under authorization of Korea Literature Translation Institute (source>

Jung Yeoul: I’d like to start by asking what you’ve been up to since 28 and The Good Son were released.

Jeong You Jeong: From May last year, when The Good Son was released, until October, I was on a publicity tour for the book and attending literary events. I met quite a few international readers in places like Arles and Aix-en-Provence, in France, too. I gave a talk about Seven Years of Darkness at a huge library, and I was really pleased to see foreign readers actively asking questions and buying a lot of copies of the book. Recently, I went to the United States for the first time. My younger sister lives there. I was intending to plan out my next novel under the warm California sun, but we spent so much time swimming and enjoying the sunshine that the trip went by faster than I realized. I’m now in the midst of research for that novel. While I was writing The Good Son, which has a psychopath as the protagonist, I started to worry that the book was getting to me and I was becoming a psychopath myself. But after resting and allowing myself to recharge, it seems like I’m ready to start working on something new.

Jung: The premise of 28 is that a disease is transmitted to humans by man’s best friend—dogs. I’m curious to know what prompted you to come up with this idea.

Jeong: In 2011, South Korea was struck with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. As a reactionary measure, countless cows and pigs were buried alive. Millions of cows and pigs, buried alive just like that. When I saw on the news what was happening, it rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn’t think about it much. One day early in the morning, though, I saw a video by an animal rights activist who’d gone to a place where pigs were being buried. The activist was almost wailing as she shot this video of pigs being indiscriminately buried alive. On camera was this scene of holes being dug and pigs being pushed into them, squirming to stay alive and stepping on top of each other, and the activist absolutely bawled while watching. I cried a lot, too. God will spite us for this, I thought. I wondered what would have happened if this hadn’t been foot-and-mouth disease but some truly deadly animal-spread illness—if it had been a deadly infectious disease, something that could be spread by dogs and cats, would we humans have killed all our cats and dogs, too? Those were the questions that came to mind. That evening, I finished a short synopsis of the book. I was originally a nurse, but I needed more specialized knowledge about contagious diseases, so I searched out veterinary professors and studied up on viruses before writing 28.

Jung: Unlike your other books, 28 has multiple narrators and is told from several points of view. Did your decision to structure the book like this have a connection to its subject matter?

Jeong: With Seven Years of Darkness, I went deep into the narrator’s inner thoughts, but in 28, I was trying to expand my narrative capabilities as much as possible. Just one perspective isn’t sufficient to do that. The main character has blind spots, you see. If I’d told the story as an omniscient narrator, the mentality of the novel’s protagonist or narrator wouldn’t have been as vivid, so I wrote neither in the first person nor as an omniscient narrator—I wrote in close-range third person, with multiple narrators. Since it was the first time I’d written in third person from multiple perspectives, it was really challenging and strenuous, but after completing the novel, I had a new sort of confidence as a writer.

Jung: Your work has dealt with the idea of the villain in multiple ways, but you said that in The Good Son, you were able to pursue this idea most satisfactorily and with the most depth. What made you want to explore the inner mind of a villain?

Jeong: I think that there are two coexisting sides to humans. You can really see this if you compare us to apes, the typical examples being orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Bonobos are a pacifist species, and they try to solve all conflicts with love. Because they use physical connection as the solution to conflict, you sometimes hear that Bonobos are “promiscuous.” Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are masculine and aggressive. I see humans as having both these extremes, the bonobo-like pacifism and the chimpanzee-like aggression. In some regards, humans are unbelievably noble, and in other regards, unbelievably shameful and nasty and wicked. What I depict best is not humanity’s grandeur but its wickedness. Since college, I’ve really enjoyed classes related to psychiatry. This interest in humanity’s dark and wicked sides developed into my curiosity as an author who writes thrillers.

Jung: How did your way of thinking change before and after you started to write books? I’m curious to know how your thoughts about evil have changed.

Jeong: Before I started writing novels, I thought that it was evil to disobey the norms that have been laid out by our society, to commit acts like murder or theft. But after studying evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, I realized that social norms and morality are elements of cultures, and that these norms are things that humans have created. If other animals fight and kill amongst themselves, we don’t say that it’s wicked or pass moral judgment. I find it very interesting to think about human evils for what they are and to study where they come from without using morality as a restrictive standard. I’ve developed an eye for looking at the “evil itself” without holding it to a moral standard or ethical criterion.

Jung: I’m curious to talk about what you’ve been working on recently as well. Your readers are probably wondering, too. What are you writing right now?

