Sex in a Trunk

I think it might have been because Kim Young-ha is such an earnest entertainer. Or maybe because Bruce Fulton was such an even-spoken and perceptive moderator. Or maybe the fact that the stories in Susan Choi’s books surprised me with their violence and destruction. But for whatever reason, out of all the events I’ve seen during the seven years of the PEN World Voices Festival, Saturday’s “Word from Asia: Contemporary Writing from Korea” is one of my all-time favorites.

Kim Young-ha won me over simply with his titles. Your Republic Is Calling You is good, but I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is maybe better, and “What Happened to the Guy in the Elevator?” equally compelling. (And available in English-translation right here thanks to Iowa’s International Writing Program.) But the most interesting part of his talk was about he way the literary scene works in Korea.

As he pointed out, here in America, agents and editors have the real power in who gets to publish, and the newspaper critics (the one or two out there . . .) have no real say, except after the book has been published. In Korea it’s pretty much the exact opposite. There are no agents, so you can skip that part. And traditionally, in order to become part of the literary community, you have to win a newspaper competition. After that you’re “authorized” to enter literary circles.

The results of this competition are always published on the first day of the year, when the newspaper is all bright and cheery, with “a big red sun shining on the front” and all of that.

Which is why Kim Young-ha lost.

His story of a couple having sex in a locked car trunk and then dying, was considered “too dark.”

In the end, this story was published by a hip literary mag and was even turned into a movie . . .

There’s something in the way Young-ha tells these stories that’s refreshingly straightforward, that perfectly captures his sort of curiosity and laid-back approach to life. Like, for instance, when he answered a question about how he did research for Your Republic Is Calling You, which is about a North Korean spy who is forgotten for 20 years and then contacted and forced to head back North.

Starting the book, he wanted to talk to some North Koreans, but, as he put it, you really can’t know who defected: “It’s not like you can walk up to someone and say, ‘hey you, are you North Korean?’” So his solution? He went to Google, typed in “north korean defector” and ended up placing an ad for a North Korean on a message board . . . Which ended up working perfectly. Of course it did.

Before Young-ha charmed the crowd (and Susan Choi did as well—I swear, this was the most loaded panel ever), Bruce Fulton presented a long, but never boring, overview of some recent Korean translations. He focused in on Columbia University Press (which publishes more Korean books than just about anyone) and named three specific titles:

Eastern Sentiments by Yi T’aejun, translated by Janet Poole. These short pieces cover a range of topics and were aimed at preserving a sense of Korean history and culture against Japanese absorption. Tragically, Yi T’aejun moved to North Korea, and since no one really ever heard from him again, he’s most probably dead.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel by Park Wan-suh, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein. Park Wan-suh wrote a ton of novels, but according to Bruce, this book is one of the very best, depicting her life during Japanese occupation and the Korean War.

Lost Souls: Stories by Hwang Sunwon, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Bruce read the opening part of the first story in this collection, which is also the first story Hwang Sunwon ever published. It was a charming story about sexual tension between a young tutor and the girl he’s trying to teach.

And in terms of Susan Choi (I feel like I’m shorting her on this post, but damn was she funny and interesting), I’m definitely going to check out American Girl.

Big score for the Asia Society though. I didn’t get to stay for all of the Japan panel (which focused on Monkey Business), but what I saw was top-notch. I hope this part of the festival is included again next year—for whatever reason it was incredibly effective at introducing works from another culture in a useful, exciting way.

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