After what was a fairly downbeat reading experience for us last year, quite by chance we came across the first publication of translated Korean literature from Singapore’s Harriet Press, released without our noticing it in March 2022. Seo Sujin’s debut novel Korean Teachers won the Hankyoreh Literature Award in 2020, and it is encouraging that new fiction is being translated into English so quickly. Seo’s subsequent novella, Gold Rush (2021), was translated even quicker, coming out in Asia Publishers’ bilingual K-Fiction series the same year.
Korean Teachers immediately took its place at the top of my list of translated fiction for 2022. And although I’ve yet to read Cho Nam-joo’s Saha, which came out two months ago in November 2022, I have a suspicion, based on my experience with Cho’s previous novel to make it into English, that Korean Teachers will stay in first place [edit: now confirmed].
Korean Teachers is a set of four (and a bit) interlocking short stories set in the Korean language school of a Korean university. Each story has a different teacher at its centre – the timid Seon-yi, the more uncompromising Mi-ju, the serenely pretty Ga-eun and the stressed-out Han-hee – but their paths overlap. The novel’s strength is the deft way in which it deals with some of the problematic contemporary themes it addresses, among them the struggles of young professionals in making a living; the pressures of life as a temporary contract worker as opposed to a full-time employee; the degeneration of institutions of higher education into money-making machines run by faceless bureaucrats geared towards making money out of foreign students; the lives of impoverished migrant workers exploited by factory bosses; and inappropriate behaviour on social media.
If the above somewhat depressing list makes the book sound heavy-going, it’s anything but. While, frankly, I struggled to motivate myself to finish some of the other translated fiction from last year, I found myself neglecting some of the other things I should be doing in order to make time for these teachers and their unequal struggles against the system.
For one thing, there is the element of farce in the narrative, when the university administration has to figure out how to save its language department from being closed down after a couple of hundred foreign students go missing. Further, the text is lightened with some interesting linguistic observations and musings which draw upon the author’s own experiences as a university-level Korean language lecturer. Ga-eun, for example, explains to her students that Korean has fourteen different linguistic constructions for expressing the reason why something is the case. She speculates why – remembering how her younger brother was always asking “why?” – but then is unable to explain to her boyfriend the reason why she won’t see him any more. And Han-hee’s special subject (she is studying for a PhD on the side in order to further her employment prospects) is how to teach the Korean future tense, which raises questions both linguistic and philosophical.
This book was definitely a pleasant surprise: I visit the Harriet Press website periodically to see if there’s any update on their long-awaited translation of JM Lee’s Painter of the Wind (still no publication date available) but had failed to register any other other fiction titles until a couple of weeks ago. Based on Korean Teachers, I’m definitely going to track down Seo’s Gold Rush, though the latter, being an Asia Publishers title, will be much harder to source in this country. Recommended.
Seo Su-jin: Korean Teachers
Translated by Lizzie Buehler
Publisher: Harriet Press, 2022
Originally published as 코리안 티처, Hankyoreh Publishing, 2020