This year's Manchester Literature Festival hosts two writers from the Korean peninsula: Sungju Lee, whose memoir Every Falling Star relates his experiences as a teenager fending for himself in North Korea, and Hwang Jung-eun, whose haunting work of fiction One Hundred Shadows explores life at its limits in the South Korean capital.
Their books arrive at a time when the literary world seems to be paying increased attention to writing from Korea. Since Seoul-based author Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian, her work has been the subject of many debates, podcasts and articles – while the book's translator Deborah Smith, who shared the prize, has become a prominent advocate of fiction in translation and co-founded a new publishing house, Tilted Axis, through which Hwang Jung-eun's novel is published.
A striking portrait of two young workers who form a tentative bond amid Seoul's sprawling markets, One Hundred Shadows (translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon) takes on a veil of the uncanny as the couple and their fellow labourers watch their shadows begin to 'rise' – seemingly a symbol of them having reached the edge of what they can endure.
Meanwhile, Sungju's recollection of his childhood and eventual escape from his home country joins a number of recently published titles – perhaps most famously Yeonmi Park's In Order to Live – that offer insight into contemporary North Korea and one of its youngest generations. Every Falling Star sets a new precedent in having been written specifically for a Young Adult audience, who will feel keenly the visceral emotions of Sungju's story – from his fear when forced at just 12 years old to become a 'kotjebi' (street boy), to the powerful sense of brotherhood he forms with the other boys in his gang and his hope for reunion with his family. Now based in South Korea with a Masters in international relations, Sungju has spoken around the world about his life, the geo-political and social issues affecting his homeland, and his desire for reunification of the two Koreas.
Ahead of their appearances at Manchester Literature Festival, we emailed Sungju Lee and Deborah Smith a few questions about writing, reading, and the power of stories.
Deborah Smith on the work of Hwang Jung-eun
The Skinny: I thought One Hundred Shadows a remarkable work; beautiful and sad. How did Tilted Axis first come to hear about Hwang Jung-eun's writing, and this title in particular?
Deborah Smith: I'm sure I'd heard Hwang's name in discussion fairly often, given she's one of the most noted writers of the younger generation, but the first time I really sat up and took notice was when Han Kang recommended her in an interview as her favourite of those younger writers. Not long afterwards and entirely unconnected, two of my Korean friends (one finishing a literature PhD and one a translator, so they both have really great taste) gave me a copy of One Hundred Shadows and her later novel I'll Go On respectively, as gifts.
It was interesting to see that the introduction is written by Han Kang, because I felt while reading One Hundred Shadows that there is a similar feel to their writing – reality and a kind of fantasy overlap, and the result is something quietly surreal and eerie. (Also, the idea of the shadows rising reminded me of the description of people's souls in Han Kang's Human Acts.) I wondered if this might be a familiar feeling in contemporary Korean fiction? If so, where do you think it comes from?
For me they're similar and different: One Hundred Shadows has that strain of oblique fantasy, whereas something like The Vegetarian can still be read as largely realist. And the shadows feel more symbolic, whereas with the souls or 'shadow selves' in Human Acts there's a spiritual dimension.
I'm guessing, but if I had to try and think of a common root, I'd say that perhaps because in Korean culture this idea of the non-corporeal self isn't linked to any particular religious worldview, but is seen more as something accessible to the everyday, this has kept it from falling out of fashion like it has in countries like ours. It isn't 'silly' to write about souls, because it feels more like a scientific investigation into the possibilities.
There is always the discussion about whether a work in translation is inherently different from the original – but do you think there is an extra layer to that when a translated work is not only in another language, but in another alphabet? How does this affect things?
I'm not sure about that – as Korean is the only foreign language I know, I can't tell how it might be different to translate between languages that share the same alphabet. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, has a similar number of letters to the Roman alphabet, and is also phonetic, so it's not like translating from Japanese or Mandarin, which use pictorial characters, or even from Thai, where there aren't spaces between each word but between 'thoughts' (I only just learned this, from our Thai translator Mui, and it's fascinating).
