26 October 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the forms of plays, all of which make use of what could most simply be termed an overriding sense of “synesthesia.” Throughout the collection, Kyung Ju mixes up sensorial language, whether that which we use to describe our bodies, or the world around us. What results is a fascinating defamiliarization and confusion of the way we use language to describe our lives, what we feel and experience, in a fever-dreamlike onslaught of vivid, visceral images.

Not simply interesting for their absurdity, these moments of confusion are also so well-rendered that they still feel somehow realistic and tangible. Jake Levine’s skillful translation of the collection must have been monstrously difficult, as it’s bursting at the seams with wordplay, assonance, consonance, and rhyme, with sumptuous, gorgeous language as fascinating for its absurdity as for its clarity. On top of the sensory confusion, Kyung Ju also weaves in a mix-up of the way we describe various forms of art: tactile or olfactory words for music, auditory words for painting, and so on.

In fact, one of the collection’s recurring themes is that of music as an allegory for human life. To cite just one: “In my previous life I was not human. I was music . . . Beethoven didn’t compose music. Beethoven was music. What he recorded was only his desperation.” In evoking one of the most famous classical composers, the suggestion seems to be that there is transcendent beauty to be found in the sublimation of our experiences, emotions, and sensations into art, blurring the lines between where the art and person begin and end.

He further clarifies and expands upon the synesthesia in the collection with a third layer. Not just a mixing of senses, or of the senses related to art, he also blends the art forms themselves. Though the collection contains a large amount of prose-poems (another kind of line-blurring), the true moments of confusion come with poems like, “The Moment After the Rain Hits, We Hug a Rainbow and Enter a Hotel with an Old Bathub.” Beginning as a poem, it moves on to Act I, II, and III—the first two still in verse, and the last of which takes the form an absurd dialogue between “Man” and “Kim” (ostensibly Kim Kyung Ju himself). It is a short, confusing back and forth where Kim wonders if Man is his son, and the issue is never clarified, but ends with Man carrying Kim on his back, pretending to be a plane, as if reversing the possible father-son connection.

Child-parent bonds, too, are an important theme in the collection, with countless references to “Mom” and “Dad.” In fact, the often shadowy presence of Mom may even contain the root to the work’s absurdity. In some rare moments, she shows up as a tragic figure in his life: “Mom, please stop dribbling . . . Turning on your side, purple bedsores pop;” she is dying before his eyes. These moments are often surrounded by language that juxtaposes absence and presence, as well as confusing, contradictory, or nonsensical sentences. On top of being paradoxical, there’s a sense of avoidance when he says “like a love for mom that never existed, my sorrow begins,” like a child shaking its head no at something to make it untrue, like the speaker wanting to negate the love in order to avoid the pain. However, in the collection’s penultimate poem, “A City of Sadness,” over ten pages long, the speaker rambles on and on about music and life and poetry only to end, finally, with a surreal scene:

the people that were entering the water that were carrying the coffin all had the same face as my own . . . But then, I wondered, in the coffin whose body was laid? I ran and ripped away the flowers covering the coffin . . . There, laid to rest, was my mom . . . Instead of her head, my head rest in the arms of my decapitated mother’s corpse. My face had my mother’s smile.”


With this fever-dreamlike ending, Kyung Ju finally takes a deep dive into the sorrow surrounding the sickness and death of the speaker’s mother, illuminating all the anxiety, confusion, and absurdity of such an event.

The subsequent, chaotic search for meaning, understandings of oneself, of the world, of art, are jumbled up, resulting in a language as absurd as the thought of losing one’s mother: a language parallel to and yet divorced from reality as we know it. This collection seeks new language, new ways to signify art and life out of the tumult, sublimating absurdity itself in its effort to explore this new language. That this language is so beautiful, so vivid, so familiar and familial, despite all its apparent absurdity, is a testament to both Kyung Ju’s skill as a writer and Levine’s light-footed, wonderful translation. What results is a readable, tragicomically absurd text that’s worth countless re-readings.

