A literary pioneer remembered

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A literary pioneer remembered

As an English saying goes, “Pioneers get arrows, while settlers get the land.” At this moment, as Korean literature is expanding overseas with authors such as Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha and Yi Mun-yol settling comfortably into magazines and onto best-seller charts, it is an auspicious time to look back at one of the bravest of all the nearly-forgotten Korean literary pioneers, Kim Yong-ik.

Kim’s English writing career began in 1957 and spanned nearly four decades. He published one book of folk tales, six novels, dozens of short stories, two essays, one television show and one movie (in Korea). He was published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle and The Hudson Review among other magazines, had a book of short stories published and was anthologized several times.

Kim wrote amusing stories for juveniles and penetrating, multi-layered works for adults. His influence went beyond the works he wrote; he also profoundly affected other authors. American poet Robert Bly once commented on Kim’s advice, saying, “I’ve been grateful for [it] for years.” Yet, today, when we think of successful Korean authors in English, Kim Yong-ik’s name rarely comes up.

Kim was also a skilled teacher. From 1957 to 1964, he taught at Ewha Womans University and Korea University in Seoul. Kim also taught at the University of California, Berkeley, as a visiting professor from 1972-73 and afterwards at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 17 years.

It is Kim’s writing that will leave a mark on history. Unfortunately, like most Asian writers of the era, Kim struggled to get out of the various pigeonholes that English publishers and readers tried to place him in.

The first edited collection of Asian-American work in the United States was published in 1972. The list of “Asian-American authors” did not include Korea as part of Asia, and consequently did not include any Korean authors. Publishers often did not know what to do with Kim, and looking at the covers of his first novels is to recognize that regardless of content, publishers were trying to sell his works as juvenilia. Still, Kim persevered, and as time went by his works moved from being recognized as juvenile to adult.

Kim wrote with strong echoes of traditional Korean literature about diasporic states, a theme that would naturally have modern meaning for a Korean author steeped in memories of Japanese colonialization and the reality of a sundered nation. Many of Kim’s stories focused on relocation or dislocation, the experience of being physically moved to a foreign land or being psychically separated from one’s social milieu and the eventual return to unity.

Kim wrote his first English short stories in 1957. “From Here You Can See the Moon” focused on a son returning to Korea and contained Kim’s first formal statement of his lifelong theme of relocation as a process that eventually brings you back to where you begin - “The town is good enough for anyone to return to.”

“The Diving Gourd” (1962) was his first book, and also emphasizes physical displacement. In his early work we see characters that are sketches of the more complex characters that Kim later created. Early works were placed in Korea and only featured Koreans, but as he became more familiar with the U.S., his scope widened. He first addressed international topics in “They Won’t Crack It Open,” the first of three stories Kim located in the U.S. This work is still anthologized in collections including “Imagining America: Stories From the Promised Land,” and taught on university campuses in the English-speaking world.

Kim’s late-middle period featured a troika of works that revisited, often with a hard edge, themes of cyclical diaspora within and across cultures - “Moon Thieves” and the short stories “The Snake Man” and “The Sheep, Jimmy and I.”

Kim’s fiction also describes his personal path - from Korean village to internationally published author and back home before his death.

That Kim was thematically “on the way back home” is demonstrated in the existing four-page fragment “Home Again” (1945), from his unfinished novel “Gourd Hollow Dance.” The narrator, Yang Ho, has been released from a Japanese prison camp and returns home. He explains how prison has given him a vision of home, and the road home: “Water root in the rain, water root in the sun - the poplars against the sky - I was home again. In the Tokyo jail, scratches of fingernails, cracks in the cell well had turned into waving trees. Warm water in the throat, a little food, at such moments I saw in the scratches and cracks the road to the sky by water root.”

Kim’s wife, Kim Udam, in her elegy of the writer, described Kim’s life as a process of departure leading to the return to home and unity. He is now resting at a sunny hillside family plot near his beautiful hometown.

Even today, Kim is not really known as a member of the Asian-American literary canon. One absence may stand in for many in this regard; Kim is absent from “Asian American Short Story Writers: An A-to-Z Guide,” which is a reference of important Asian-American authors.

Why is it that this pioneer is forgotten? It is because Kim advanced to the beat of his own drummer. In his early years as an author Kim wrote fiction that focused on Korea and Korean issues in a language whose speakers did not know of Korea and/or Korean issues. In his later career, always the iconoclast, Kim continued to stand alone, often refusing to identify himself as an Asian, Asian-American or Korean-American writer.

In interviews and writings, Kim repeatedly tried to make the point that his work was consciously outside of any “group.” He once famously said, “Am I Asian-American? It depends on how you interpret ‘America.’ I write about minorities and forgotten people. I never think about Asian-American. You know, I’m a little bit of a loner.”

The good news is that while Kim is not as well known as he should be, he continues to live on in universities across the world. Followers of Korean fiction, followers of international fiction - in fact, followers of any and all fiction can only hope that Kim’s tremendous early contributions will someday be recognized. Yonhap
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