From the late 1990’s until the present, many of us have been caught up in (or have at least come into contact with) what is known at the Korean Wave, or ‘Hallyu’. For those not already in the know, ‘Hallyu’ was a term first taken up by journalists in Beijing to describe Korean culture’s burgeoning popularity in China. In 2013 – you could call it post-Gangnam Style perhaps – it’s quite obvious the Korean Wave has moved on a lot further since then. Yet with the proliferation of Korean dramas, films and K-pop, where does Korean literature take its place amongst the other aspects of Korean culture in Hallyu?
On the 15th of October I attended the Korean literature forum at the Korean Cultural Centre in London, dubbed ‘K-Lit: Taking its Place on the Korean Wave’, to find out more. Chaired by Samira Ahmed (journalist, broadcaster and visiting professor of Journalism at Kingston university) with panellists Dr Grace Koh (lecturer in Korean Literature at SOAS), Emmie Francis (editor at Short Books) and Jung Chan (a Korean author who explores existential themes in relation to humanity and writing), the event was an enlightening prelude to next year’s London Book Fair, where Korea has been chosen as the “Market Focus Country” in 2014.
It seems that the general overview of modern Korean literature is that the common themes therein mainly deal with socio-political issues, particularly landmark events in Korean history such as its colonial period (1910 – 1945) and its division at the end of the Korean War. However there has apparently been a marked shift towards a broader range since the 90’s, with a new generation of writers producing literature leaning more towards existential themes and elements of surrealism. On the other hand, the unique characteristics of Korean literature are also shown through writers’ impressions of modern Korean life, as many works allude to themes of social inequality, changing gender and family roles, and living in a post-modern society with the historical presence of the Korean War lingering in the background.
As for Korean literature’s place in Hallyu, at first glance it seems to have been left behind by its counterparts in film and music. The understandable explanation behind this is that publishing a book is quite a lengthy process, especially because of the many nuanced cultural themes prevalent in literature that need to be navigated at the translation stage. One solution provided by the Korean government was the founding of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea in 1996, with the aim of promoting quality translations of Korean Literature. Translations will still require a certain amount of time, but the Literature Translation Institute of Korea will certainly be able to help ensure that more Korean literature will be translated, and then perhaps as a result, enjoyed by a larger international audience.
Jung Chan also particularly noted that literature isn’t the kind of cultural medium that can be instantaneously appreciated, like films or music. Reading a novel does indeed take more time and commitment in comparison to listening to new music, or watching a film, in order to fully appreciate it. Despite the difficulties in translation Korean literature is seen as a growing market, with popular titles such as ‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook-Shin that has sold over two million copies.
It was also mentioned that one way that Korean literature might be able to gain further recognition by the English-language market is through film adaptations. ‘Please Look After Mother’ has already been optioned for a film, with many more pitching to be adapted and a great list of novels that have already been adapted to film. Film adaptations may inspire greater interest in the novels that they’re based on, and has the potential to draw more casual readers into exploring the range of works Korean literature has to offer. I’d recommend picking something from the list and reading it before watching the film!
It’s clear to see that Korean literature is thriving, but as a cultural aspect of Hallyu it is clearly defined by the time that is required for it to transcend language barriers. It will be worth the wait for decent translations, and perhaps the popularity of Korean films might boost the level of interest in works Korean literature that have already been adapted. I’m definitely looking forward to picking up a copy of ‘Please Look After Mother!