A look back at the books and literary events of the year – and a summary of my reading diary.
Literature in translation
In translated fiction, my reading this year has not managed anywhere near to keep pace with the amount of translations being published. I know I said the same in respect of 2017 – so what’s different about this year? Well in 2017 there were an estimated 18 new titles of literature in translation to read of which I read 5. This year there were 11, of which I read precisely one (plus an overspill of four from previous years). That is not enough.
On the pile of books yet to be read are two novels by Pyun Hye-young and one by Hwang Sok-yong; still waiting to join the reading pile are Shin Kyung-sook’s The Court Dancer and Kim In-su’s The Plotters (both still awaiting a UK release, though available for shipping from overseas), plus Honford Star’s highly appealing volumes of Yi Hyoseok and Kang Kyeong-ae, which were pleasant surprises sprung upon us in the latter half of the year. Will someone please provide several more hours in the day (or more days in the month) to help us all keep up?
The new publication I got to reasonably soon after it came out was the New Thing in translated fiction: Korean Noir, of which the first to be marketed under that brand in the UK was Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son. “It’s the sort of novel that’s ideal for reading on holiday, when you need a book which doesn’t ask you to try too hard,” I opined at the time, which is possibly an assessment that the author might not disagree with.
Later in the year we were lucky to have a visit from Jeong You-jeong during the London Korean Film Festival, to discuss Choo Chang-min’s adaptation of her thriller Seven Years of Night (now that’s something I’d like to read in translation). In response to an audience question Jeong commented that in her view there were two types of novel and novelist: those that make you think and those that make you feel – and she is in the latter category. That is certainly true of The Good Son, whose vivid, almost cinematic descriptions drag you bodily in to the story. Given a choice between a novel that I can’t put down and one that feels like a duty to pick up (of which more below) I have no problem in going occasionally for the former.
Of the other translated literature I read this year, trying to make small inroads into the backlog from previous years, I enjoyed the dour humour of Pyun Hye-young’s Evening Proposal (read for one of the KCC’s literature nights which I never got round to attending), which makes me look forward to tackling her two novels that are on my reading pile; I also enjoyed two books very much from the back catalogue (Yi Kwang-su’s The Soil and Ahn Jung-hyo’s White Badge), both of which I was prompted to read because of the KCC’s season of movie adaptations. But I rather had to grit my teeth to get through Shin Kyung-sook’s Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.
We are grateful to Asia Literary Review and Literature Translation Institute of Korea for organising an essay contest focusing on the work of Kim Aeran. For me, I found it frustrating only to be able to read a short extract from The Youngest Parents with the Oldest Child (두근두근 내 인생) – we definitely need the whole novel translated. But the contest also gave me my most moving read of the year, Kim’s short story, written during a residency in Edinburgh in 2014: Where would you like to go?
As is often the case, I got some of the greatest pleasure this year from non-fiction. A somewhat weighty tome I took on holiday to read by the pool was Charlotte Horlyck’s Korean Art from the 19th Century to the Present (late 2017) – weighty, but actually for me not weighty enough: the book is intended as an introduction, and I was craving for more detail in every single chapter, something which would have extended its length by an unmanageable four or five times. It’s definitely something to which I shall return, as I will to an unexpected release: the selected art criticism of Lee Yil (2018), expertly and lucidly translated, as a labour or love, by Paul O’Kane and Bada Song. My other holiday non-fiction, apart from Horlyck’s book, was Blaine Harden’s King of Spies (2018): a rip-roaring read about a controversial US intelligence operative in Korea during the late 40s and 50s. Highly recommended.
Literature in English
So what did I spend most time reading this year? English language fiction and memoirs (including one in poetry) by authors of Korean heritage.
Three of the texts grappled with issues faced by adoptees. Not My White Savior: A Memoir in Poems (Julayne Lee) is an extremely tough, angry and bitter read by an adoptee for whom the experience did not work out. All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung highlights that even in an adoption that seems outwardly successful there are problems of belonging and race which are difficult to resolve. And Eugenia Kim’s Kinship of Secrets tells the story of two sisters separated in their first year of life, brought up on opposite sides of the world, and reunited in their teens. The story has an unusual variation on the adoption narrative: this adoption is not interracial, simply intercontinental. Its highlight is the interesting and realistic depiction of what it must be like for a girl to be uprooted from her adoptive Korean family in Seoul and taken to her birth family in the USA.
Three other novels share a theme of following their characters over a period of several decades starting in the colonial period or Korean War.
- White Chrysanthemum (Mary Lynn Bracht) – welcome particularly for the deft and sensitive treatment of a woman who lived through the Jeju 4:3 incident, which is a counterpoint to the more well-trodden path of the comfort woman narrative which is the main thread of the novel.
- Forgotten Reflections: A War Story (Lee Young-im), a story in which a grand daughter tries to piece together the wartime experiences of her grandmother, with cultural interest in the form of hanji making and the birth of Korean guitar-making.
- If You Leave Me (Crystal Hana Kim), a moving story involving a love triangle, set in the time of the Korean war and subsequent years.
The final text I attempted – RO Kwon’s The Incendiaries – is the novel which probably has generated the most buzz, but which I personally found the most difficult to approach, finding the characters prickly to engage with and the narrative style disorienting. In fact it’s the only book this year which I didn’t read to the end. I’m in a minority though. The book has enough positive and hugely enthusiastic reviews, not least from The Guardian (“a startlingly assured book by an important new writer”), that it doesn’t need me or the Irish Times to endorse it. Instead, head over to Books and Bao for Will Harris’s review, who considers it “a must-read for this year“.
Of all the above it’s possibly Not My White Savior to which I shall return – not because I enjoyed it, but because it challenges.
Manhwa and graphic novels
I am grateful to Barry Welsh in his review of the year for KBS for pointing out that we should not forget the occasional translated graphic novel that comes our way. Both Uncomfortably Happily by Hong Yeon-sik and Bad Friends by Ancco are available on Amazon. Here’s his radio piece in full.
And here’s to a busy year of reading in 2019.