This week’s PEN Atlas despatch comes from Krys Lee, who takes a look at the literature from (and about) North Korea that is available in English translation.North Korea has featured prominently in the news for many years, particularly in recent months with the death of its leader Kim Jong-Il on Dec 17, 2011. But it has been largely absent in fiction, at least in English. What is available in English is Adam Johnson’s much-praised and recently published novel The Orphan Master’s Son, James Church’s Inspector O novel A Corpse in the Koryo, and a few stories from my book Drifting House. Translated works, usually from South Korea, open up a few more opportunities, including Jia: A Novel of North Korea by Hyejin Kim that reads much like a news report, as well as a more nuanced rendition of the country in Young-ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You.I was able to have brunch with Young-ha in New Yorka few weeks ago. I’ve been reading his work for over eight years, both in Korean and in translation, so when he came to the Center for Fiction where I was reading and suggested that we meet, I quickly agreed. I wrote in English but have lived in Seoul, South Korea for over ten years, and Young-ha wrote in Korean but has been living in New York for the past two years as a writer in residence at ColumbiaUniversity. We are both part of a wave of transnational writers, and seemed to recognize this in each other. We talked about many things, but one of them was the sense of loneliness that Young-ha, as a seasoned writer, warned me of, that would inevitably mark my life as a writer. The constant travel and time spent away from home will change your life, he said. This observation is much in keeping with his book Your Republic Is Calling You.Though Your Republic Is Calling You is set in South Korea, it is the best novel about North Korea available in translation. The novel follows one day in the life of a North Korean spy named Ki-yong who has been slumbering at his job incognito for many years in Seoul, when he is suddenly called back to the homeland. Though it was marketed as a thriller in the English-language market and given a new glamorous, chilling title, the original book in South Korea was seen as literary novel with the title which would translate roughly as The Empire of Light. As a thriller, it is quiet at best. Not much happens in terms of action, and more time is spent on the ruminations of the main narrator as he makes the greatest decision of his life: Does he return toNorth Korea, with no idea of what awaits him, or does he stay in the South, with all its potential unknown repercussions? Either way, the reader becomes intimate with his neither here nor there status, and with the sense of being an outsider that has shaped Ki-yong’s life. Young-ha’s intimacy with the details of North Korean life as well as his deep understanding of Korean culture, help readers vividly feel and understand the troubled modern history of the Koreas.Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment with My Brother is another seminal work in Korean that is being retranslated into English by noted translator and writer Heinz Fenkl. Two separated brothers, one from North Korea and one from the South, meet in China after their father has died. This meeting between separated brothers is a popular theme in Korean modern literature as it is emblematic of the relationship of the divided Koreas, but this trope is still powerful and fresh in Yi Mun-yol’s telling. Yi, one of Korea’s most eminent living writers, knows this particular story intimately. His father defected to North Korea after the Korean War, which caused incredible economic and psychological hardship to the family, all subjects that Yi explores in his fiction.The story of division has figured largely in the imagination of South Korean literature, but more recently North Koreaitself has taken center stage with the novel Rina by South Korean writer Kang Yong-Suk. The novel’s premise is promising, and it begins with great urgency as we follow North Korean refugees in China through the jungles of Southeast Asia as they seek safety in a third country. Despite the one-dimensional characters and a rather limited understanding of North Korea, Rina was successful in the domestic market, showing that the issues are ever present.More fiction about North Korea will continue to be published in South Korea and abroad, but what is available from North Koreans themselves is usually of little artistic merit, as all art forms strictly serve the government’s purposes. North Korean defectors have not yet made significant contributions to the world of letters, in part due to the vastly different education and literary systems of North Koreaas well as skewed demographics, as most defectors originate from the northern provinces where farming, mining and logging are concentrated. The most prominent cause, however, is the difficult climate awaiting them in South Korea, Japan, theU.S., and other “safe” third countries. Adaptation to a foreign culture and to capitalism, discrimination issues and the daily war of survival have made literature a luxury for most. I look forward to a future when more defectors write fiction and poetry the way they are making inroads into memoir, visual art and film.Young-ha Kim and I parted after two hours of food and conversation. In that time we spoke in Korean with a smattering of English, but when the English rose up it felt awkward and artificial, so we reverted back to Korean. This state of being between languages and between cultures takes on an entirely different meaning and import for the North Korean defector community of today, the only community of North Koreans that the international community can truly know, if we care to.
About the author
Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House recently published by Faber and Faber in the U.K. and Viking/Penguin in the U.S.. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, studied in the U.S. andEngland, and lives in Seoul. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Huffington Post and Condé Nast Traveller,UK.www.krys.lee.comhttp://faber.co.uk/author/krys-lee/
Adam Johnson (1967): ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’, Doubleday, 2012. American novelist and short story writerJames Church (pseudonym) ‘A Corpse in the Koryo’, St Martin’s Press, 2007. He is a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia and an author of four detective novels featuring a North Korean policeman, Inspector O.Hyejin Kim: ‘Jia – A Novel of North Korea’, Cleis Press, 2007 She has written for numerous publications including, Asia Times. ‘Jia’is her debut novel and was inspired by her encounters with North Korean refugees in northern China.Young-ha Kim (1968): ‘Your Republic is Calling You’, Mariner Books, 2010. Novelist. His books are translated into many languages.Yu Mun Yol (1948): ‘An Appointment with My Brother’, currently unavailable in English, is being retranslated by Heinz Fenkl for Azalea Journal. He is one of South Korea’s most admired novelists and his books are translated into many languages.Heinz Fenkl is a writer, editor and translator. His fiction includes ‘Memoirs of My Ghost Brother’, Anchor, US, 2007.Kang Yung-Suk; ‘Rina’, 2006, Munhakdongne Press. Kang is a respected short story writer and novelist. ‘Rina’ is her debut novel.