The Korea Herald


Korean diaspora literature revisited

Seoul Selection publishes six-volume series of English translations of works by Japanese Korean and Chinese Korean writers

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Feb. 7, 2023 - 16:52

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"Korean Diaspora Literature" series (Seoul Selection)

With the success of the Apple TV+ original series “Pachinko” and the novel of the same title by Korean American author Min Jin Lee, literature of Korean diaspora has come under the spotlight.

The genre has been around since the 1940s, its early writers mostly ethnic Koreans living in Japan and the US. There were around 300 Korean diaspora writers who hail from around the world in 2020, according to a study published in the Journal of Korean Library and Information Science Society last year.

Exploring the diversity of diasporic literature is the "Korean Diaspora Literature" series released by Seoul Selection, a Seoul-based publisher that specializes in translated Korean literature. Published last December with the support of the state-run Literature Translation Institute of Korea, the series comprises six diasporic literary works by authors of Korean descent -- four Korean Japanese and two ethnic Korean authors in China -- translated into English.

"Korean Diaspora Literature" series (Seoul Selection)

“Chunhyang” by Jin Renshun, an ethnic Korean author in China, is a coming-of-age novel with a modern twist on Korea’s classic folk tale "Chunhyang." The acclaimed novelist transforms Chunhyang and her mother, Lady Hyang, into proactive female characters seeking out their own destiny in a male-dominated society. The book was published in Chinese in 2009.

Another work by an ethnic Korean author in China is “Chunja’s Nanjing” (2018), written in Korean by Kim Hyeok. It is first full-length novel on "comfort women," or victims of Japanese military sex slavery during World War II.

The story follows Jong-hyeok, a Korean Chinese student studying in Japan. He falls in love with a Japanese girl, Haruko, and decides to introduce her to his grandmother Chun-ja. Upon arriving at a small village in Yanbian, China, he finds his grandmother surrounded by reporters, and discovers Chun-ja was a survivor of Japanese military sex slavery.

Born in Longjin in China’s Jilin province in 1965, the former journalist made his literary debut in 1985 with the short stories “Descendants of Pygmy” and “Noah’s Ark.” He has published an array of works including “Pox Pustules Bloom in the Shade” and the short story collection “To Kill a Genius.” "Chunja's Ninjing" was also published in Chinese in 2019.

"Korean Diaspora Literature" series (Seoul Selection)

Four Korean Japanese writers featured in the series include the first generation Zainichi, or ethnic Koreans living in Japan, and the second generation, writing in the 1940s to the 1990s.

Their works explore history, ethnicity, identities and many social and psychological dilemmas of Zainichi Koreans.

Kim Tal-su was one of the first and most prolific Zainichi writers in 20th-century Japan, covering a wide range of periods and topics, from Koreans in wartime Japan to the Korean War and its aftermath.

“The Trial of Pak Tal and Other Stories” by the Korea-born, Japan-raised writer includes the critically acclaimed novella “The Trial of Pak Tal” (1958), a political satire about the Korean War and the war within the Zainichi Korean community told through the voice of Pak Tal, an uneducated farmhand. Three years after Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Pak, falsely accused of being a communist partisan is thrown into a detention cell where he learns about history and how to read and write from his cellmates.

Examining a tragic episode in Korea's recent past is “Death of a Crow” by Kim Sok-pom. Kim, born in Osaka, Japan, in 1925 to parents who came to Japan from Jeju Island, heard the news of a brutal massacre on Jeju Island in 1948 from a relative.

The relative had fled the Jeju April 3 Incident, a yearslong brutal crackdown of civilian uprisings from 1947 to 1954. Distorting the uprising as a communist riot, the South Korean government killed about 30,000 people, or some 10 percent of the island’s population at the time.

Kim published a collection of five short stories in 1957, all of them concerning the Jeju April 3 Incident, including “Bak-seobang, Jailer” and “Death of a Crow.” The collection was the first to inform the outside world of the massacre as Koreans were unable to do so under the government's strict censorship.

“Death of a Crow” revolves around three young men in different positions caught in a whirlpool of history: Gi-jun, an interpreter at the US Army Military Government in Korea, is a spy for Yong-seok, who is fighting against the US military and the Korean government. Sanggeun from a bourgeois family remains aloof from politics but suspects Gi-jun might be a spy.

"Korean Diaspora Literature" series (Seoul Selection)

One autobiographical novel in the series is written by Lee Yang-ji, also known as Yoshie Tanaka, who reflects on her own experiences as a Zainichi. Lee studied Korean literature at Waseda University and later at Seoul National University, where she wrote "Nabi T’aryong" in 1982.

“Nabi T’aryong” centers around Aiko, who ran away from home angry with her father who became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Aiko works at an inn hiding the fact that she’s a Zainichi because of the prejudice that Zainichi are troublemakers.

Meanwhile, Yang Seok-il’s “Blood and Bones” (1998) chronicles a half-century of the life of migrant worker Kim Shun-pei who arrives in Osaka in the 1930s. Through the years, Kim becomes a cruel and greedy man and builds a factory in the Korean Japanese community, where he exploits his employees and terrorizes those around him -- living a life of debauchery while neglecting his son.

Protagonist Kim is modeled after the author's own father. The two-volume novel depicts patriarchal violence in a marginalized and isolated society of Korean Japanese.

The author won the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize of Japan in 1998. The semi-autobiography was adapted into a film in 2004 by Yoichi Sai, starring Takeshi Kitano and Joe Odagiri. The film was nominated for 12 Japanese Academy Awards.