19 April 17 | Kaija Straumanis |

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee Nowhere to Be Found, Bae Suah is back, this time with Deborah Smith, translator of the Man Booker Prize winner_ The Vegetarian_ and founder of Tilted Axis, a UK-based press dedicated to publishing new works in translation.

In the book’s opening chapters, the narrator—who remains unnamed—falls into an icy river in the suburbs of Berlin. A Korean writer and student living in Germany, she begins to look back over the years, blurring lines between past and present as she examines her relationship with Joachim, her on-and-off, working class boyfriend, and M, her German tutor, a refined and enigmatic young woman she’s in love with. The contrast between these two partners and the tensions around language and class are fascinating, but I had a hard time just getting past how gorgeous the writing was.

The narrator describes M, setting the scene for their many discussions of music and language, “The rain water trickled down M’s pale, almost ghost-like forehead, down over her eyelids, still more sunken after her recent cold, and over her slightly-downward pointed nose. When she tilted her head upward, her lips appeared unbelievably thin and delicate, tapering elegantly even when she wasn’t smiling, flushed red as though suffused by the morning sunlight. The delicate, languidly prominent scaffolding of her cheekbones . . . If books and language were the symbol of M’s absolute world, then music was her inaccessible mind, her religion, her soul.”
The narrative is constantly shifting, pliable, and fluid, in both tense and setting. The construction seems effortless, allowing the narrator to sift through her life, her relationships, and most importantly the end of her relationship with M to find closure in it all. Her memory, one can’t forget, is imperfect—an approximation and perhaps a reinvention.

The style of the writing evokes the very music that seems to drive the story. Smith in an interview with Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn stated, “When I was translating her, the thing that I was most aware of was trying not to smooth out the weirdness too much. . . . It becomes quite hypnotic when you read it in Korean, and quite lyrical in places as well. She writes a lot about music, and the other thing that her style evokes is that. It’s more about the cadence of the sentence. The core book itself, the structure, is more about variations on a theme, and coming back to certain motifs rather than a straight chronology.”

Thankfully for readers, Bae Suah is prolific and Deborah Smith seems determined to bring these great books to English language readers.

7 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments



A Contrived World by Jung Young Moon, translated from the Korean by Mah Eunji and Jeffrey Karvonen (Dalkey Archive Press)

I’ve been reading Jung Young Moon’s A Contrived World in preparation for an upcoming class (we’ll be talking about his Vaseline Buddha) and god damn do I love this book. Why, you ask? Here are three quotes, starting with the longest one, the one mentioned on the forthcoming Three Percent Podcast:

Before I begin to list the things that I think are fun, I would like to take a moment to list the things that I do not consider fun: noises of all kinds, nearly every kind of music, violent things, depression, conventional works of fiction, fiction that reflects the times, novels that discuss scars, consolation and healing, novels in which characters’ actions weigh more than their thoughts, grandiose novels, touching novels (perhaps speaking of the dull nature of the critics who fawn over such novels could be somewhat fun, but not really, so let us just say that the reason for their behavior is that they either have no talent as critics or have no self-esteem as human beings, or both), growth novels, all-too-serious novels, novels that don’t exude an excess of self-consciousness, proverbial poems, things explained by common sense, obvious ploys (and those responsible for them), flawless people, people with nothing peculiar about them, people whose entire being exudes authority, people who are diligent and eager, people who want to contribute to society, people who have no interest in clouds, simple folk, talkative people, overly greedy people, people who know jokes but are without humor, unspeakably dull people who make me speechless (they are really dull), racial chauvinists, self-conscious women who act coy while pretending to be nonchalant (such women can be found everywhere in the world, but more so in Korea than anywhere else; since there has never been formal research, their exact number is unknown, but it is certainly more than the number of a certain species of near-extinct penguins in the South Pole), men who show off their strength and manliness (such men also exist in large numbers in South Korea; among them are those who tense up and crack their bulked-up necks noisily and walk with an exaggerated swagger; such a man might be a good match for a self-conscious woman who acts coy while pretending to be nonchalant), conservatives, and economic issues. I could probably add to this list endlessly. (Adding endlessly to this list is sometimes fun and sometimes dull.)

