Throughout history, stories have played a big part in Korea’s culture and these days Korean authors are on the front-lines of the book industry —intriguing readers and touching the hearts of book-lovers around the world.
The following three books are ones we have enjoyed, and we know other Aeseoga (애서가), or Bibliophiles, will enjoy them too.
The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction
Readymade Bodhisattva introduces English readers to thirteen of South Korea’s contemporary science-fiction authors—perfect for bookworms who want to experience the diversity of Korean Sci-Fi.
Sci-Fi arrived in Korea during the early twentieth century, when literary figures like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne brought delight to the Korean reading-market who, at the time, were being creatively constrained by the Japanese imperial government of that time.
One method Korean authors used to subvert Japan’s control over the people’s creative writing-industry was the printing of several newspapers and serial magazines which featured original short stories, mostly about self-discovery, as well as positive novellas that aimed to help readers cope with the increasingly difficult times.
Although this worked for a few years, the imperial government soon tightened their grip on all outlets that displayed ‘Korean independence’ —discontinuing said magazines and enforcing stricter censorship over all Korean writing. This greatly gentrified Korean literature.
During the 50s and 60s, Korean writers were at last able to explore and experiment with different writing styles, which lead to an influx of Sci-Fi novels and serial magazines such as Hagwon (Campus; 1952-1979) and Haksaeng Kwahak (Student Science; 1965-1983).
The wave of Sci-Fi writing by Korean authors steamrolled on through the next two decades—with the 70s featuring many stories about existential horror and dictator-run societies and the work of the 80s leaning more towards themes of protest and alternate realities.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the science-fiction genre truly erupted in Korea’s writing-scene, which then paved the way for the colossal Korean Sci-Fi industry we know today whose books and films have gained international praise and acknowledgement.
All the stories featured in Readymade Bodhisattva reflect past themes of Korean science-fiction stories, while also tackling traditional tropes within the Sci-Fi genre itself.
Brokolli pyeongwonui hyeoltu (브로콜리 평원의 혈투 — The Bloody Battle of Broccoli; 2008) by Djuna, a famous yet anonymous author, and Lim Taewoon’s Ippare kkin dolgae-baram (이빨 낀 돌개 바람 — Storm Between My Teeth; 2009) both discuss alien invasions, with Djuna’s story centering around post-apocalyptic disasters, planetary romance and politics whereas Lim’s work focuses more on exploring an alien species’ culture and racial discrimination of foreigners in Korea.
Rodeukil (로드킬—Roadkill; 2011) by Park Mingyu, 0-gwa 1 sai (0과 1 사이—Between Zero and One; 2009) by Kim Bo-young, Nae momui papyeonduli heuleojin gil ttara (내 몸의 파편들이 흩어진 길 따라—Along the Fragments of my Body; 2006) by Bok Geo-il and the anthology’s title story Redimeideu bosal (레디메이드 보살—Readymade Bodhisattva; 2004) by Park Seonghwan all focus on robots and artificial intelligence—with Kim Bo-young and Bok Geo-il’s stories being two of the three works by female writers featured in the anthology, the other being Yun I-hyeong.
Alternative themes within the collection are cyber-space, genetic mutation, and time travel, as well as teenage-hood, refugees, Utopian societies and corporations.
From the early stirrings of the 1960s to the advent of protest science fiction in the 1970s and 1980s to the increasing popularisation of the genre since the 1990s, science fiction presents itself today as an integral part of popular culture in Korea.— Park Sunyoung, Editor of Readymade Bodhisattva, cited from the Introduction (pg. 18)
The Future of Silence
Fiction by Korean Women
Another anthology we recommend is The Future of Silence, a collection of short fiction stories written by Korea’s leading female writers.
It’s no secret that for centuries, many genres in the writing world have been predominantly ruled by the pens of male authors, making it hard for female writers to get their work out there—many resorting to using male pseudonyms just to get their stories acknowledged.
In A Room of One’s Own, a powerful collection of essays, literary and feminist icon Virginia Woolf said the following regarding the role women had been reduced to in male-penned fiction—and the sad reality of female authors during her time;
Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time…Imaginatively she of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.
She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger.
Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life, she could hardly read; scarcely spell and was the property of her husband.—Virginia Woolf, citied from A Room of One’s Own (pg.64-66)
Woolf commented the following back in 1935, yet her words still reign true up to this day. Despite, these days, most of the internationally successful and acknowledged contemporary Korean authors are women, it wasn’t so long ago that there was a distinct margin between male and female writers—along with the age-old superstitions that women had no place in the literary world.
It wasn’t so long ago that literary women in Korea were still being referred to as yeoryu jakka (여류작가), or “Female Writers”, as opposed to male authors who were called jakkanim (작가님), simply “Authors” without needing to specify the fact they were men—thus demonstrating how historically Korean women have been corralled by social orders and “traditional” roles.
In the past few decades, although old ideologies still linger, Korea’s writing industry has become more open to women, with authors such as Park Wan-Suh, Lee Min-Jin, Han Kang, Shin Kyung-Sook, Ch’oe Yun and Bae Suah—who we discuss next—and many others making up for all the years that Korean women were shunned and forced out of the writing world.
The Future of Silence spans three generations of female authors in Korea, from the 60s and 70s to the 90s and 2000s—all of who discuss different aspects of womanhood and women’s struggles both in the past and present day.
Identical Apartments by Park Wan-Seo—who was a part of the first group of women accepted as students to Seoul National University back in 1950—discusses Korean women’s struggle for visibility and city life in Seoul, whereas Kim Sagwa’s uniquely titled story It’s One of those The-More-I’m-In-Motion-The-Weirder-It–Gets Days and It’s Really Blowing My Mind (움직이면 움직일수록 이상한 일이 벌어지는 오늘은 참으로 신기한 날이다; 2010) delves into the rare subject of psychosis and homicidal menbung—a Korean slang-word for ‘mental breakdown’.
Oh Jung-Hee’s Wayfarer—originally one of three stories included in her book Chinatown which breaks through social borders, pushes for acceptance of women both at home and abroad as well as highlighting women’s yearning to not be distinguished solely by their gender and to be known simply as authors rather than yeoryu jakka.
And in the anthology’s title story The Future of Silence, author Kim Ae-Ran tempts readers to consider the possible demise of spoken traditions—a tragedy that almost befell Koreans during Japanese occupation, and how, if this cultural erasure had been successful, it would have robbed the world of the Hallyu culture they worship today.
Now, in the 21st century, at the same time that women have claimed their rightful place in the production of recorded literature, their overwhelming contribution to oral literation in Korea is also being resurrected and celebrated in the Korean cultural wave that has brought the spoken word—expressed in song, television, drama, music and film—to a global audience.
This is one of the great triumphs of Korean literary tradition.Ju-Chan and Bruce Fulton, Editors and Translators of The Future of Silence, cited from the Introduction (pg.xxii)
by Bae Suah
Notorious for her difficult-to-translate work, Bae Suah is one of the many women at the helm of the Korean writing world—and her novel A Greater Music is a fine example of how she pushes her critics’ patience, by abandoning linguistic-correctness while taking her readers on a journey narrated by intricate characters.
A Greater Music is narrated by a Korean writer living as a student in Germany—where Bae herself spent quite some time—who spends her time documenting language classes, classical music and her student life, and how in-love she is with her teacher.
The novel itself wanders to and from the main character’s past—when she first moved to Germany—and her present, which takes place after she returns to Berlin after being away for three years. Near the start of the novel, the narrator is house-sitting for her on-again-off-again boyfriend Joachim when she falls into an icy river—an event which makes her reflect on different aspects of her past life and relationships.
One of these relationships is with an enigmatic, but sickly, older woman name M—whom the narrator especially cared for and, eventually, fell in love with.
Filled with themes of travel, deep friendships, failed relationships, literature and music, Bae Suah’s 2003 novel A Greater Music is both a thoughtful and emotional story—and definitely not something one picks up for a quick, light-hearted read.
This was in the dead of winter. It was at M’s house that I first heard “At the Santé Prison,” the song of a condemned man awaiting death. Between one piece and another, or one movement and another movement, I would open the kitchen window a little and breathe in the crisp air, or make some fresh coffee.
At first I was bored, unable to lose myself in the music. At the time I was more taken up with M than I was with Shostakovich. All the same, we listened to all fifteen of Shostakovich’s symphonies, one after another, in no particular order . . .Bae Suah, cited from A Greater Music
Feature Image Source: ©Photo by Florencia Viadana, 21.06.2019, unsplash.com