Reteller of talesSome of the most delightful versions of Korean folktales you'll ever hear were written by a Southern belle and read on the radio by Barbara Bush.
"Being a writer is a dream come true to me," says Suzanne Crowder Han, who has been living in Korea since 1977, save a few years abroad, when she took a Peace Corps assignment here. Mrs. Han grew up in South Carolina as a book-loving child who devoured folk and fairy tales, so it was no accident that she started writing children's books based on folktales in her adopted country.
In her elegant but simply furnished Seoul home, Mrs. Han, 49, shows the books -- children's and adult -- that she has written and had published. Pointing to a children's book with a yellow jacket, "The Rabbit's Judgment" (1994), she says, "This book was read by Mrs. Bush, the senior, on her radio show in, I think, 1994."
Several of the books have been translated into various languages. "Some have even been translated into Braille," she says.
What's the secret of her writing success? Natural talent, evidently: "I never really pursued it as a profession," she says. "It just sort of fell into my lap."
Mrs. Han was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, and grew up there with her maternal grandmother, who used to tell young Suzanne of times when there was no electricity. Mrs. Han says, "In the afternoons, I used to follow my grandmother on her visits to her elderly friends; I'd sit with them on the big front porches and hear all kinds of stories."
As a child, Mrs. Han's favorite books were biographies and animal stories. In fact, her parents were worried that she read too much and didn't go out to play enough.
During high school, she wrote for her school newspaper. Then she went to the University of South Carolina and majored in studio art. She also took creative writing classes to satisfy her enthusiasm for stories.
During summer and winter breaks she worked at a hospital in her hometown of Greenwood. After graduation, she returned there to work in administration for two years. Then one day in 1976, she received a postcard that changed her life. It asked, "Have you ever thought of being a Peace Corps volunteer?"
She sent in an application and was accepted, and soon was assigned to go to Korea. But her father, who had served in the Pacific during World War II, was upset. "You can't go there," he said. "They're still at war."
She went anyway, and was posted to Korea as one of 24 volunteers that arrived in April 1977. After 10 weeks of training in Cheongju, North Chungcheong province, she was sent to work as a health care volunteer at a center for tuberculosis patients, the Chungju County House. From that base she was sent on house calls, traveling to remote villages to check on patients and raise awareness of the disease. At first she lived in the residential compound of a local county chief; later she boarded with a family that owned an apple orchard. "In those days, volunteers were fed bindaetteok (bean patties) and twigim (fried octupus and vegetables)," Mrs. Han says.
When her two-year tour ended, Mrs. Han decided to extend her stay. "I was just beginning to get comfortable with the language and culture and didn't want to leave so soon," she says. In 1979, she became a volunteer at a childcare center in Hongcheon, Gangwon province, working with midwives. A year later she became a trainer of newly recruited Peace Corps volunteers from the United States.
"The Peace Corps experience opened my eyes to other way of looking at things," Mrs. Han says. "For example, I've learned that life can be simpler, that you can do without creature comforts such as television and the phone."
With the Peace Corps gone, Mrs. Han stayed on, trying to earn money to pay her way through graduate school in the United States. She got a job as a writing consultant at the Korea Overseas Informational Service in Seoul, under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, where she stayed until 1988. She contributed articles to various publications and worked as a part-time editor. She met her husband, Han Yunsok, who worked for Kukje Group at the time, in 1982 while playing darts at the Chosun Hotel. They got married a year later and have lived in Korea ever since, save for stints in Connecticut and Hong Kong during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Mr. Han is now president of a Swiss heavy industries firm. The couple has a teenage daughter, Minsu.
In the two-and-a-half decades Mrs. Han has lived in Korea, she has experienced some of the country's most turbulent and dynamic times. "One of the biggest changes I see is that people are now more willing to talk about politics." she says. "It was not until the 1980s that people talked openly about National Assembly elections." The other developments are infrastructure ("No dirt roads, but at the same time, too much traffic") and the excessive packaging ("Too much wrapping for peanuts and dried octupus. Leads to huge garbage problems").
Just before the Seoul Asian Games in 1986, Hollym, a Korean publishing company specializing in English books on Korean art, history, and literature, approached Mrs. Han to write the text for a pictorial guidebook on Korea written in English. She did so, and soon it became a series with specialized guidebooks on Gyeongju and Jeju, which came out in time for the 1988 Olympic games.
Mrs. Han then suggested a book to her publisher based on Korean folktales. "After reading many versions of folktales from all over the world, I absorbed and compared the narratives," she explains. "Then I wrote in my own words an anthology of Korean stories. At the same time, I wanted to convey information about Korean culture."
Her first copyrighted book, "Korean Folk and Fairy Tales," an anthology of 64 traditional tales, was published by Hollym in 1991. Other children's books followed, such as the "Let's Learn About Korea" series and "Let's Visit Korea." Mrs. Han was soon contacted by a publisher in New York City, Henry Holt Publishers, to work on an illustrated book based on one of her folktale stories. "The Rabbit's Judgment" was released in America in 1994, followed by "The Rabbit's Escape."
The stories are based on ancient folklore -- the first is about a clever rabbit seeking a solution to an argument; the second is about the rabbit's escape from captivity. "The Rabbit's Escape" won awards from U.S. educational organizations, such as the American Library Association. Her third book, "Rabbit's Tail" was published in 1999.
Mee Ro, the librarian at Seoul Foreign School says, "Children love Mrs. Han's books because they're written in a way that is meant to be read aloud. By far, hers are the best folktale books I've seen."
Mrs. Han tests the readability of her books on her daughter. "My daughter Minsu helped me write my first book because when I read to her from the manuscript, she would ask questions and give me comments that I would incorporate when reorganzing and editing the stories."
These days Mrs. Han is working on two books simultaneously. One is about Korea's myths and legends, the other is a children's and parents' guide to this country. She sighs and says, "Oh gosh, I don't know when I'm going to get them done."
Mrs. Han hopes to write a novel someday, Indeed, Minsu has urged her to write like Michael Crichton or John Grisham. But for now, she is sticking to what she knows best: Korean folktales.
"Local folktales embody quite a lot of the characteristics of the Korean people," she says. "In my writing, I want to help others learn about Korean culture."
by Choi Jie-ho