This sort of list-making gets me right away, especially when I a) generally agree with the observations, and b) these observations are entertaining without becoming too cutesy. Another thing that sucks me in? Talk about hobos.

He told me this and that about hobos. The world has its share of people who talk without being asked, and he seemed to be one of them. He told me that drifters are people who roam from one place to the next, and that drifters can be divided into tramps, who only work when absolutely necessary; bums, who never work and are not so different from beggars; and hobos, who find work as they roam. He said that hobos have held an annual American hobo convention since 1900, and that hobos have their own code of ethics, which prescribes that they must help other hobos in difficult situations, and have control over their own lives. Hobo culture is a weighty subject matter in American literature. Many authors, including Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, and John Steinbeck, lived as hobos and wrote about hobos, coining numerous new terms, such as possum belly, a term that describes free-riders lying flat on their bellies on the roof of a train car so as not to be swept away by the wind. The hobo added that San Francisco is like a holy ground for hobos. These were all things I’d read about hobos. I listened carefully and quietly to catch inaccurate information, but everything he said checked out. It was as if he had memorized the content of some hobo manual.

These two quotes pretty much capture the tone and nature of this book. The narrator/author is in America, things happen around him, he reflects on them in an entertaining, occasionally insightful way, and the narrative follows his eccentric train of thought. It’s a real joy to read—exactly what I’ve been looking for. And since I’m sort of childish, I’ll close with a quote that’s a bit sillier and more juvenile than the ones above.

I would have liked to put my underwear back on and move on to something normal, but it suddenly occurred to me that I must not have let out a respectable fart since my buttock had become so unsightly. It seemed only logical that a person with a nice-looking butt would fart respectably. In order to test this theory, I tried solemnly to fart, to see what sort of unrespectable fart would come out, but I couldn’t break wind. I wished to release several farts in a row, rather than letting out one lousy fart, but there was nothing. I was angry at the gas that would not be released. My failed attempt reaffirmed the fact that trying to fart on purpose for whatever reason doesn’t work. This fact, too, seemed logical. I was not at all proud that I’d become aware of two very useless logical facts in a short time. I’m making this up, actually. From the get-go, I didn’t believe I’d be able to far, so I did not try.

Buy this book!

13 September 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This fall, two Open Letter authors will be on tour: Josefine Klougart (whose tour we announced a few weeks ago) will be going cross-country starting next week to promote One of Us Is Sleeping. And then, just as her tour is wrapping up, Bae Suah will be arriving in San Francisco (along with her translator, Man Booker Prize winning Deborah Smith) to visit a few different cities and talk about A Greater Music.



Both Suah and Deborah will be doing events at this year’s American Literary Translators Conference, but since those aren’t open to the public, I haven’t listed them below. For any and everyone else, you can see Suah and Deborah in action at these events:

Thursday, October 6th, 7:00 pm
Literary Death Match
Shadow Ultra Lounge (341 13th St., Oakland, CA 94612)

Friday, October 7th, 7:30 pm
Green Apple Books on the Park (506 Clement St., San Francisco, CA 94118)

Monday, October 10th, 7:30 pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97214)

Tuesday, October 11th, 7:00 pm
Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122)

Wednesday, October 12th, 7:00 pm
Volumes Bookcafe (1474 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622)

Thursday, October 13th, 7:00 pm
Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet Street, Houston, TX 77005)

Friday, October 14th, 7:00 pm
Crow Collection of Asian Art (2010 Flora St., Dallas, TX 75201)

Hopefully you can catch her at one or more of those events!

31 March 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by J. C. Sutcliffe on Han Kang’s Human Acts, published by Portobello Books.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.

In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.

But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.

In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.

For the rest of the review, go here.

31 March 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.

In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.

But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.

In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.

