Young writers ponder ‘newness’The theme of the conference was “universal values,” but for the diverse group of young writers assembled, there was a universal dilemma: How could they write anything truly new?
The attendees at the Seoul Young Writers’ Festival did have a few values in common. They were all born between 1960 and 1980, and they were all invited to come to the week-long event by the Korea Literature Translation Institute. They said they all shared the desire to write and read new things and to facilitate communication between races, cultures and nationalities. They just couldn’t agree on what “new” means.
The 16 writers from Argentina to Indonesia gathered in Seoul last Monday to discuss the various challenges of writing with 20 Korean contemporary authors.
“As we were preparing this event, we gave special consideration to its nature as a ‘festival’ by and for young writers,” said Park Sung-chang, the organizing committee chairman of the festival. “We wanted to provide a place for young writers from different countries who are espousing ‘newness’ in literature to gather and engage in a candid discussion.”
The writers were open enough to talk frankly about their backgrounds. Wearing a hijab, a Muslim hairscarf, the Indonesian writer Asma Nadia presented the life of women “trapped in a polygamous Muslim society.” She said she hoped her writing would “enlighten Muslim women to be independent from men,” who in her country are allowed to marry up to four women.
“I hope I can give some new meaning of life to female readers and let them know that they have a choice,” she said. “I don’t want them to accept things when their heart is not there.”
Vladimir Arsenijevic, from Serbia and Montenegro, said he now hopes to write about the daily life of ordinary people. He said people might find that banal, but coming from a country that suffered a decade of civil war, he thought that it felt “right.”
“I was more or less obliged to use that experience and put it forward in my writing. That decision wasn’t even a conscious one,” said Mr. Arsenijevic, the author of “U Potpalublju” (In the Hold).
Now that peace has returned to his country, he wanted to delve into challenges of life that anyone can relate to.
Bad things happen anyway, with wars or without them, he said. “That’s life. If cities are not burning, if roads are not blocked with refugees, well, people still die of cancer, they get AIDS, friends get hooked on drugs, couples fall apart, children are abused, there are intricate webs of relationships wherever one might look.”
Marcelo Birmajer, a Jewish author from Argentina, also said he preferred writing about trivial issues. Although he is considered one of the most popular writers in the Spanish-speaking world, some critics have said he deals too much with “light” topics. But his books have been translated into several languages, including Korean, and he said he learned to stay cool over the “most horrible criticisms” he has been hit by.
“I now tell myself that I don’t think there’s any reader in the world who wouldn’t be interested in what’s going on inside the head of a married man,” said the author, who wrote about the secret desires of several ordinary married men in “Stories of Married Men,” or “Historias de hombres casados” in Spanish.
Kim Tak-hwan, one of the up-and-coming Korean writers at the festival, voiced his concern over the domination of what he called “airport novels,” American genre fiction, in the Korean market.
“I think that’s also part of the Hollywood phenomenon. Stories are consumed [like movies]. Readers read them without agonizing much,” he said. “Then people think they have read all kinds of novels, even though there are many others that delve into special issues which only end up reaching a few readers.”
The writers agreed that the most difficult ― but most personal ― thing about writing was always the constant pressure to present new ideas and themes to attract readers.
Olga Tokarczuk, a writer from Poland, said she defined “new” as something that must first be tamed and confronted by what is already known.
“I am always willing to take from old, well-known stories, myths, histories and fairy tales, to borrow the individual motifs and scenes,” she said.
Alissa Walser, from Germany, preferred to explain the concept of “newness” in a metaphor: “I bought a brand new vaccum cleaner. The saleswoman said there was nothing better available right now. I tried it out and was satisfied. Today I still consider it to be new,” she said. “Tomorrow I still will. Probably even in two or three weeks.”
The Korean author Han Kang agreed with Ms. Walser that “newness” depends on one’s point of view. “As long as I am alive, I, and my writing, will change and become new,” he said.
“All books have been written, we are just rearranging the sentences,” said Jakob Hein, a German novelist and physician who confessed playfully that he tried to make new words with old letters, and even thought of creating new letters to avoid conventional writing.
“‘Newness’ overwhelms me every time I sit down, open my word processor and stare at the blank screen. It doesn’t help me, to say the very least, that others before me have been in the same position,” he said. “Most of the others I know have been very successful in filling that blank page, for what is the point of writing an imperfect sentence when others have already come as close to perfection as I can ever dream of for myself?”
Hein, who won critical acclaim with his 2004 novel “Maybe It Is Even Beautiful,” a story about his mother’s death, said German readers are paying growing attention to Asian writers.
“In Germany, things were going very well. We worked for very limited hours, we got paid well for it and got health insurance. Nowadays, though, best-selling cars come from Japan and Korea. And many jobs go to Vietnam and China, and that’s something (that attracts them to Asian writers),” he said.
by Lee Min-a