How much do you know about Korean literature? Ahead of the Korea Cultural Programme at the London Book Fair this coming April, Katie Slade, editor at Comma Press, gives us an introduction into contemporary Korean fiction.
‘Isn’t it odd,’ remarked Daniel Seton, editor at Pushkin Press, to me and Stefan Tobler, editor at And Other Stories, as we rode the lift at Kyobo Bookstore in Seoul for about the third time, struggling to find the right floor. ‘When you go to another country, you find yourself suddenly unable to perform the simplest task.’
What Daniel meant of course was how being out of your comfort zone can throw even the most capable adult, especially when abroad. You find yourself hesitating to do the things you do automatically in your everyday routine. You find yourself asking, how does it work over here? What’s the system for this? Will I cause offence if I do this? You might be a veteran of your own city, confident in your knowledge of its twists and turns, its hidden corners, but here you’re an alien, delicately feeling your way around the edges. It’s fascinating how space has the power to change us like this, influence our behaviour and even define who we are.
What's the relation between cities and short fiction?
Psychogeography is something we’ve actively explored for years at Comma Press, in addition to championing short fiction by publishing short stories and little else. We believe short stories have a natural affinity with urban environments, a concept reflected in our ‘Reading the City’ series which includes the anthologies The Book of Leeds, The Book of Liverpool, The Book of Istanbul, and the forthcoming The Book of Tokyo and The Book of Rio. The reason this combination works so well is due to the fleeting, transient nature of the form and how it encapsulates perfectly urban phenomena; the random, chance encounters on street corners, public transport and cafes; constant regeneration, change, movement; whole lives turning on singular, unpredictable moments. In a short story, you may not learn about the protagonist’s background as you would in a novel but your brief time with them on the page will leave an impression, much like meeting a stranger in a city.
So when I was invited to Seoul as part of the British Council’s study trip to Korea for UK editors, having never been to the country at all, I was eager to get a sense of Seoul as an urban space and how this might be reflected in Korean fiction. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly but what I found was a culturally robust, diverse and vibrant place brimming with stories, each inhabitant shaped by their time living in the city, from long-standing Seoul-born citizens, to adopted residents, to young students, to expats.
The city of Seoul
Seoul is undoubtedly a twenty-first century metropolis, yet simultaneously and unmistakably its own city with its own patchwork identity. There are, as you would expect, the financial sectors with tall glass buildings, the famous landmarks and tourist spots, the more fashionable and upmarket areas (the Gangnam district, for example). Then there’s Insadong (near to where our hotel was situated), Seoul’s cultural art market with its handmade crafts and boutiques, and the Hongdae region, near to Hongik University, home to urban artists, underground, indie music, street entertainment, clubs and quirky cafes (Hello Kitty Café, Charlie Brown Café). The denizens of London’s Camden Town, Manchester’s Northern Quarter or Brighton’s The Lanes would feel very much at home here.
Another beautiful feature of Seoul is how the city has carved out a space for literature – not just in its libraries and universities, but as a part of the community. You don’t have to go very far to stumble upon a literary café (Korean publishing house Jaeum & Moeum’s very own café, for example), and even more remarkable is Paju Bookcity – a small ‘village’ of publishing houses situated on one street (take note, Britain!).
Short fiction: A popular form among Korean readers
But the best discovery by far for me was the abundance of short fiction listed in the catalogues. We were told by every publisher we met that the novel was still the most popular form among Korean readers, which is more or less the case in every market, but the short story still seemed to hold a firm place, something I was genuinely surprised at. Korean readers, we learned, are very loyal to their authors, regardless of the form their work takes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or a short story collection; good fiction is good fiction. From the macabre, black humour of Hyung-seo Park, to Choi Jae-hoon’s experimental rehashing of myths and popular fictional characters in Baron Quirval’s Castle, to Yun Ko Eun’s surrealistic play on mundane realities in Table For One, and Lee Gi-ho’s Who is Dr Kim?, which questions the future of fiction itself, the Korean market bears a diverse array of short stories.
Korean short fiction: Where to start
By happy coincidence, the Autumn 2013 edition of List: Books from Korea (a quarterly magazine for publishers) was a special issue on apartment-living. One article, Imagined Spaces: The Apartment in Literature, explained how after the Korean War, there was an influx of people moving into Seoul to provide cheap labour, and the rapid urbanisation created this idea of the apartment as a ‘middle-class dream’, a safe haven in which to hide anonymously from a government that destroyed individuals. In an interview also in List, renowned author Kim Young-Ha, who was a student in the 1980s, a time of political, social and economic uncertainty in Korea, commented: ‘As an author, I feel my duty is to grasp and change and express the feelings of my generation. We think we know Seoul but I believe we don’t know about where we stay, where we live ... Seoul is a city where everything is mixed, old things and new things.’ Due to a poisoning accident, Kim Young-Ha has no memories before the age of ten and has moved around frequently as an adult, and so his sense of place and belonging is impermanent. His characters are often alienated, isolated and disconnected from their surroundings.
By contrast, Kim Junghyuk, discussing his third short story collection 1F/B1 (First Floor, Basement Floor), describes the city as a map of ‘signs’ and ‘codes’ directing the wandering inhabitant; dangerous, but exciting all the same. Suhzuck Yoon’s short story It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World looks at Seoul from the perspective of a lonely American expat named Bruce, who bizarrely projects his desperation for intimacy onto Korean national treasure, Sungnyemun Gate. In the opening pages of the booklet handed to me, the author has written, ‘Seoul is full of people’s desires and frustrations. I think the desires and frustrations make Seoul a city that is beautiful.’
Seoul, it seems, is a city built on the ruins of its past, where the hopes and ambitions of the new generation become entangled with the disappointments of the old. In fiction, it is depicted as a place to hide, to remain faceless, a place of uncertainty, a place to nurture fear, but it is also a place of creativity, a place of intrigue, a place where love can happen, a place to discover oneself -- the perfect breeding ground for a story.
Find out more about the Korea Cultural Programme at this year's London Book Fair and look out for Twitter announcements of public events.