The novel opens with Dong-ho, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. He has become caught up in the uprising more or less by accident and has been searching for his missing friend. He ends up helping out in a makeshift morgue in a school gym—the main morgue being full—as he and a group of students attempt to keep the piled up bodies from decaying too fast before they can be claimed and properly buried. He has the opportunity to study wounds, to wonder how such a thing can be happening in his formerly quiet, predictable life of school and home.

The next section is told from the point of view of his missing friend, who, we quickly learn, is dead. The possibilities a dead narrator offers for tweeness and cutesy emotional manipulation make me nervous, but Jeong-dae’s section, which includes his search for his sister who has also been killed, is genuinely heart breaking. His happy memories of when he was alive are interspersed with the brutal reality of the decaying bodies all around him—flesh that he comes to hate. His chapter ends with a terrible revelation that shifts the ground of the novel around the reader.

Then we move ahead to 1985, to Kim Eun-sook, who has been beaten up because of her publisher’s involvement in publishing a dissident, and then to a prisoner who recalls both the torture and starvation experienced in prison as well as the events of the uprising, remembered very differently from the official accounts used to justify the heavy-handed response.

Characters from one story appear in others, and we return to learn what happened to the students who worked alongside Dong-ho caring for the dead bodies. Nobody is able to forget this traumatic event; it has scarred them for the rest of their lives, which they frequently end themselves as a direct result of their suffering.

The final section, from 2013, is an epilogue written from the author’s perspective and explaining her personal motivation for writing this particular book. Nine years old at the time of the uprising, Han gradually learns that one of her father’s students—a boy who had moved into their old house when they moved away from Gwangju—was killed. As an adult Han devotes a great deal of time to researching the events and interviewing people involved. As her research progresses, she finds it increasingly difficult to take part in normal life and socialize with other people.

Human Acts is a disturbing and upsetting book, but the way its characters react to the official brutality reminds readers that people are capable of committing barbaric acts anywhere, any time, even when civilization seems secure. Like Sumia Sukkar’s underappreciated The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War, Human Acts is a book that does not permit a complacent, that-could-never-happen-here attitude; readers are not simply allowed to smugly edutain themselves with a literary form of atrocity tourism. Instead, the focus is on people, on the human body itself, and on trying to make some kind of sense out of the senseless.

20 July 15 | Kaija Straumanis |

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-Gyu, translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, and published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a pavane (a slow procession) that a princess would have danced to in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even though it’s an elegant piece of music, Ravel has claimed that the title is meaningless: According to a story that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in 1970, he told someone, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.”

Korean novelist Park Min-Gyu was obviously inspired by Ravel’s work, but he’s not offering a strict interpretation of it. Unlike the French composer, Park writes about a time he lived in (the mid-1980s), a time when people in his country were beginning to get wealthier (thanks to the housing boom and the stock market), but didn’t know what to do with their new wealth. It was also a time when women, regardless of whether they were beautiful or ugly, were exploited for business purposes. In fact, his novel looks at society’s obsession with beauty by pairing a good-looking narrator with a love interest—the “princess” in this story—who is “extraordinarily ugly.” The result is a haunting (albeit flawed) love story, as well as a commentary about our obsession with money and beauty.

For the rest of the review, go here.

20 July 15 | Kaija Straumanis |

In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a pavane (a slow procession) that a princess would have danced to in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even though it’s an elegant piece of music, Ravel has claimed that the title is meaningless: According to a story that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in 1970, he told someone, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout.”

Korean novelist Park Min-Gyu was obviously inspired by Ravel’s work, but he’s not offering a strict interpretation of it. Unlike the French composer, Park writes about a time he lived in (the mid-1980s), a time when people in his country were beginning to get wealthier (thanks to the housing boom and the stock market), but didn’t know what to do with their new wealth. It was also a time when women, regardless of whether they were beautiful or ugly, were exploited for business purposes. In fact, his novel looks at society’s obsession with beauty by pairing a good-looking narrator with a love interest—the “princess” in this story—who is “extraordinarily ugly.” The result is a haunting (albeit flawed) love story, as well as a commentary about our obsession with money and beauty.

