in 2015, i read 11 books (of 70) by a korean or korean-american author. it was an interesting experience, surprising in some ways that i didn’t expect. the most surprising was the shock of recognizability and the pleasantness of it, never having been the kind of reader (or viewer) who needed or wanted to relate to characters in books (or film or tv). truth be told, it never occurred to me to be bothered by the whiteness of the world around me until i was in my twenties; i suppose there’s a privilege in that as well as a significant measure of unawareness and, probably, self-absorption.
a lot of it, though, came from the fact that, when i fell into pop culture and entertainment as a pre-adolescent, i fell into korean pop culture and korean entertainment. my boy band was h.o.t., not ’n sync or backstreet boys. my celebrity crushes were tony and junjin and jang geun-seok. the women i considered beautiful were jeon ji-hyun and song hye-gyo and shin mina. i grew up watching korean dramas, not american television, and, to this day, my nostalgic cultural references are all korean and i often sit silently, confused, when listening to friends talk about their adolescence because i can’t relate.
the strangeness of that also didn’t occur to me until i was in my twenties. i was born and raised in the states and have never lived in korea, and it wasn’t like my parents forced me to partake only of things korean. (they actually hated my k-pop obsessions; i often joke that, had i grown up in korea, my parents would have shaved my head because you know that drama answer me 1997? i was sung shi-won, minus the cute romance.) maybe it was that i had friends who were also into k-pop; maybe it was that, growing up, 80% of my friends were korean and the remaining 20% asian. maybe part of it was that i am fluent (to a degree) in korean, so the language barrier never existed, and maybe it was also that this was all during the days of wimpy dial-up internet when on-line forums were starting to become a thing and making things more accessible.
and yet, though my sources of entertainment were korean, my reading life was solidly fixed in the west. my parents didn’t encourage me to read outside the classics when i was young, so i grew up on the brits, the french, the russians. when i started reading contemporary literature circa 2005, i still stuck with the familiars — the british, maybe a few americans, haruki murakami — and i have to confess i stayed away from “asian-american literature,” uninterested in what felt predominantly like “immigrant narratives,” stories i couldn’t relate to and wasn’t interested in, as horrible and snooty as that sounds. (i’ve since come around and seen the errors of my prejudice, so don’t judge me too harshly. i was young and very immature.)
the stupid part of that is that relatability (which is apparently not a word but i am running with anyway) is such a broad thing. we can relate to so many things, so many different circumstances, because there’s something universal about human struggle, about human pain, about human love and desire and fear. that’s why it’s so infuriating to me to see such a narrow focus in publishing, the dominance of white stories, the reluctance for publishers to take risks and throw their weight and support behind diverse writers of color from different places who have different stories to tell from the lives they’ve lived because there’s that fear that the american public “won’t relate.”
maybe that’s one reason i never put much stock in the idea of being to relate to what i was reading or watching.
there is a pleasure and comfort in it, though — i’ve learned that as i read more from korean and korean-american authors last year. there’s something pleasurable about being able to immerse yourself in a world and find yourself there in the specifics, to see that there are other people out there who’ve had similar experiences, who’ve struggled with belonging, with balancing what oftentimes feels like a dichotomous existence. it’s one of those things i didn’t really learn until i realized how nice it felt, these oddities of being korean-american, never really belonging in any group, whether it be white americans or korean-koreans or, even, kprean-americans. being korean-american, in and of itself, isn’t a unifying force; there are so many of us growing up in different cities, in different neighborhoods, in different second-generation upbringings that the only common thread between us sometimes is that we are korean-american.
all that said, though, only two of the eleven books i read in 2015 really brought that sense of relatability to the surface in a dominant way: patricia park’s re jane (pamela dorman books, 2015) and jung yun’s shelter (picador, forthcoming 2016). both books follow a korean-american and beautifully capture that dichotomy of being korean-american without that identity being the focus of the story, and both park and yun weave it into the narrative rather, showing how our ethnic identities do influence us in ways that we might not intend or realize, how many of our decisions and actions are unconscious reactions to the way we grew up.
