Reading Korean Literature

One of the great ways to get into the mind of a foreign culture is by picking up literature from that country. I loved reading Ghanaian literature and watching Ghanaian movies because I could peek into the imagination of Ghanaians, and the fictionalized stories helped me to understand what was really happening in the world around me.

Anyway I absolutely tore through two short stories yesterday written by GongJiYoung (공지영), “Dreams” and “Human Decency”. Both were really disjointed and confusing, but it still helped me to grasp at a certain mood, and it also reinforced my opinion that this place is scarred. She puts a lack of ‘time line’ into her stories. Her characters are always drifting back into the past in their heads, and you kind of forget what generation you’re in. But there’s definitely this sense of deep brokenness, guilt, and betrayal. The characters are living through the fact that their activism of the 1980s, while they have a civilian government now, seems to only add up to a more materialistic world. Her main character in Human Decency, a woman who gave up her life as an activist to work at a magazine, asks the question who are we “When we speak not of what is right and wrong, but of what we like and dislike?”

They were oddly powerful stories, although nothing really seemed to happen in them. It just seemed like these characters were grasping at that scar that seems to be here, that wound under a bandaid, that I can see but can’t touch. And it’s much bigger than Japanese Occupation and the Korean War, it’s the dictatorship after it and the rapid development, too.

In Human Decency, Gong gives the impression that those who suffered from those times are forgotten, while the travelers who escaped the country during that time are the ones that are now in the country’s imagination. The main character interviews “YiMinja”, an enlightened woman who went to Africa and India and studied yoga and meditation, and drinks funny smelling tea. (And the main character says, after meeting her and her remarkable presence, “I now regretted disapproving of her because she had lived abroad.”) The other character is Gwon, a man who spent most of his life rotting in prison because of a life sentence. He received it for passing out anti government literature. His two comrades died in prison. Now he seems to rot alone in his home with his brother, forgotten by his country because his struggle no longer seems to matter. They’ve all jumped past it.

But the main character herself seems to want to jump past it. The story takes us back into her life, into the people she lost. She doesn’t want to go back to interview Gwon because of his connection to the life of activism that she ran away from–finally just tired of being constantly on the run. There’s this continual inner struggle on her desire to honor her past and deal with her guilt, and this desire to turn away from it and accept the enlightened woman who traveled all over and learned of the world’s wisdom. The character’s inner struggles are fascinating when you look at it from a cultural perspective.

Anyway I totally recommend reading Korean literature for anyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of this place.

3 thoughts on “Reading Korean Literature”

  1. Maggie,

    Human Decency is of a genre of Korean modern literature that focuses intently on the aftermath of the civil war. In this case, as you note, by claiming it has been hurriedly and unjustly forgotten. I wonder if you were reading the Jimoondang edition, or a different edition?

    The Jimoondang books tend to be flat, disjointed, and about separation. If you are interested in more Korean modern lit, feel free to head over to
    KTLIT where about 1.75 of us (at any time) discuss the literature and its translation..

  2. Wow, Charles. Thanks a lot. Yes I am reading the Jimoondang edition. I picked it up used at What the Book just on a whim.

    Do you really think it was about the Civil War? I got the feeling that it was mostly about the 80s. But I did read it pretty fast and in translation, so I could definitely be missing what they're really trying to get at.

    I'll check out that link you sent me. 😀

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