The nameless 19-year-old narrator was not among the wealthy, but he did inherit the good looks of his father, a D-list actor who one day abandoned him and his mother. The narrator gets a job at a department store, where he falls for an ugly co-worker. “What is this?” he writes. “In the same way I’d have sat stunned before the TV, I stood in that office, transfixed by her. I had seen quite a few unattractive girls, but I’d never seen a woman this ugly before. Just as the world’s most beautiful woman, the world’s ugliest woman is no less powerful in completely disarming a man.”

Though, as we later learn, the woman experienced a lot of pain growing up because of her ugliness. Despite being a great student and a hard worker, not many people want to hire her. In fact, an employer refuses to give her a job, even though she receives a recommendation from one of her teachers. Later, when she gets a promotion, she only gets it because the manager figures she’ll never leave her job because she’ll never get married. At other times, co-workers tell her to leave because she’s scaring the customers.

It’s this pain that causes the both of them to be uncertain of each other. However, their friend and co-worker, Yohan, who spends a lot of time observing the foolishness of human beings (especially rich ones) over beer and junk food, gives the narrator advice about love:

When someone’s light is lit, she’ll look beautiful. The stronger the lightbulb, the blurrier the curves of the light and the shape of the bulb. Most women—those women who look so-so or aren’t too attractive—and most men, for that matter, are like dim lightbulbs. Once they’re lit, though, anyone can shine, and that is more beautiful and marvelous than any lightbulb that has lost its light. That’s love. Humans are basically electric cords with a single charge running through them. And when two people meet, they light up each other’s soul.

At first, readers may be surprised that someone who lives alone and who is considered “weird” by one of his co-workers would be able to give this kind of advice, but Yohan ends up taking on a much more significant role. Unfortunately, though, this role convolutes the ending. As a result, the reader cannot help but feel somewhat cheated, since Park uses a device akin to making the whole story seem like a dream, an unnecessary tactic in a novel that would have been better without it.

Another problem with the novel is that, at times, the myriad references to Western pop music overwhelm the story. For example, in the chapter called “Strawberry Fields Forever,” lines from the Beatles’s song weave in and out of the narrative so much that it becomes a distraction. Later on, Park does the same with Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Sometimes, though, the references seem to serve no greater purpose other than to remind the reader of when there is a shift in time (e.g., Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time” during the few scenes that take place during the late 1990s.)

That said, Pavane for a Dead Princess still has a lot going for it. It’s a pleasant read in the vein of Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s classic love story set during a period of great change. The characters are appealing enough that readers will want to follow them on their journey to adulthood. And like his Japanese counterpart, Park shows that regardless of the dark that surrounds us, true love can shine a light.

9 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Chris Iacono on Sun-mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, translated by Chi-Young Kim, and out last fall from Penguin.

This is a review I’ve been sitting on a while and I apologize for that—but after a quick trip to NYC for a fantastic evening with Bulgarian authors and their readers at 192 Books, and before a whirlwind of Greek, Danish-Bulgarian, and Latin American events, looking back on this title was a nice, relaxing place to stop at mid-week. A little fable-esque, a little social commentary, a little simple and charming illustration: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a great read and chock-full of talking animals.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”

Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.

One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.

For the rest of the review, go here.

9 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released from her chicken coop. However, she soon discovers that her new freedom comes with a loss of comforts such as shelter and food. To make matters worse, after she narrowly escapes from a menacing weasel in an open grave, the other farmyard animals, led by an arrogant rooster, reject her. “Culled?” he says. “Nobody wants you!”

Despite the harsh reality that Sprout has to face outside the coop, she doesn’t have to face it alone. While in the open grave, she meets Straggler, a mallard duck who also lives on the farm. Like Sprout, Straggler is a misfit, a wild duck among domesticated ones. He is allowed to stay on the farm, but he keeps his distance from the other ducks. Even though he isn’t able to convince the other animals to let Sprout stay on the farm, he is able to help her fulfill one wish: To sit on an egg and watch a baby hatch from it.