what’s not surprising is that my awareness of myself as an Other came through my experiences with book culture. i grew up in southern california, specifically in the valley, and i never like a minority because there were just so many asians and i grew up in the korean community.
the first book event i ever attended was an ian mcewan reading at the LA public library. it was for solar (jonathan cape, 2010), and i was excited for it because, one, i’d never seen an author “in real life” before and, two, i loved ian mcewan and had recently gone through his backlist in a frenzy. it was weird to me, then, to queue before the doors opened, looking around at the white crowd around me — in an auditorium in little tokyo, no less — feeling like i must stick out like a sore thumb, this twenty-something asian girl among all these white people, most of whom were much older than i was.
part of me relished it. another part of me wondered where all the other readers of color were because i knew i couldn’t be the only one, and that’s been the question that has remained with me over the years as i’ve attended many, many more readings but haven’t lost that sense of being the asian unicorn in the room. i know we’re out there and, to take it further, that we’re out there reading from a range of authors, so it’s an honest wonderment of mine, and i love when i go to a reading of an author of color and find the room filled with a diverse range of readers, which goes to show that we are here and we want diverse books.
to bring this back to the topic at hand, though: the concept of the Other obviously exists differently in korean literature. i feel like all the korean books i read last year told stories of people who lived outside the norm, on the fringe, almost to the point that i wonder if that is the role literature plays in korea or if it is simply reflective of what editors here are compelled toward and want. the filtration system of translated korean literature is of interest to me.
it’s true that society gravitates towards hierarchies and groups, and homogeneous societies will draw lines, too, making Others of people according to criteria other than skin color. in many ways, to korean-koreans, the korean-american is the Other — the time i felt most acutely like the Other was in 2012 when i went to seoul for the first time in twelve years. i spent ten days in seoul after spending three weeks in japan, which in itself was a crazy experience because i couldn’t communicate, so i’d anticipated some comfort going to korea where i could speak the language and was familiar with the culture.
i suppose that familiarity with the culture should have prepared me for how acutely aware i would be of myself as the Other. i speak enough korean well enough for koreans to be impressed, but my limited vocabulary and weird accent set me apart and put me down. more importantly, though, i don’t fit the korean (or the seoul) “type” or standard of beauty — i’m not thin; i’m too tan; and i don’t wear make-up. i don’t wear the right clothes, and i don’t have aegyo or a “cute” personality, all of which is fine, until you step into a homogeneous society that is very open about giving you the look over and judging you by your appearance.
in the face of seoul’s trend-obsessed mainstream, it’s not surprising to come across very different lives in korean literature. there’s a bleakness to korean novels that isn’t found in literature elsewhere, and many of the characters in the korean novels i read were people who had somehow been left behind or cast aside, who were struggling in these “outside” communities, who were Others because of their lack of prestige or education or financial stability.
korean-american literature, on the other hand, explores the korean as the very obvious Other, and i think the one korean-american author i’ve read who really straddles the korean/korean-american divide well is krys lee. i read her debut collection, drifting house (viking, 2012), in 2013, and i’m still amazed when i think about it today because it’s like she has one foot firmly in korean-america and the other in korea. that’s not an easy thing to do, but she does it beautifully and hauntingly, and i can’t wait for her novel, whenever that’s published. i hope it’s soon.
reading in translation when you’re partially fluent in the original language is an interesting experience.
when i’m reading, say, a russian novel-in-translation, i admittedly don’t really think about it as a translation — as in, i’m not acutely aware of it, even though i know i’m reading in translation. as in, because i lack any familiarity with or knowledge of russian, i’m able to take the translation with little resistance, almost at face value.
