When I was a child growing up in the blazing California sun, books for me were a dream, a window into a world that seemed inaccessible to a girl whose family couldn’t afford a basic health insurance plan, much less purchase a plane ticket to foreign lands. But the local library was free, stocked generously with books and cozy reading corners, so I didn’t grow up feeling deprived because the entire world seemed available to me. Charlotte Brontë’s English moors led me to Thomas Hardy’s English countryside. Hardy’s religious preoccupations to Tolstoy’s St. Petersburg. I could travel to Thomas Mann’s Davos, Gabriel García Márquez’s legendary Macondo. But perhaps because Asians were a minority in my suburban neighborhood, I encountered few books by Asian American writers, much less writers residing in Asia and writing in an Asian language.
Fast forward to 2016, and the publishing environment has become very different. Though there have always been incredible writers in South Korea, LTI Korea has been instrumental in bringing South Korean literature to the rest of the world. Maybe, even to my childhood town library.
Many memorable Korean books have been translated and published overseas in the past decade, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and its recognition by the Man Booker International Prize, is symbolically important. The Vegetarian is an astonishing book in its own right. When I first read the book in Korean, I was amazed by its taut sentences, its incredible marriage of plot and form, and the wise, solitary sensibility embedded in the novel. I had experienced this while reading a Korean novel or poem before, but it was one of the few times where such a Korean novel was translated, published, and embraced by an international audience. The book gained momentum with readers and writers in the West who recognized its brilliance and imagination. No one can predict what book will be loved or catch the imagination of its audience, but the timely topic of vegetarianism, the rare perfection of form and content, a dedicated translator who worked hard for the book’s publication, and the support of LTI Korea was instrumental to its success. The introduction of a new, exciting work of literature is the greatest gift to hungry readers, and for readers overseas, The Vegetarian was the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a glimpse into the most hidden recesses of the human heart.
But big isn’t necessarily better, no matter The Vegetarian’s impressive sales figures and how many articles spotlight The Vegetarian and its author Han Kang, highly respected by Korean literature critics and local fiction writers long before the prize brought an enormous amount of attention to the fiercely private writer. Relative to the respect that Han Kang commands, she has been under the public radar for over a decade in South Korea. Great books will always exist, no matter how famous or obscure they remain. The Dalkey Archive’s partnership with LTI Korea is also an event to equally celebrate. The publisher is deservedly well-known for publishing noted international and experimental literature. The first of the Library of Korean Literature series was published in 2013, then followed by more additions to the series published in 2014 and 2015. This coming winter, new books to be added to the series are as follows: Turbid Rivers by Ch’ae Man-Sik, The Library of Musical Instruments by Kim Junghyuk, Mannequin by Ch’oe Yun, Evening Proposal by Pyun Hye Young, and The Amusing Life by Song Sokze. Less noticed but equally valuable LTI Korea projects are the support of Korean literature e-books, videos, and audio libraries, as well as the translation and publication of Korean classics, culminating last March with the first Korean work included in the Penguin Classics, The Story of Hong Gildong. Many professors and students complain about the lack of new translations of the Korean classics, and desire to read Korean contemporary literature in a historical context. The Story of Hong Gildong, to be followed by other LTI Korea-supported translations of Korean modern classics, is a welcome effort to contextualize Korean literature.