Translation into English: Sara Wengström
In the darkness, which is female,
my poem, a woman’s poem, takes off.
– Kim Hyesoon
The goddess of love and passion, Eros, welcomes you to this issue of 10TAL: »South Korea – subversive literature and art«! The woman on the cover, photographed by the artist Park Youngsook, a well-known artist in her home country, portrays a modern goddess. She is dressed in traditional Korean dress, but is otherwise markedly different from the traditional, strict feminine ideals. The dress is in disarray, her hair is messy, her chest exposed, the make-up smudged and she is laughing without reservations. There is something wild about her. She is free.
Perhaps we can see her as a symbol of the new South Korea that during the last decades have undergone transformative social changes, which stems from the country’s strong history of activism. South Korea is a young democracy and since the military regime’s dissolution in 1987 more and more people in the country, not least the women, have started to question the legitimacy of traditional ideals. In 10TAL no. 33/34 we have chosen to focus on women’s voices in South Korean culture, voices that following the wave of protests and revelations that shook the country’s patriarchal establishment are now raised louder than ever. This issue, which is the first introduction of South Korean contemporary literature in Swedish, has grown out of years of meetings and collaborations with South Korean writers and artists, research and work, as well as travels to meet with cultural workers in Seoul.
The woman in high-tech modern South Korea is still subordinate to the man. The demands that the still prevailing Confucian societal structures place on Korean women are generally divided into three types of submission: as daughter you obey your father, as wife your husband, and as mother your sons. These conditions permeate many of this issue’s texts and also inform the art.
The poet and essayist Kim Hyesoon, one of South Korea’s leading and most important feminist pioneers, sets the tone for the issue with the essay »Garbage and Ghost«. Through a text critical reinterpretation of the legend of the nameless and abandoned princess she deconstructs Korea’s traditional mythologies and imaginary worlds. She argues for how the female poet can find her place in the movement between new and old worlds, a place that has not been conditioned within a patriarchal structure. Between life and death. »When my name plunges, when my identity vanishes, only then does the nameless place of poetry emerge«, she writes.
Kim Hyesoon’s feminist, grotesque – or gurlesque – and uncensored poetry has enticed criticism from the literary establishment. During a research trip to Seoul in 2017, writer Zara Kjellner and I meet with Kim Hyesoon in “The Restaurant”, as it is called, near Gwanghwamun Square. She is deeply affected by the things that have happened to her lately. Kim has been awarded the prestigious Gwangju Award that is presented in the city of Gwangju, and now male poets and critics have protested against what they deem to be inappropriate poetry. They have misunderstood the poetry collection I’m OK, I’m Pig and claim that she describes the victims of the horrendous Gwangju massacre, in which the military murdered 606 protesting students, as pigs. She tells us she has just declined to accept the award and the considerable prize money, after being subject to serious threats of repercussions if she were to come to Gwangju and receive the award.
In June this year, Kim Hyesoon enjoyed a kind of restitution as she received international recognition when she and translator and poet Don Mee Choi were awarded one of the poetry world’s premier awards for the poetry collection Autobiography of Death: The Griffin Poetry Prize.
In this issue we also publish translations of two of Kim Hyesoon’s most controversial and thought provoking poems: »Pig Pigs Out« and »Wound’s Shoes«. These are followed by an essay by poet and publisher Johannes Göransson, who has introduced much of the contemporary South Korean literature to the west. In the essay Göransson analyses Kim Heysoon’s poetics from the perspective of the Necropastoral.
Han Kang’s authorship deals with societal demands, transgressions and transformation. In an essay on the books Human Acts, The Vegetarian and The White Book, writer Aase Berg examines how ghost’s voices, disgust and metamorphosis are expressed in the novels. She describes the protagonist of The Vegetarian as a “quelled woman that no longer can hold back the raging predator within, and who is trying to abate her own bestiality through asceticism, self harm and silence. And actually, after hand, also by reshaping herself.”
In this issue of 10TAL, Han Kang’s poetry is published for the first time in Swedish translation. The seemingly subtle poetic style contains the unmistakably dreamlike and violent style that readers of Han Kang’s novels have learnt to recognise.
In one out of four artist introductions, Hyun-Jin Kwak tells of how girls’ bodies merge with the landscape in the project Girls In Uniform. By playing with artistic conventions she gives the seemingly passive bodies of girls a collective power in carefully composed, feminist landscape images.
The poet Kim Haengsook works also centre on women’s experiences. Her sublime poetry moves from inside to outside, from hormone changes to the feeling of a hand against the window glass. Through surrealistic images she creates a space for an own identity. We publish four of her poems translated to Swedish.
In the issue we also publish poetry by a number of other distinguished South Korean poets: Park Joon, Ahn Sang-Hak and Sin Yong-Mok.
More and more women in South Korea choose not to marry or have children. Under the growing hashtag #NoMarriage, young Korean women advocate for a life without marriage and argue that a married woman’s opportunities are limited. The demands placed on Korean women are especially heavy in regards to family. When married, women are expected to care for the children and their in-laws – but as a single woman you can put yourself first and work towards a self-actualising career. Over the last decade the number of households consisting of single women have increased with almost 50%. As more women are rejecting traditional family life, the number of children born decrease and figures are showing the lowest numbers ever – averaging less than one child per woman, 0,98. With an ageing population this is a problem and South Korea’s government is propagating for women to enter marriage and have children. But this is met with critique – feminists mean that the government should chose to focus on improving working conditions and career opportunities for mothers rather than reverting to an old order.