when reading korean novels-in-translation, though, i’m always aware that i’m reading in translation. i frequently pause to wonder what the original korean says, how many liberties the translator has taken, how much nuance has been lost. this awareness is more acute with certain books (i.e. han kang’s the vegetarian [hogarth, forthcoming 2016]), less noticeable with other books (i.e. jang eun-jin’s no one writes back [dalkey archive press, 2013]), and, sometimes, i’m so bothered that i have to stop reading the translation altogether (i.e. gong ji-young’s our happy time [atria books, 2014]).
this often has little to do with the translators. the nature of translation is that it isn’t hard or rigid but porous with each translator bringing his/her own method and philosophy to each book, and translating from korean to english is hard. english, as lovely as it is, is a limited language; it doesn’t have the width or breadth of words that korean has, words like 원망 or 정 or 아쉽다 — words that encompass so much more than their english counterparts can possibly convey. korean is also structurally looser, more prone to poetic freedom and ambiguous pronouns, and there’s a rhythm to the way sentences usually end — 했다 한다 간다 — that creates a tone and cadence that simply cannot translate.
the inevitable by-product of translation is, therefore, loss. we lose nuance; we lose points of cultural significance; we lose layers of voice and tone and mood. one of my favorite books from 2015 was han kang’s human acts (portobello books, 2016), and, in the introduction, translator deborah smith writes:
born and raised in gwangju, han kang’s personal connection to the subject matter meant that putting this novel together was always going to be an extremely fraught and painful process. she is a writer who takes things deeply to heart, and was anxious that the translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear. her empathy comes through most strongly in ‘the boy’s mother’, written in a brick-thick gwangju dialect impossible to replicate in english, korean dialects being mainly marked by grammatical differences rather than individual words. to me, ‘faithfulness’ in translation primarily concerns the effect on the reader rather than being an issue of syntax, and so i tried to aim for a non-specific colloquialism that would carry the warmth han intended. though i did smuggle the tiniest bit of yorkshire in — call it translator’s license.
one of this translation’s working titles was ‘uprisings’. as well as the obvious connection to the gwangju uprising itself, a thread of words runs through the novel — come out, come forward, emerge, surface, rise up — which suggests an uprising of another kind. the past, like the bodies of the dead, hasn’t stayed buried. repressed trauma irrupts in the form of memory, one of the main korean words for ‘to remember’ meaning literarily ‘to rise to the surface’ — an inadvertent, often hazy recollection which is the type of memory most common in han kang’s book. here, chronology is a complex weave, with constant slippages between past and present, giving the sense of the former constantly intruding on or shadowing the latter. paragraph breaks and subheadings have been inserted into the translation in order to maintain these shifts in tense without confusing the reader. (human acts, 4-5)
i loved this. i almost wish more translators would address such things in introductions or afterwords or something. in some ways, i think smith’s introduction actually helped me read human acts when han’s other book-in-translation, the vegetarian, left me feeling a little frustrated and lost because i could feel the things that had been lost in translation.
that said, the idea of loss shouldn’t discourage us from reading in translation. i think it’s absolutely crucial that we read in translation, if only because we lose so much (or fail to gain much, i suppose is the better way to put it) when we read only the offerings of english, and i find it discouraging whenever i hear how reluctant americans are to read books-in-translation and, in connection, how publishers are reluctant to acquire and publish books-in-translation, which is why i give major props to dalkey archive press for its “library of korean literature” published in collaboration with the literature translation institute of korea. i read a number of titles from them in 2015 and am planning to read more in 2016, and it’s been a pleasure to read their translations, not only for the quality of their work but also the range of books they choose.
(also MUCH love to mcnally jackson for regularly carrying several titles on their shelves.)
there was more i wanted to write here, but, as i plan to read even more from korean and korean-american authors this year, i’ll end this here. in 2016, i also plan to make good on my 2015 goal to read a book in korean every month, so i anticipate that there will be a lot for me to think about as i read, so we shall continue this discussion over the year!
thanks for reading!