Jeong: It’s been ten years now since I became a writer, and I’ve published five books. For my sixth book, it looks like I’m going to finally have a female protagonist at the forefront. I’ve only written male protagonists until now. I’m planning to bring a lot of fantastical elements into the next novel. The book will draw from the genre of fantasy while maintaining the elements of a thriller. As in 28, the premise will be widespread societal disaster.

Jung: I know that you take copious amounts of notes when you’re working on a novel. I’d like to hear about the writing process, from your initial ideas for subject matter to the synopsis to the completion of the work.

Jeong: Once I have an idea and write down a synopsis, I start to do a huge amount of research. First I read a ton of books, next I do interviews, and then I handwrite a draft in a notebook. Then I see what I need to supplement. After that. I go out to gather more information and add what’s needed. This is when the real work begins, and as I start to work on my laptop, I add flavor to the details, make the scenes livelier, and give the characters more of a three-dimensional quality. Even though it’s just a rough draft, I go through these three steps in the writing process. If more than 10 percent of the original draft is left, I consider the novel to be a failure. This is because what I think of first tends to be at the surface level of my consciousness, and I find that that’s not where my real creative inspiration lies. I’m not the type to trust myself. Only if I skim off that first superficial idea will the real story hiding at the bottom of my consciousness rise to the top, so I revise my drafts multiple times, throw them away, and write them again. Lastly, I read the manuscript backwards. If I have chapters one through twenty, I read from twenty to one. When I examine the story backwards like this, I can see the final holes in the manuscript. Filling those holes is my last job. The novel that was the most different from its original synopsis was The Good Son, and the most difficult to revise was 28.

Jung: You’re also a really diligent reader, as you read widely in a variety of fields for your research. What have you been reading recently?

Jeong: A while ago, I developed an interest in astrophysics. I’ve been learning about the Big Bang Theory, too. I looked at some books on quantum physics as well, but they were so difficult that reading them would make my mind go blank, and I’d slump over as if I’d just taken ten sleeping pills at once. [laughs] Now I’m very interested in anthropology. Jared Mason Diamond’s books are all good. Recently I’ve been reading research on apes and chimpanzees, anthropology and social psychology readings, things like that. Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is really interesting, too.

Jung: If you look at your previous works, they all have strong components of a thriller. Is there a reason you’re attracted to thrillers in particular?

Jeong: I think there are two kinds of novels. The first type is a novel that makes you think and the second is a novel that gives you experiences. Novels that make the reader think are philosophical and are difficult, profound stories. In novels that make readers have new experiences, the most important thing is a feeling of solidarity with the reader. You have to grab the reader’s hand and pull him or her into a new, unfamiliar world. Then you have to lock the door so he or she can’t escape. I always wanted to write those kinds of novels. I wanted to show this world that I created to readers and say, “This is how I see the world and humanity and life. How do you see them?” And that’s how I came to enjoy thrillers, because they incite curiosity in readers. I like fear, too. When I was writing Shoot Me in the Heart, I spent about a year going hiking alone at night in order to understand the psychology of a blind person. It was a little scary, walking through cemeteries alone. I’d like for readers to feel that same sort of chilly terror when they read my books. I hope that reading my books has that same thrilling excitement, the feeling you get when you turn around thinking, “Is there something behind me?” or because it seems like someone just brushed by you.

Jung: Shoot Me in the Heart has been turned into a movie, and Seven Years of Darkness and The Good Son are currently in the process of being made into films as well. How do you feel about this?

Jeong: I think that movies are really in the realm of the director. I don’t care if the director caters to my own novelistic intentions; I just want the movie to show off the director’s creative vision. I actually hope that the director can present some completely new perspective that I’ve never thought of. The scriptwriters have all told me that out of the books they’ve worked with, my novels are the most difficult to make into movies. There’s no fluff that can be cut out. If you remove even one plot element from the original novel, the entire narrative structure falls apart. When I last saw the script for Seven Years of Darkness, it was in its thirtieth draft. The thirtieth draft! They said that after that, they revised it seventeen more times. That’s how difficult and frustrating it is to make novels into movies.

Jung: Thrillers are such a firmly established genre abroad that it must have been a challenge to break into the market. I’d like to hear if you think that there are certain characteristics common to your novels, traits that distinguish “a Jeong You Jeong thriller.”

