The Korea Herald


Author brings culinary edge to vengeful tale

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 2, 2011 - 19:59

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Tongue: A Novel

By Jo Kyung-ran

(Bloomsbury USA)

Among the many female writers who broke into Korea’s literary scene in the 1990s, Jo Kyung-ran demonstrates distinctive flair.

Known for her poetic prose and depiction of contemporary Korean life, Jo’s works have often dealt with human relationships and their implications. Her 2007 novel, “Tongue,” released in English in 2009, is filled with alluring danger and sensual pleasure, using the tongue as the ultimate symbol for human desire, affection and intimacy.

The novel tells the story of Ji-won, a successful chef in her 20s who runs culinary classes in her own house that she shares with her architect boyfriend of seven years. Her heart breaks into pieces when he leaves her for one of the students ― a former model ― in her cooking class. Ji-won closes down the classes and returns to the Italian restaurant where she used to work before opening her culinary school.

This conventional plot is saved by Jo’s colorful depiction of culinary arts, stimulating one’s sense of taste and smell throughout. Ji-won, who is still obsessed with her ex, devotes her time to cooking while trying to appreciate food and the pleasure of eating. But she makes a strange decision after seeing her ex featured in a magazine, displaying the newly built house which he jointly set up with his new girlfriend. She goes out and buys a book on human anatomy.

Jo then delivers the shocking, vengeful ending, successfully portraying the psychological link between one’s appetite and desire for intimacy. The novel manages to be disturbingly captivating throughout, while presenting a highly entertaining narrative. The book was listed on the “Best List” compiled by litprom, a non-profit organization in Germany that promotes literary works from Asia, Africa and Latin America in March.

“Tongue,” however, was accused of plagiarism by aspiring writer Joo I-ran in 2008. Joo had submitted her novella of the same title, “Tongue,” as an entry to an annual literary contest hosted by Dong-A Ilbo in 2006. She argued that Jo, who was one of the judges for the contest, plagiarized her short story after reading it during the evaluating process. Joo did not win the contest.

Jo denied Joo’s accusations, saying she never in fact read Joo’s piece while participating as one of the jury members of the contest. The writer also said she signed the initial contract with her publisher for the basic plot of the novel back in 1998, long before the contest took place.

Born in 1969 in Seoul, Jo studied creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She made her literary debut in 1996 with her novella titled “French Optical.” She won Dong-in Literary Award, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the country, for her collection of short stories “I Bought a Balloon” in 2008. Her latest novel, “Blowfish,” was published last year.