This can be seen in several of the texts in the issue. The excerpt from Cho Nam-Joo’s bestselling novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 deals with a newly married young couple who discusses how the woman’s opportunities in life are affected by submitting to her family’s demands and having children. All the while the whole family is waiting for “good news” just a few weeks after the wedding. »Order vitamin supplements that will help her get pregnant«, says the husband’s aunt to the mother-in-law. »I will not be able to live as before either. Because of me having to get home earlier I will not be able to meet up with friends regularly«, the husband whines.
2017 again. Together with Kim Hyesoon we visit Trunk Gallery, owned by Park Youngsook, whose photographic art we present in this issue. Park Youngsook is an innovator in South Korean photography, but also in feminist art: in several photography projects the artist examines how Korean women are not only raised to be silent and shy, but also how they feel uncomfortable in their surroundings – as housewives and mothers. »There is a violence in the Korean home«, she tells Zara Kjellner and me in the gallery. »The food takes hours to prepare, the woman do all the work and since the meals are ritual, the food is loaded with great meaning, everything must be perfect«, claims Park.
Other texts in the issue also problematize child bearing and family relations. Since abortion has been illegal in South Korea for 66 years, many single mothers have given up their children at birth. Maja Lee Langvad was born in South Korea, but came to Denmark as a child through adoption. Today she is an outspoken critic of the adoption industry, an industry that also has been problematized by many South Korean writers, and in this issue 10TAL publishes newly written poetry that depicts a meeting between Maja Lee Langvad and her biological family, where the different parties speak completely different languages.
The poet Kim Yideum also deals with family, demands and femininity in her surreal and provocative poetry. To her, writing is a way to survive the oppression of women; she tells Alexander Svedberg and me when we meet her in Copenhagen in May 2019. In two longer poems, »Country Whore« and »Bluebeard’s Last Wife«, she rampantly mocks the self righteous and hypocritical view of women’s behaviour and bodies that many in South Korea express.
Furthermore, we publish two short stories and a novel excerpt by well-known South Korean prose writers. Cat detectives are common popular cultural phenomena in South East Asia. It can be a case of cats being detectives, or detectives tracking down cats. In this issue we publish a short story that tells of the latter. The writer Kim Keum Hee is famous for her portrayals of women, but at the end of one the issue’s short stories, »How Cat’s Are Trained«, the South Korean everyday and workplace as well as a male cat detective is the focus. It is an intricate and humorous story of solidarity, prejudice and truth seeking.
The writer Bae Suah writes experimental prose that takes its inspiration from psychoanalysis and German literature. In the short story »Owl« she introduces an unreliable narrator whose story telling leaves the reader unsure as to whether the story is a dream or reality. »On touching the surface of consciousness, the mosaic of the dream rapidly oxidized
and crumbled away, and my mind filled in the blank spaces with colored tiles of its own invention«. In an actual or an imaginary chase for two writers that the narrator idolises, the reader is brought onto a dreamlike journey through cities that quiver in the heat and that crawls with people.
Already at the beginning of »Death of Marat«, an excerpt from the novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-Ha, you understand that something is not quite right. The protagonist works with receiving phone calls from suicidal individuals, but his purpose is to drive them to suicide. Kim has become known for his depictions of urban environments, often with an emphasis on violence and criminality.
In the work of American-Korean poet Don Mee Choi we encounter the violent history of the Korean War. During the Korean War in the 1950’s, millions of people lost their lives. The conflict is a great trauma in many Korean families and in Choi’s poetry collection Hardly War she describes her father’s experiences during the war. He was a war photographer and in the book his photographs are published together with Don Mee Choi’s poetry. 10TAL presents a selection of poetry and photographs from Hardly War as well as from the collection The Morning News Is Exciting, where references to the Korean War are relayed through a fictive letter correspondence with poet Emily Dickinson.
The legacy of the Korean War, the military dictatorship and national horrors laid ground for the frustrations that culminated in the South Korean Candlelight protests in 2016 and 2017. The frustrations came to a head when the ferry MV Sevol sank with over 300 people on board, whereof 250 school children. South Korea’s then president was accused of corruption for having allowed companies to evade security checks, but also for the slow reaction to the catastrophe by the government and the coast guard. When Kim Hyesoon brought Zara Kjellner and me on an art gallery tour, to see amongst others artist Jung Jungyeob’s abstract paintings of the protests, she told us that the protests was the first time she had experienced a sense of community between South Korean men and women. It was the first time she was not pushed and shoved by men in a humiliating and aggressive way in the streets. Now everyone was friendly. People wore light yellow wreaths to show their support. I too received one of these wreaths, and I wore it for years until it finally fell apart.
The protests appear as motif in Jung Jungyeob’s as well as in Fi Jae Lee’s art. Both artists depict aspects of a woman’s life in South Korean society. Fi Jae Lee combines mythological and feminist motives with traditional and innovative techniques. Jung Jungyeob’s work centres on women’s role in society and how they can take up space in the new public sphere.
Our many travels, meetings and conversations have made us understand that South Korea faces a bright, although unsure, future. As we can see in Cho Nam-Joo’s novel excerpt, young women are questioning the patterns of life that have earlier been seen as self-evident, a development that is in large due to feminist forerunners such as Kim Hyesoon and Park Youngsook. The aim of 10TAL’s issue about South Korea is to illustrate the activist voices that have been invaluable for how a new generation of South Koreans view women’s role in society, but also to showcase younger writers and artists that are now freer to explore other kinds of topics. As Kim Hyesoon writes:»In the darkness, which is female, my poem, a woman’s poem, takes off.« And in the new South Korea it has only just begun.