Jeong: I don’t target foreign readers when I write novels. I don’t even target domestic readers. Readers say that I’m not a reader-friendly writer. It seems like I always do the exact opposite of what they want. They ask me, “Please, could you just stop writing about villains?” but I don’t. Other readers ask, “Can’t you make your dark stories a little more palatable and write something happy with nice characters?” I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t bend to the will of my readers at all. Instead, I try as hard as I can to make them enjoy my writing. If that means I need humor in the book, I write humor, and sometimes I even make the story lewd—whatever it takes to make readers interested enough to turn to the next page. But with that in mind, the premise and the subject matter are completely my own. I don’t work around readers’ tastes but focus rather on the psychological thriller at hand. I pay a lot of attention to shedding light on characters’ inner psychology.

Jung: I want to hear what you’re going to write next. What do you plan for the future?

Jeong: I want to tell the most fundamental, basic life stories. Just like everyone else, there have been a lot of twists and turns to my life, and we all have our own grief. I want to write about these simple twists and turns and sorrows. My hope has always been to put out novels regularly, and at a certain level of quality. I hope that I can continue to write for the rest of my life.

by Jung Yeoul
Literary Critic and Writer

Letteratura coreana: Choi In-hun.

Pubblicato il Pubblicato in Cultura coreana

Romanziere, poeta, drammaturgo e teorico, Choi In-hun è uno dei più acclamati e versatili scrittori e intellettuali della Corea del ventesimo secolo. Nato nel 1936, Choi è cresciuto a Hoeryong (attuale Corea del Nord), per trasferirsi al Sud all’inizio della guerra di Corea. Ha studiato Legge presso la National University di Seoul prima di entrare sulla scena letteraria nel 1959 con il suo racconto “A Detailed Record of Grey Club”. Il periodo dalla metà degli anni ’50 alla metà degli anni ’70 – caratterizzato dallo scontro tra la modernità occidentale e la tradizione coreana, dal pesante fardello dell’era coloniale, dal disastro della guerra, dalla divisione fisica ed ideologica fa le due Coree e dall’autocrazia – si riflette nelle complesse opere di Choi In-hun dall’approccio particolarmente eclettico.

Oggi Choi è riconosciuto per i suoi romanzi, che comprendono “The Square”, l’intensa storia di un intellettuale così devastato dalle realtà su entrambi i lati della linea di demarcazione da precipitare nella morte, o “A grey Man”, un “romanzo delle idee” su un rifugiato nordcoreano che lotta con l’amore, il tempo e la rivoluzione democratica. Il personaggio riappare nel sequel “Journey to the West”, dove si impegna in discorsi surreali impersonificando figure della storia coreana. Tuttavia, soprattutto nella sua fase creativa iniziale, Choi In-hun ha anche prodotto molte novelle e racconti come “Reflections on a Mask”, una novella sull’esperienza della guerra e sul tentativo di reintegrazione nella società, come pure parodie della narrativa pre-moderna cinese e coreana: la novella “The Cloud Dream of the Nine”, remake onirico dell’opera del 17^ secolo di Kim Man-jung; “The Jehol Diary”, una parodia del famoso travelogue di Park Jiwon; “New Tales of the Golden Turtle”, una reinterpretazione dei racconti di Kim Si-seup della prima dinastia Joseon.

Molte delle figure di Choi In-hun sono intellettuali e artisti disillusi e in crisi di identità, sopraffatti dai grandi e tragici eventi della storia, dal colonialismo giapponese alla guerra. Una tale figura, per esempio, è A, protagonista di “New Tales of the Golden Turtle”. Dopo essere fuggito dal Sud al Nord durante la guerra, A viene addestrato come spia da inviare in missione in Corea del Sud alla fine del conflitto. Pentendosi per la sua precedente decisione, pianifica di consegnarsi ai funzionari della Corea del Sud ma, mentre attraversa il confine e si avvicina in silenzio al fiume che separa i due paesi, viene ucciso a colpi di pistola da alcuni ladri che lo derubano, gettando poi il corpo nel fiume Imjin. Tra le onde oscure del fiume, l’anima di A esce dal foro del proiettile e, accoccolandosi sul corpo senza vita, viene trascinata dai flutti a valle. “Ma dimmi, cosa ho fatto di male?” grida l’anima, riflettendo su una vita senza senso, di disperazione e divisione, mentre viene trasportata dalle acque del fiume che separa le due Coree in una sconosciuta oscurità. La letteratura di Choi In-hun è profonda, sorprendente, sconcertante e profondamente radicata nella Corea moderna.