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Korean fiction: a bold new wave

The global success of Han Kang's novels has led to increased interest in works of other Korean writers

‘The Vegetarian’ (Portobello Books), a three-part novella manifesting a woman’s metamorphosis into a ‘plant-like’ state, Kang was hardly a household name.
‘The Vegetarian’ (Portobello Books), a three-part novella manifesting a woman’s metamorphosis into a ‘plant-like’ state, Kang was hardly a household name.

The South Korean writer Han Kang is a synecdoche of contemporary Korean fiction in translation today. The 2016 Man Booker International Prize can be singled out as an example of a prize that did for a country’s literary market what prizes manifestly do for an individual author: Provide instant international visibility.

Before Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith won the inaugural £50,000 prize for The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), a three-part novella manifesting a woman’s metamorphosis into a “plant-like" state, Kang was hardly a household name. This book was followed by Human Acts (2016), in which the author relays the horrors of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. Her latest, The White Book (published this month by Portobello Books), was one of the year’s most anticipated releases.

Written during a writer’s residency in Warsaw, the book is a meditation on one colour, but manoeuvres through myriad literary forms—here too, the themes of violence, vulnerability, history and the human condition recur. An autobiographical account of the death of its anonymous narrator’s baby sister, it is an amalgamation of paragraph to page-length poetic prose and photographed performances (featuring Kang). Its empty pages function as ellipses that embody a sense of grief, punching you in the gut.

While Kang’s latest is a fragile work of literature, other Korean fiction is making its way into the world of publishing with a force. In a 2016 article for The Bookseller, Smith situates this success, and shares some statistics. A survey commissioned by Man Booker International, she writes, “noted that UK sales of Korean books shot up, from 88 copies in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015, and a good number of those will have been for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. This breakout success, which will have been many people’s first encounter with Korean literature, means readers, booksellers and publishers are clamouring for the next thing from South Korea."

Indeed, Smith’s own independent press, Tilted Axis Press, founded in 2015 with a focus on literature in Asian languages, went on to publish two female South Korean writers: Han Yujoo (The Impossible Fairytale, translated by Janet Hong) and Hwang Jungeun (One Hundred Shadows, translated by Jung Yewon), who, Kang says, is her favourite. Like Kang, Yujoo and Jungeun also write unsettling stories in surreal settings, and their narrative combination of the experimental and the eerie confirms their status as bold, new voices in Korean fiction.

One must acknowledge Smith’s considerable presence on the Korean literary translation scene. Alongside Kang, Smith has also translated the works of Bae Suah, including A Greater Music (Open Letter Books) in 2016, Recitation (Deep Vellum Publishing) and North Station (Open Letter Books), both this year. These two American publishing companies visited Seoul in 2014 at the invitation of the Literature Translation Institute (LTI) of Korea, where they agreed to publish a Korean novel annually. Smith adds in her article: “Other languages have seen a big hit translate into a short-term burst of interest, but failed to capitalize on this and turn it into a sustained trend…. Korean literature is here to stay."

Kang’s literary celebrity, coupled with The Vegetarian’s critical acclaim, may have catapulted contemporary Korean fiction in translation to new global levels, but as her former international literary agent, Barbara Zitwer, notes in a Deutsche Welle interview, the trajectory of this trend can be charted much earlier—though Kang’s case certainly “represents a change".

“During the past few years," she says, “Korean women writers have started to emerge: Kyung Sook Shin won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011 for her book Please Look After Mom, and Sun Mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly sold more than two million copies worldwide after it was published in 2013." This begs the question: Are prizes prerequisites for such widespread success, or are publishing houses increasingly pushing for inclusivity through investment in translated literature? Perhaps both.

In The White Book, the young mother’s plea for her prematurely born baby is this: “Don’t die. Live." The words haunt Kang’s pages like semantic spectres, and the narrator believes there are no better parting words than these. Indeed, Korean literature lives.

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