One day, while wandering the fields, she finds this egg and decides to sit on it until the mother returns. The mother never does, but when Straggler finds her, he agrees to stand guard while Sprout is brooding. The hen, of course, thinks this baby will be a chick. She also believes Straggler is under the mistaken impression that she laid the egg, but he really knows more about it than she realizes. In fact, before he meets a tragic end, he gives her advice on what to do with the hatchling.

Soon after the birth of Baby (as he is known in the novel’s earlier chapters), Sprout takes him back to the farm, where she learns that the chick is actually a duckling. As a result of this discovery, she endures further humiliation. “It’s a disgrace to the comb!” the rooster tells Sprout. “A ridiculous hen has made our kind the laughingstock of the barn.” Even the guard dog, who is intimidated by the rooster and his hen, taunts Sprout. “A chicken hatching a duck!” he says. “What a ridiculous sight!”

However, Sprout doesn’t let the other animals’ insults affect her this time.

Sprout’s thoughts were jumbled, but she was anything but ashamed. She had hatched her egg with all her being. She had wished for him to be born. She’d loved him from when he was inside the egg. She was never suspicious about what was inside. Sure, he’s a duck, not a chick. Who cares? He still knows I’m his mom!

Not only does this scene show Sprout’s determination to raise Baby in the face of hostility, but it also exhibits the strong bond that has already developed between the hen and the duckling.

However, as the story progresses, this bond is tested on more than one occasion. After Sprout and Baby move to the reservoir, the leader of the farmyard ducks tries several times to convince the hen to give up the duckling. This leader feels that if Baby doesn’t grow up as a domesticated duck with clipped wings, he will experience the same fate as Straggler. Sprout refuses to let Baby go, but as the duckling learns by himself how to swim and catch fish, they both begin to realize how different they really are.

These differences threaten their happiness in the novel’s later chapters, when Sprout starts calling the adolescent duck Greentop. “It did break Sprout’s heart to see Greentop with a brooding expression on his face. He had become moody from time to time after the leader had visited them in the reeds. These episodes recurred after his feathers changed color. Sprout asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t confide in her.” He finally tells her that he wants to join the brace of ducks at the farm. While this hurts Sprout, she allows it for the sake of his happiness. Although his brief return to the farm turns out to be a disaster, Greentop eventually becomes a strong, confident duck that makes her proud.

Meanwhile, Sprout and Greentop have to constantly move to avoid the relentless weasel. They are especially vulnerable because they lack the shelter of the farmyard and have to make their homes in reeds, rice paddies, and caves. Despite living on the run, though, mother and child become braver over time; at one point, Sprout even defends herself against the weasel’s attacks. Later, in the story’s climax, Sprout shows the weasel just how far a mother will go to take care of her children.

Although The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is heartbreaking at times, readers cannot help but admire Sprout’s strength and courage as she not only makes her wish come true, but as she honors the memory of her friend Straggler and helps Greentop fulfill his destiny. The sparse illustrations by Nomoco offer an elegant accompaniment to the story. However, it’s the combination of simple prose, beautifully translated by Chi-Young Kim, and colorful characters that really makes this novel an unforgettable experience. In conclusion, Sun-mi Hwang’s fable is a celebration of freedom and motherhood that both teenagers and adults will probably want to read more than once.

2 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I wasn’t previously familiar with this blog, but New Yorker In Seoul looks like a really interesting place to learn about Korean culture. The other day, Patricia Park—the site’s curator and former Columbia University Press editorial intern—published “this interview” with Jennifer Crewe, Associate Director and Editorial Director at Columbia University Press.

