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Yi’s novella featured in The New Yorker

U.S. magazine publishes Korean short fiction for the first time


The English-language translation of author Yi Mun-yol’s 1982 novella, “An Anonymous Island” will be published on the New Yorker’s upcoming issue on Sept. 12, Yi’s local publisher Minumsa said.

The American magazine ― established in 1925 ― is well-known for its attention to modern fiction and literary reviews, along with its commentary and cartoons on popular culture, social issues and world politics.

The magazine has previously published short fiction by several non-American authors, such as Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe of Japan, as well as Orhan Pamuk of Turkey.

It is the first time ever for the magazine to publish a fictional work by a Korean author, although in 2006 it featured four poems by Ko Un.

It was Lee Young-jun who recommended Yi’s “Island,” when contacted last spring by the writer’s international literary agent, the Wylie Agency. Lee is editor-in-chief of “Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture,” which is devoted to introducing Korean literature to English-language readers and is published by the Korean Institute at Harvard University. 
Yi Mun-yol
Yi Mun-yol

“What English-language readers want and what we want to introduce has been always different,” Lee Young-jun told The Korea Herald over the phone Monday.

“For many years, Korea has been thinking highly of novels that deal with either history or political struggle. But in the U.S., many don’t seriously consider such historical novels as a pure form of literary art. They rather belong to a different category. Yi’s early works are relatively apolitical compared to his later works, and that was one of the reasons why I chose ‘An Anonymous Island.’”

Heinz Insu Fenkl, an editorial board member of “Azalea” and an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at SUNY New Paltz, translated the short fiction last year at the request of the Wylie Agency, Lee said.

Fenkl was born in Bupyeong, Gyeonggi Province in 1960 and lived in Korea for the first 13 years of his life. He is famous for his autobiographical novel, “Memories of My Ghost Brother,” which records his experience growing up in Korea as a biracial child in the 1960s. He is currently translating Yi’s “Hail to the Emperor!” and short stories by novelist Sung Suk-je.

Lee and Fenkl were notified last month that the New Yorker would be publishing the translated version in September.

“I think it was Yi’s American agency that played a great part in this,” Lee said. “It is one of the greatest literary agencies in the U.S., and obviously they knew what they were doing.”

Regarded as one of the world’s leading literary agencies, the Wylie’s client list includes Al Gore, Kenzaburo Oe, Salman Rushdie and Dave Eggers. Yi is the only Korean client.

“Island,” published in 1982, deals with women living in a remote rural town where everyone knows everyone and most are related by blood. Ggae-cheol, the only man in town born elsewhere, pretends to be mentally challenged so he can please the sexually suppressed women in secret.

Minumsa said the piece’s publication on the New Yorker proves its artistic and literary value, and is another turning point in Korean literature and its on-going efforts to attract readers worldwide.

Born in Yeongyang County in North Gyeongsang Province in 1948, Yi Mun-yol studied Korean language education at the Seoul National University. He won numerous awards for his literary works, including the Ho-Am Prize in the Arts and Yi Sang Literary Award. One of his renowned works, “Our Twisted Hero” (1987) was made into a movie in 1992 and translated into English and published by Hyperion East in 2001.

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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