But in fact, although hangul was first developed in the 15th century, it only became widely used from early in the 20th, and Korean literature before then was written using the same characters as Chinese and Japanese. I do wonder if the incredibly strong imagistic quality of certain modern Korean writers, and their skill at 'presenting' rather than 'narrating' a scene, comes from that sense of language as strongly visual, of literature's meaning as something which also includes what it looks like on the page.
For a reader whose interest in Korean literature has been sparked, who would you recommend they read next?
I assume a lot of people will have read Han Kang already. One Hundred Shadows' translator Jung Yewon has a couple of other really strong books out – No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin and Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon. Otherwise, you might try Nowhere To Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell – a really short introduction to an utterly stunning writer. My translations of two of her novels, A Greater Music and Recitation, are coming out in October and January.
Sungju Lee on hope and freedom
The Skinny: Hi Sungju. Congratulations on the publication of such a brave book – your story is humbling and I am sure it will move a great many readers to understand more about the Korean situation.
I was struck by how, in a sense, your story is partly about the power of stories. In the book and in your childhood, stories have great influence and can guide us in different ways – for example, there are the stories told to you by your mother, father and grandfather, which give you hope and guidance; and then there are the stories told by the state to its people, which are propaganda. I wondered if the power of stories was something you were thinking about while writing Every Falling Star?
Sungju Lee: A story has power if it is heard, but it can easily be forgotten if it is never passed on. Then the story becomes nothing. Propaganda can manipulate the facts, but it cannot hide the truth. There are some North Korean defectors’ memoirs – all of them are heartbreaking stories and disclose the truth about North Korea and the oppression by its totalitarian regime.
My story is a slightly different one, as it is told especially for young adults. I want to talk about hope, courage, and love throughout my experience in North Korea. If someone who is suffering finds an uplifting message in this, helping them overcome any cruelty, then I have accomplished a goal of my book. If, after reading my book, someone who is enjoying their freedom decides to share it, by paying attention to those who do not have any, I have accomplished another goal.
What drew you to Susan [McLelland, with whom Sungju worked on Every Falling Star], and why did you feel she was the right person to help tell your story?
Susan has a genuine heart and is seeking to change the world by spreading stories of hope. She is also a good listener. I remember the first time meeting with her: She did not talk much but let me speak. At the second meeting, she gave me her book, Bite of the Mango, written with Mariatu Kamara. It convinced me to work with her.
Why did you want to write for a young audience specifically?
First of all, I lived my experiences in North Korea as a teenager, so in that sense my story relates more to their age. But more importantly, they are the future of the world. If they do not hear about the past and current situation in North Korea, the sorrows of millions of North Koreans will be forgotten. North Koreans need someone to alleviate their pain.
Also, I want to tell this audience that the quest for freedom connects us all. In this sense, if there are people who do not have freedom, we must speak out for them. This is an essential part of our freedom.
It's great to read of the work you have been doing over the last few years to raise awareness around the world of the Korean situation [including with the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights], and you've recently received your Masters degree. I wondered what area of study you were hoping to focus on in your doctorate?
I am interested in a potential unification between the North and South. Personally, it is my only chance for ever returning to my hometown to see my relatives and friends. And in a larger sense, it would be a great opportunity for both South and North Koreans – if it is prepared properly.
I did a master’s programme in international relations in order to understand the political relations among big powers around the Korean Peninsula. If I had the chance to study for a PhD, I would like to study the diplomacy necessary for unification. Without understanding the connections between these big powers and persuading them that unification will bring a better future for the region, it is difficult to accomplish unification.
Every Falling Star is out now, published by Amulet. Sungju Lee speaks at Manchester Central Library on 15 Oct at 1pm, in an event supported by Amnesty International
One Hundred Shadows is out now, published by Tilted Axis. Hwang Jung-eun and Deborah Smith are in conversation at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on 17 Oct at 7pm