So, back to this interview: when I was studying at the Korean Literature Translation Institute, every major Korean literature work that was published into English was, basically, published by CUP. (Had I known this as that wee intern, I would have pilfered our office library.) It’s funny how things in your life sometimes come round full circle, so I’m especially chuffed to be posting this interview with Jennifer, the editor behind many of these titles. This interview would be particularly relevant to you literature translation folks who wish to gain a glimpse of what the industry is like and how the whole editorial process works. [. . .]

Take this as an opportunity to brag a bit. What were some of your award-winning, best-selling projects? Your personal favorite projects? Upcoming titles you’re excited about?

None of these books has been a best-seller, I’m sorry to say! But they are all well-known among the community of scholars of modern Korean literature in North America. The novel that has sold the most copies in English is Cho’e Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls. The author came to the US to do some readings and that certainly helped get the word out. [. . .]

The media—both in Korea and stateside—can’t stop talking about the recent success of Shin Kyung-sook’s bestselling novel Please Look After Mom. Do you have thoughts on how this book became such a huge success, and how that success might impact the future of Korean literature in the US market?

As far as I know Please Look After Mom is the first Korean novel to hit the English-speaking mainstream readership.I’m sorry I didn’t know about it before it was translated! However trade publishers are looking for bestsellers and because the book did so well in Korea it obviously caught the eye of an editor here. I think the success had a lot to do with the subject matter of the novel. Everyone feels to a certain extent guilty about not caring for their parents enough! I hope it bodes well for further translations of Korean fiction.

Your thoughts on publishing North Korean literature?

I am very interested in publishing North Korean literature. The problem is that we need funding to publish translations of Korean literature, and the funding agencies are usually government-sponsored ones in South Korea, and they obviously have no interest in funding translations of writers from the North.

26 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next six days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Scale and Stairs by Heeduk Ra. Translated from the Korean by Woo-Chung Kim and Christopher Merrill. (Korea, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

The speakers in these carefully crafted poems are, first of all, keen and imaginative observers. One sits in a cafeteria watching a workman eat boiled rice until the grains “carried by the chapped hand / . . . gather and scatter like clouds between the blistered lips.” Another stands outside at night observing the moon, telling us how “I turned around / and caught her furtive eye, her soiled feet. / Blushing, as if she were being watched, she hid behind a cloud / and reappeared in the distance.” A third narrator stands in a hospital corridor listening to the agony of the others, “a judge of cries,” teasing stories out of pain. “Every cry is singular,” she tells us,

            like a bird’s feather,
so that even without touching the trembling shoulder
you can tell if the crier has just learned the name of his disease,
or if he has been sentenced to death,
or if he weeps over a cold body.

Heeduk Ra’s poems, set in Korea’s cities (a hospital elevator, a church’s back stairway) and natural landscapes (where graves become boats and falling snow becomes feathers, flowers, rice), are filled with intricate detail, surprising turns, and moments of sadness, transcendence and breathtaking grace. Here, the daily minutia of Korean life are rich with imagery, reflecting not just their own details, but the brilliant and unpredictable mind that would tell us about them and, in so doing, imbue them with deeply personal turns of phrase and sharp, often witty, metaphors.

In one of the book’s most lovely poems, the speaker contemplates renting a room, finding in the mundane task a deep connection with Korea’s history and the lives of others:

To rent a room in Damyang or Changpyung,
to visit it like a chipmunk,
I looked in every village I came across.
Walking past a place in Jasil,
I saw common flowers in the yard
between the traditional Korean house and a modern annex.
When I entered through the open gate,
a man was sharpening his scythe on the grindstone
and his wife’s scarf was wet, as if she had just returned from the fields.
“Excuse me, I wonder if I could rent a room.
I’ll stay here two or three nights a week.”
When I pointed at the traditional house
she smiled. “Well, our children moved to Seoul,
so we live in the annex. Yes, the main house
is unoccupied, but we hold it in our hearts.
Our family history lies there.”
Listening to her, I saw the clean wooden floor
on which lay day’s last light.
I didn’t press for the room, I left,
wondering if the couple knew
that I’d already rented it, was living in their words—
that in their hearts they lived in the vacant house.

Heeduk Ra, born in Nonsan in 1966, is widely regarded as one of Korea’s preeminent younger poets. Woo Chung-Kim and Christopher Merrill’s plainspoken, moving translation makes it clear why. Distinguished for their graceful sensibility, rich imagery, and subtle intelligence, these poems will hopefully bring a wide English language readership to this valuable poet.

21 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tim Nassau is interning at Open Letter over the summer, researching books we should have translated and writing some posts for the blog, such as the one below that gives a brief overview of a few interesting Korean authors.

The Korea Literature Translation Institute has the expressed goal “of contributing to global culture by spreading Korean literature and culture abroad,” and to that end, has produced some wonderful publications to introduce non-Korean readers to Korean authors. (CWP Note: And this page of statistics. It’s a cultural org after my number-loving heart!) I flipped through their guide on contemporary Korean novelists and uncovered a few authors that sound really interesting. Of course, most of their works are not yet available in English (though two of Yi Mun-yol’s books have been published), but hopefully will be translated soon!

My friend Teresa called Kyung-ni Park, who just died in 2008, “probably the most revered author in Korea.” The author of over ten books, she is most well known for Toji [The Land], a five part, multi-volume epic that took 25 years to complete (and takes about as long to read). The novel follows four generations of a family from the Joseon Dynasty to Korea’s liberation from Japan, showing personal change in the midst of cataclysmic societal upheaval. Unfortunately, the dozens of dialects present in the book would make it a challenge to translate, but this hasn’t deterred the French . . .

Another author fond of long yarns is Choi In-hun. Known for great historical and philosophical range, his autobiographical novel Hwadu [A Topic for Contemplation] spans two volumes and more than a thousand pages. Perhaps less ambitious, but more attention-grabbing, is Gwangjang [The Square]. Compared to Kyung-ni Park’s Sijang-gwa Jeonjang [The Market and the Battlefield] due to their objective perspectives of war, the work follows a Korean student of philosophy caught between the North and the South their conflict erupts in the 1950s. Unable to feel at home in either, he decides to flee both, but even abroad cannot escape the twin specters of capitalism and communism.

Eun Hee-kyung’s body of works offers a helpful formula for any aspiring author: sophisticated cynicism + light, humorous prose = illumination. Concerned with the everyday minutiae that prevent true human communication, her first novel, Sae-ui Seonmul [A Gift from a Bird], tells the story of a twelve-year old girl whose mother killed herself during the war. With the freedom and precociousness of a child, she exposes the absurd falsehoods from which the oblivious adults around her create their lives. (And, like the protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is probably ten times smarter than anyone you knew at that age.)

Though one might expect a diet version of Children of Men, Yi Mun-yol’s Saram-ui Adeul [Son of Man] bears a resemblance to the science-fiction novel in name only. Rather, it is compared to Dostoyevski’s works, in terms of plot and themes. Min Yo-seop is a seminary student grown skeptical of God. He declares Jesus a “false son of man” and seeks to create instead the “true son of man.” When he tries to return to Christianity, however, he winds up murdered, and detective Nam is put on the case. Yi Mun-yol’s first critically successful work contrasts heaven and earth, or a search for spiritual salvation versus a life free of morals dictated only by human concerns.

These four novels and authors are but a sampling of what’s out there. Dwight D. Eisenhower said “I shall make that trip. I shall go to Korea.” He should have brought back more books.

2 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

The Korea Literature Translation Institute just announced its plans to produce the country’s first ever English-language anthology of modern Korean literature. Which is great news, even if the book won’t be available until 2009 . . . Sound ambitious though:

The project will come in 10 volumes, featuring poetry, novels and dramas published since 1919. The books will be published by a major U.S.-based company.

[. . .]

A KLTI official said the anthology will feature not only original texts translated into English but also literary notes about the authors and works so that foreign colleges will adopt the anthology as Korean literature textbooks. The institute is said to be considering asking Columbia University or Norton to take on the publishing to shore up the overall quality of the anthology.

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